Shashi Tharoor Interview: Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Photo by Jane Scherr
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You have given us a good explanation of how you wound up as a writer and hints as to why you chose diplomacy. Let's fill out that part before we talk about balancing these two worlds.
Well, diplomacy was something which in some ways had appealed to me at a fairly young age. I was always fascinated by the world -- not just by my immediate environment, but by the world at large. I was born in London. I didn't mention that my father was actually working there. He'd gone there to study as a young man, as an eighteen-year-old, and stayed on and was the locally recruited London manager of the office of an Indian newspaper called the Statesman, all of whose managers in India were Englishmen. So I was born there, but he was not planning to settle in England. He was just waiting for an Englishman to retire so he could apply for a job back in India. And sure enough, we came to Bombay so he could be the Bombay manager of the Statesman, and subsequently advertisement manager in Calcutta and so on. Nonetheless, I was conscious of having been someplace else, as it were. And I was curious about all of that; I was curious about the wider world.
Secondly, a classic career line for people with my sort of background -- no great money in the family, an education, an interest in the world, and a skill at taking exams -- the classic option was to take the Indian Civil Service Examinations. We had a very elite mandarin corps called the Indian Administrative Service and in those days an even more elite corps called the Indian Foreign Service. I say in those days because since then the priorities of Indian young people have changed a bit and the foreign service is no longer seen as the acme. But in those days, you had ten to twenty thousand kids taking the exams every year, of whom about thirty or forty were selected for the Indian Administrative Service and five or ten for the Indian Foreign Service. And that really was what the brightest kids of the generation were aiming to do. Frankly, it was a sort of natural ambition to be inclined towards. However, I went to the U.S. for graduate studies because I got a scholarship from the Fletcher School. And it happened to be just the time that Mrs. Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency and suspended the democratic freedoms that I had grown up taking for granted in India. In fact, one of the first things that happened to me when the emergency was declared was that a silly short story I had written called A Political Murder was banned by the censors because the notion of a murder taking place for political reasons was an anathema in the new dispensation. Now, that period didn't last very long. The emergency lasted twenty-two months, and censorship ended fairly early in that period; but while sitting in the U.S. as a graduate student, I found myself coming to terms with my own notion of what I valued about being Indian.
I was, like many foreign students when they come abroad, instantly thrust into the position of having to explain and defend his own country. That's a very common predicament. For myself, that meant having to explain to people why what Mrs. Gandhi had done wasn't really all that bad because its only victims were people like me who could publish articles or agitate politically and make speeches and statements, but the real beneficiaries were the common man -- that was Mrs. Gandhi's argument -- who'd be free of all the evils and ills of India. The fact is, of course, that in the course of doing these defenses of the government, I found more and more information available to me in the U.S. I even had a roommate who was a journalist. I was getting lots of wire service copy that wasn't making it into The New York Times. I was getting more and more information about all that was going wrong and how the real victims of the suspension of democracy were in fact the ordinary poor individual Indians, who were helpless, who didn't have the education to rise above these disabilities, and weren't doing well enough to make the compromises with the regime, but instead were being picked up at bazaars and carted off to have their vasectomies done compulsorily as part of the sterilization drive, or being thrown to jail without any effective habeas corpus because the emergency had suspended those rights, and so on. And that was a profoundly disillusioning period.
I remember one of the things that really turned me completely against any notion of government service was when an Indian student, and I believe this was in Chicago, who had spoken out with anguish against the emergency back in India, applied to renew his passport and the government refused to renew his passport. And I thought, I cannot imagine, in the India that I've known and grown up and cherished and valued, that such a thing could even be possible. And though the emergency ended with a fair and free election in which Mrs. Gandhi was routed and the system of suspension of democracy was repudiated once and for all -- we've never had anything close to it ever since -- I felt at that time, because that was the age that I would have to have taken those exams, that somehow the idea of serving the government that could do that and perhaps would do it again was simply anathema to me. For that reason I did a Ph.D. instead of going and taking the exams, and I ended up working for the United Nations instead of my own government. I must tell you that since then, and I say this with utter sincerity, a lot of my friends, whom I would like to think of as just as principled and committed democrats as I am, have served the government with distinction. I don't believe any more that in making the choice I made, I necessarily did something that was right for everyone all the time, but it was right for me at that time: not to make that particular compromise with a system that had betrayed itself.
In our discussion I would like to cover both of your very distinguished careers. You're one of India's leading writers, having written both histories and two novels among other things. And you've risen to the top, really, of the UN. And so I think that what I would like to ask you at this point is to talk about both them simultaneously. Do the roles of diplomacy and writing complement each other or are they in conflict?
