Wizard of words: Shashi Tharoor

Though four of his first five books were fiction, he shifted to non-fiction due to the demands on his time; on current politics, he says, “I feel sorry for those who want to revenge themselves on history.”

January 26, 2024 09:30 pm | Updated January 27, 2024 04:24 pm IST - CHENNAI

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with David Davidar at the The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 on January 26, 2024.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with David Davidar at the The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 on January 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: M. Srinath

Shashi Tharoor’s expansive and illustrious career — as a Congress MP, UN diplomat, and prolific author — can make it hard to introduce him succinctly; for the sake of the session titled, “Wizard of Words”, held at The Hindu Lit Fest on Friday, publisher and author David Davidar chose to focus on the aspect that has defined Mr. Tharoor for most of his life: his love for language and words.

Mr. Tharoor gave his father credit for imparting this love to his son. “He wrote the most marvellous letters,” he said, noting that his father also had an obsession with word games, often setting puzzles and games for Mr. Tharoor and his sisters, including an early form of Wordle. He also took his son’s interest in writing seriously. “He loved that I wrote and published from a young age,” said Mr. Tharoor during a discussion about the genesis of a trilogy of books chronicling his obsession with words and wordplay: Tharoorasaurus (Penguin India), The Less You Preach the More You Learn (Aleph Book Company), and the yet-to-be-released Wonderland of Words (Aleph Books Company).

His most recent release, co-written with Joseph Zacharias, is a compilation of short, pithy witticisms and sayings, and Mr. Tharoor read out a few to the audience. Some gems include: “Life is a paradox. We celebrate each birth, even while knowing it comes with the sentence of death” and “The easiest thing in life is letting go. It’s also the hardest thing.” Mr. Tharoor also recounted his famous “farrago” tweet, that had first earned him the reputation of someone who uses uncommon words.

Mr. Tharoor’s advice to anyone looking to better their vocabulary, he said, is also a single word: read.

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Literary journey

Recalling anecdotes from when he was writing his first book, The Great Indian Novel, Mr. Tharoor also recounted his journey from fiction to non-fiction. In response to Mr. Davidar’s query on why he has not written much fiction in the recent past, Mr. Tharoor spoke about the demands of his career and the unpredictability of his life. As his career at the UN progressed, he spoke about starting half a dozen novels before abandoning them.

He added that for fiction, one needs not just time, but also the space within them to create another universe, to populate it with characters. It should be, he said, as real to them as the real world. Calling this world of fiction “a glass palace of illusion”, he said, “But my problem was that this glass kept developing cracks.” With multiple demands on his time, which became even worse after his move to active politics, writing non-fiction, even fairly demanding non-fiction, became easier. While four of Mr. Tharoor’s first five books were fiction, the remaining 20 have all been non-fiction. When asked by readers when they can expect another novel from him, he often says, “One day, the waters will return me to the world of literature, but not yet.”

While the conversation centred on words, celebrating the joy of reading, literature and wordplay, Mr. Davidar had one question for Mr. Tharoor relating to his day job: could he see, in the future of Indian politics, a return to decency, liberalism and plurality, and a rejection of hatred, lies and fundamentalism? The Congress leader’s answer resonated with hope. These qualities, he said, “are always present”, but get drowned in the cacophony coming from those who spout a certain kind of vision which expresses itself as hatred and anger. Noting that anger and hate against the past is futile, he said, “I feel sorry for those who want to revenge themselves on history.”

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