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The Shastra of writing

Like Wilde, I’ve put my genius into my life and merely my talent into my writing,” says V. Lakshman, a character from Shashi Tharoor’s Riot (2001), a story of forbidden love, inescapable identity and contradictory truths, set against the backdrop of a Hindu-Muslim riot in a small Indian town.

Both talent and genius find their way into Tharoor’s writing — over the last 30-odd years he has authored over 15 best-sellers and written innumerable columns and articles for both national and international publications. His books, almost always, are an examination of India — its evolution, history, culture, economy, policy, stories and future. “I often find myself interrogating myself in many ways, and the books have been an exploration of answers to an unceasing series of questions about our country,” he says.

His latest book,  India Shastra (Aleph), released in the city at a recent event by the Madras Book Club and the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, is a collection of articles and essays, that builds a portrait of contemporary India. Many of the pieces here are culled from pre-existing material that has been updated and expanded, some are transcripts of speeches delivered, while others have been written specifically for the book.

 According to Tharoor, “There was anyway a large body of already-existing writing available — The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone was published in late 2007, so this book has all my writing since then, minus my earlier writing on foreign policy that came out in Pax Indica in 2012. I put together this book because I realised that the time for taking stock had come back again. We were definitely at a watershed and irrespective of how long the Modi experiment lasted — whether it was successful or it failed, there was a break in continuity here,” he says, adding, however, that politics occupies only a small part of the book.

Also, while the pressing demands of his political career may not have altered the consistency of his non-fiction writing, they have taken a toll on his fiction, he admits a trifle ruefully. “For me to produce quality fiction, I have to be at a post-political stage of my life. Right now, I don’t have the time — I don’t just have to deal with political commitments but I also need to stay connected as a politician through tweets and email. I really love writing fiction but I haven’t been able to do justice to it. My desktop is littered with unfinished fiction manuscripts. To create meaningful fiction, you really need to devote a lot of time to it — you have to enter a world, move within it, contribute to its creation and leave it behind in a condition that you can return to it.”

He adds that all his writing, fiction or otherwise, is almost always anchored to real life. “Fiction reaches places that other kinds of writing don’t reach.  You are able to convey the same sort of inputs while appealing to a different sensibility of the reader. You are appealing to the part of the reader that is awakened to the possibility of a story, of imagination of another world. While arguing with his or her brain, you are also reaching their heart.”

Not that reach is a problem for Tharoor — he has a following of 2.93 million on Twitter. “Social media can lend yourself to promoting your writing. You can use it to publish links to articles you have written. If you have written a thousand words, it can’t be a tweet or a Facebook post of that length. But you can tweet a link to it and if people are curious enough they can go on and find out. Every writer wants to be read, the consciousness of an audience is present to some degree. Writers who claim that they only write for themselves are being slightly insincere,” he says, admitting that his own foray into writing was partly because of the availability of an audience.

Talking about it, “I began writing in Bombay at the age of six. I was a sick child who couldn’t go out and play. This was before we had televisions, computers and play stations. I read voraciously and indiscriminately but I read fast and it was never enough. I only had two options — book cricket or writing. And the writing is what I ended up doing. I was blessed with a father who took it seriously enough to get it typed and I would show it to my family and friends,” he laughs. “The process of interaction with your reader is a tremendous source of learning; I never had to take a writing class in my life.”

He published his first short story at the age of 10. “It was called Henry’s Last Battle and was based on the U.S. Civil War. Basically, I lived in a world of imagination, so what I was reading inspired me — I was fascinated by the notion of a civil war and a father and a son on opposite sides. This was followed by my first attempt at a novel serialised in 6 parts in the Junior Statesmen in Calcutta. It was based on the life of an Anglo-Indian fighter pilot inspired by the Biggles book I read,” he laughs.

And there has been no looking back, “Seeing your name in print is intoxicating — it is as intense as your first bite of chocolate or your first kiss and you want to do it over and over again.”  

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2020 3:11:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-shastra-of-writing/article7117149.ece

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