Well, let me answer that very personally. I see myself as a human being with a number of concerns about the world that I see around me. Some of those concerns I react to through my writing, and some of them I react to through my work. I have been privileged in the work I've been able to do for the UN. I wouldn't have considered it classically diplomatic work early on. I began my UN career with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In fact as a fairly young man, I was in charge of the office of UNHCR in Singapore during the peak of the Vietnamese "boat people" crisis. Refugees picked up in the high seas were being brought in, and it was my job to help negotiate their disembarkation, get them into refugee camps in and look after them, negotiate their acceptance by other countries for resettlement, and get them off to new lives. Which meant that I was able to put my head to the pillow every night knowing that the things I had done during the day had made a concrete difference to real human beings, to their lives. In fact, these were people I could actually see around me. They were not statistics or figures on a piece of paper. That was amazingly enriching in all sorts of ways. It went beyond diplomacy.
It was important that it was the UN, I must say, because when you think of refugee work, you say, "Church groups are doing refugee work, lots of volunteers are doing that, what's so different, why do you have to do it through the UN?" And the answer is that the UN, because it is an intergovernmental body, has a clout with governments that church groups can't have. The result is that I could go to a government that is reluctant to let refugees onto its soil and essentially remind them of their legal obligations as a member state of the organization which had voted for the Statutes of the High Commissioner's office. I have been able to get things achieved, to bend certain rules, to even help some people on the quiet with the connivance of government officials in ways that no nongovernmental organization would be able to do. And that, frankly, was a period that really convinced me of the indispensable nature of the UN, for all these problems that cross borders, as refugees cross borders, because ultimately the intergovernmental strength that the UN has makes it truly unique and indispensable as a solution provider to these problems.
After eleven and a half years helping refugees, I then moved to peacekeeping. There my life became much more connected to the world of diplomacy. It's also true that, whereas I had the very direct satisfaction that I described to you in the field in Southeast Asia, the satisfactions of working for peacekeeping were quite different. They were not the satisfactions of directly changing human beings' lives, because I worked eighteen-hour days for almost six years and I knew that the blood was still continuing to flow in the Balkans. There was a different sort of satisfaction of knowing that I was working in the field of international affairs at a time when a great human cataclysm was occurring; that I had a key role as a small cog in this very big machine, a role that allowed me nonetheless to leave my own smudgy thumbprints, as it were, on the pages of history. And that was a different sort of satisfaction.
Now, how it was connected to the world of literature, the honest answer is that it is really not. In my writing, too, I kept the two apart. My writing is almost entirely so far about India, both my fiction and my nonfiction. And my work has been completely about any other part of the world but India, partially as a result of the UN's very genuine preference for not having people work on their own countries of origin, and partially because the challenges that were given to me happened to be amongst the great human events of our time. They happened to be the boat people crisis in Southeast Asia, the refugee problems worldwide, and the peacekeeping challenges of post - Cold War Europe, particularly Yugoslavia. None of those happened to directly involve India. So I kept those two interests quite distinct in my life, in my work.
In many ways my work became the enemy of my writing because, as I explained, I write evenings and weekends. One of the first things that happened as my work became more intense is that the evenings disappeared. There was no question of getting home and finishing dinner by eight o'clock. In fact, most often I was getting home well after eight o'clock, and during the peak of the Bosnian crisis I was getting home usually between eleven and midnight. And my home, I should tell you, was a twelve-minute walk from the office, so it was not that I was spending my time on a long commute. The nature of the work demanded that sort of commitment. I had to stay that late because of the cables that I was sending back to the field: if they weren't sent that night, it would cost someone a day at the other end, with the time difference. So there was enormous pressure. And the weekends were never mine during the peak of the Balkan crisis. Every shell that landed in Bosnia had to be reported to somebody, and I was the one whom our Situation Center would call. So there were these constant interruptions. It was also the fact that one traveled, one worked, one took work home. So writing was always a struggle to carve out time and space.
My last novel was published back in 1992. I'm a fairly rapid writer, so it's not that I ... It's simply that to write fiction you need both time and a space inside your head, a space inside your head to create and inhabit an alternative moral universe, one whose realities have to be consistent in your own mind. And you can't easily write a fragment of a novel and return to it eight weeks from now. You simply find you have to reinvent the novel each time you do that. And I found that an enormous struggle. I've actually begun a couple of novels in these last seven years that I have not been able to develop precisely because of these intrusions. The book I'm currently working on, I think I've had, I'm not exaggerating, six weekends in the last year and a half in which I have not been travelling, not been out, or not at work, or bringing work home, in which I've been able to devote to my writing. And that's not quite the way in which you need to do it.
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