Shashi Tharoor Interview: Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Art of Writing, The Work of Diplomacy: Conversation with Author and Diplomat Shashi Tharoor; 2/8/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Dr. Tharoor, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you Harry. Good to be here.

Tell us about your education.

Education. Well it was always rather hasty, I suppose. I raced through school and college. I finished a Ph.D. at 22. Looking back, it made for somewhat hectic adolescence.

I went to school in Bombay initially, after a brief, abortive, and not very happy year in a boarding school in south India. High school in Calcutta. College in Delhi, in Stephens College, which is a very fairly elite college, known for its strength in liberal arts. I spent, I must confess, more time pursuing other activities than in the classroom, but it was a very interesting experience. I came to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts; their degree certificate lists both Tufts and Harvard. It's an autonomous school, at least it was in those days, where I did an MA and M.A.L.D., a masters in law and diplomacy, and a Ph.D. My undergraduate degree in Delhi was in history, an honors degree in history. My graduate work was in international affairs, international politics. My Ph.D. thesis was on the workings of the way in which Indian foreign policy was made during Indira Gandhi's first administration, '66 - '77. I was very lucky in that I was doing my field research just after the government fell, and everybody -- from the former prime minister, Mrs. Gandhi herself, to all her foreign ministers who all happened to be alive -- was willing to talk. It was a thesis that became published as a book, Reasons of State.

But in a larger sense, I suppose, my education is still going on. I'm learning as much as I can from the mere process of living.

Who were your influential teachers?

There were a number of them. I should have mentioned that the schools I went to had an interesting thing in common: they were all Jesuit schools. The Jesuits have developed an interesting vocation for educating the privileged of the Third World. I don't mean that in a disparaging way. I just mean that because they have these excellent schools in the English language in countries like India, they tend to attract members of the Indian urban educated professional classes and their children. And while there were in fact some relatively less well-off children, we didn't actually have a great cross-section of Indian society. What we had was the urban elite. But having said that, the schools were very good, all of them.

The school in Calcutta, St. Xavier's, was unquestionably in my day the best school in the city, particularly in terms of its intellectual rigor. I and a couple of my friends in school came out with the highest possible grades in the school system in the state largely because of the quality of the teaching. I don't want to rattle off names that will mean nothing to those not in India. A number of the priests at these schools are very well trained themselves. I remember a young Jesuit Father, Cyril Desbruslais, who actually took us through an epistemological argument for the existence of God, which certainly impressed my fourteen-year-old imagination no end because I was just beginning to flirt with the idea of atheism. When you discover rationality, your religion doesn't seem so impressive anymore, and when you discover the limitations of rationality it all comes back, but in between I had this very rational, structured philosophical argument from a Jesuit priest. And that was very striking. The values the Jesuits imparted were vital, too: I especially admired Father Remedios, an excellent teacher who visited prisoners in his spare time.

College in Delhi: St. Stephens is an Anglican college, not a Jesuit one; a different culture, and the teachers were largely lay people. In fact, overwhelmingly lay people. There, too, were some remarkable people. I remember a history teacher called David Baker, who was actually an Australian who had renounced Australia and come and settled in India. He was an authority on modern Indian history, particularly the central Indian state, but because he had the misfortune to be white, he was obliged to teach British history, which he detested. But in the process, I learned a great deal from him. And there were a few other teachers who made an indelible mark on the process of intellectual formation that college is all about: Mohammed Amin, the head of the History Department, in particular

At Fletcher we had some very impressive professors as well, some of them are sadly no longer alive, ranging from John Roche, who had been a National Security Advisor to Lyndon Johnson -- who has been called by The New York Times "Johnson's hard-boiled egghead," and who certainly was both hard-boiled and extremely rich in his intellectual range -- to my tutor, Alan Hedrikson, who is one of the finest minds in diplomatic history that you can find in this country. And many others whom I again would want to name in extenso. But I think I have been privileged with the quality of the education I've had in all these stages.

What stands out in the way your parents helped shape your character?

My parents were astonishing for Indian parents (and very traditionally Indian parents in other ways) in the amount of freedom they left me. I had the misfortune of being good at studies -- I say this without any false modesty -- particularly in the Indian school system. Those who were good at taking exams tend to do well, and it doesn't necessarily imply that they have fine minds. But my parents had the typical Indian middle-class ambitions for me and I kept coming first in science and they wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer. Well, I hated science. I only became first in the subject because I knew how to take exams. So at the end of the eighth grade when you stream in India into different fields -- already at that age, much earlier than in this country -- I said I would not do science. I wanted to do humanities, and to the astonishment of many of my friends, my parents said, "Fine, you should study what you want to study." So I went into the humanities, and at the end of school, I had done extremely well. So they felt, well, if he's not going to be a doctor or an engineer, at least be a very successful businessman. So they urged me to go into economics and eventually get a business degree. I said, "No, I'd much rather study history." And again, they were kind enough to allow me to do that. And so at each stage, I was given the intellectual respect for my interests that allowed me to shape my own educational career and my own achievements, I suppose, by my own lights. And that was remarkable.

The other thing that I'd say that's particularly true of my father was the amount of encouragement I was given for my writing. I was a rather young child when I began writing, partially for good reasons. I was an asthmatic child. I was also the eldest son in the family, which meant I was often bedridden but I didn't have elder brothers' and sisters' books I could borrow and read. I finished my own very fast. I exhausted those of my parents' books I could understand. And I had the inconvenient habit of finishing library books in the car on the way from the library. And of course there was no television in the Bombay of my boyhood. So I wrote as much for my own amusement; and my father, my parents both, did me the great honor of taking that very seriously. They got my writings typed up and had them circulated to friends. And I was suddenly made to feel at an absurdly young age that I could think of myself as a writer. By the age of ten, my first story had appeared in print; it had been sent off to a newspaper by my father. I even had a sort of, what I thought of as a novel, but I suppose must be a novella, serialized in six installments in a magazine with the first installment appearing a week before my eleventh birthday. Of course, the fact that I was that young was a part of the reason why this otherwise indifferent prose was published. But the fact still is that that sort of encouragement definitely shaped both my sense of confidence in myself as a writer and my sense of there being an audience for my writing. But paradoxically also, my conviction that I couldn't do this full time, because my parents made it very clear: you can write, that's fine, please write, please publish, but you do your studies, because no one in India makes a living as a writer, and you better be good in your academic work.

So I ended up, throughout my school days, writing and publishing instead of going to discos, I guess. And I studied very hard. Eventually the same thing happened when I finished my academic work. I went into a regular career at the United Nations and tried to continue writing evenings and weekends. I never really felt, right from my youngest days, thanks to my parents' convictions about this, that there was a viable alternative full-time life as a writer. And here I am as a result.

What sort of books stuck in your mind and really impressed you? I gather a lot of English writers, but also Indian writers.

That's right.

I read eclectically, and I must say, indiscriminately. Remember that reading was my principal activity outside schoolwork. I loved the game of cricket and I played it very badly, but also I wasn't often well enough to go out and play. And so that and the absence of television, computer games, and all the distractions that my children now enjoy, meant that if I wasn't writing I was reading. And actually there was one particular year, the year of my thirteenth birthday, that I decided to set myself a challenge of finishing three hundred and sixty-five books in three hundred and sixty-five days. And I did and I kept a list at that point to prove it. So I was a voracious and rapid reader, and with that kind of volume, I obviously read all sorts of stuff.

I read in the English language, but not only from the English language. I read a lot of works in translation as well. And of course a lot of good traditional Indian literature is available in English, often in translations that leave something to be desired, but nonetheless is available. And so my taste ranged from the humor of P.G. Wodehouse, who in many ways remains the author who has given me the most pleasure in my life, sheer delight of his use of language as well as his incredibly complex and clever plotting, all the way up to the traditional tales of The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic that goes back over two thousand years, and lots of things in between. I read East European writers in translation. I was reading Kundera in my teens. I had read all the Russian classics, sometimes in abridged editions, I have to confess, but nonetheless. And of course, American or British writers came to us anyway through our possession of their language. And the result was that I was an extremely widely read and perhaps slightly over-read young man by the time I entered college.

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