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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As a writer you are very much an Indian expatriate. You are enmeshed in your country's culture and history at many levels. As a diplomat, you are very cosmopolitan: you are not embodying the interests of your country, quite obviously. Has the compartmentalization that you have just described for your writing enabled you to realize an Indian identity which has meaning for India as a whole?

Well, Indians are in fact very cosmopolitan. Largely because the Indian adventure at its best is of people working together and dreaming the same dreams even if they don't look like each other, don't speak the same language, don't eat the same kinds of foods, don't dress alike, don't even have the same kinds of color of skin or whatever. We have this extraordinary diversity in India. And paradoxically, that is exactly what the UN is all about, too. At the UN I'm working all the time with people who, like Indians, eat, dress, and speak differently. And so one could argue that in some ways, Indians are particularly well equipped for the worlds of international affairs and the United Nations. In that sense, I find no great contradiction between the two worlds. Having said that, your question, of course, needs a more direct response.

In some ways, the writing has helped me to reclaim and reinvent a sense of my Indianness, which I believe has spoken to Indians in ways that I find very gratifying. Many people come up to me saying, "You know, what you said are things that we instinctively knew all along, but we never heard them said in quite that way." My last book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, tries to do many things at many levels, but one of the things that it is all about is an evocation of a sense of Indianness. I make no bones about the fact that India matters to me, that I would like to matter to India. But in the process, I'm also articulating a vision of India as this home of a rich diversity, of a rich pluralism that's manifest in both its social institutions and its political democracy. And that this diversity and pluralism is something that we should cherish and be proud of. I speak to it and from it, quite often, to audiences both in this country and in India. And I'm very happy to do that because to me that articulates a vision that perhaps sometimes, sitting within India, people don't always see quite clearly for themselves because they might sometimes see the wood but not the trees. I beg your pardon, they might sometimes see the trees but not the wood.

I was distracted briefly in saying that because I was thinking of how this has been done far better than by me by the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru. You asked me about the books that have influenced me, one that lingers in my memory is his book The Discovery of India. Nehru studied abroad as well, like me. He returned to India and worked for the nationalist movement. And he wrote many of his early books when he was in jail. There is something about being in jail, which rather like being in the United Nations, which gives you that distance, that objectivity to see the larger picture. And The Discovery of India is an evocation of the Indian spirit, the Indian identity, and the Indian history and culture, in terms that still mean a great deal to me today.

As a writer, do you like to work most with nonfiction or with fictional materials?

It's a difficult one to answer because I have done both. I think in some ways, I would say that nonfiction is slightly easier in the circumstances of my life, and fiction is definitely what I prefer. I say nonfiction is easier in the sense that when this last book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, was written, it was possible to put it aside for six weeks because work intervened, and then come back and resume it. You can do that with nonfiction. With fiction, you do have to have the commitment to engage at a greater level of emotional profundity with what you are trying to do. I like fiction because it also gives me greater freedom. As a UN official, there are some things in nonfiction that I cannot say because I am obliged by the traditions and conventions of international politics not to cause offense to member states of the UN. In fiction, I take far more liberties. But it still means that I am the only writer, I believe, on the face of this earth whose copyright page carries a disclaimer notice that says, "Though the author is an official of the United Nations, none of the opinions expressed by the characters of this book should be construed as those of the writer in his official capacity."

I assume that especially applies to your book about the movies, Show Business. Let's talk about [these two novels] without getting into detail, because your novels are so rich.

Why a book about the movies on the one hand, and a book that is modeled after the great Indian classic, The Mahabharata, on the other?

Well, they actually have more in common than you might imagine. They both are political satires of course, but what's more interesting is that they are both in different ways about the kind of stories that a society tells about itself. In my first novel, The Great Indian Novel, I took the stories of the great epic, which was written sometime between 800 BC and 800 AD, and which has permeated the national consciousness of India, and I reinvented these stories as an account of the political history of India, from the British days to the present. I reinvented in that process, therefore, the history of that period as well as the legends of the epic. Because both are stories that at different levels are told and retold in Indian culture. The tales of the Mahabharata are learned by practically every child at his grandmother's knee, and the tales of the nationalist struggle, the "freedom movement" as we call it, are part of the stuff of what we are brought up on in independent India. In my intermixing the two, I was able to cast a perhaps cynical modern sensibility upon the great legends of the past, but equally I was able to cast some of the values of that past onto the experiences of the more recent present. In the process, I tried to illuminate some aspects of the Indian condition, of the stories we tell.

In the second novel, I also looked at stories -- in two cases, of the popular film industry. Why? Because our country is still fifty percent illiterate, and films still represent the principal vehicle for the transmission of the fictional experience. Other than your grandmother telling you the stories on her knee, you go off and get your fiction by watching a movie. So I ask the question, "What do these stories tell to Indians? What do they tell about Indians? What can we know about the world from which these stories come? That is, the world of the filmmakers and the actors who make these films. And in turn, what does this all reveal about India as a society today? So in looking for one more metaphor to explore the Indian condition, I took cinema as a very natural one for these reasons. Show Business is a novel that intercuts extensively the types of stories told in formulaic films of Bollywood. In each stage of the book, the hero and other protagonists of the novel are involved in different stories; the story is about stories, and at the same time it's about India. Therefore, these two novels have this element in common: they are about the kinds of stories that India is telling itself today.

One of the elements in your two novels is your devastating and effective use of satire. Just one of the elements, one has to mention. What is it about satire that enables a writer to reveal truth?

Well, I have often found that when you are dealing seriously with serious subjects, you are on the same terms as everybody else. If you are treating issues that are sacrilegious, it's difficult, unless you are being crassly provocative, to find a terribly different way of looking at these things. In one sense or the other, there is a lot of hagiography about the Indian nationalist heroes, for instance; there is a great deal of reverence for the ancient epics. Satire, on the other hand, enables you to recast and to reinvent both the epics and the history -- the great ideas, and the great stories, and the great men or women for that matter -- of these times, in a light that is so unfamiliar that it immediately provokes a fresh way of looking at them. And that is why satire is very useful.

There is a second element. If I can borrow the wonderful statement of Molière, who said that "Le devoir de la comedie est de corriger les hommes en les divertissant." If I can paraphrase it, "If you want to edify, you have to entertain." So your duty as a writer is to amuse people enough that they want to read the serious points you want to make. They'll get that instruction, and they'll get that education if you like, through the process of having been entertained. Both novels, I hope, are fairly easy and light reads even for people who don't know India, because they are written to amuse, to distract, but both are infused with fairly serious concerns. I have always been grateful to the British novelist who reviewed Show Business in the Sunday Times and said, "This is a novel that is hysterically funny in very many places, but which manages to be funny without for a moment being frivolous." And that is the distinction that I try to make in my satire. Having said all of this, I want to confess that the novel I am working on now is probably not going to be a satire.

What do you see as the goal or goals of your writing, to reveal India to itself or what?

Both to reveal myself to India, and to reveal India to myself, but also to reveal India to Indians and other readers around the world. I found, I don't know how quite to explain, my conscious desire to reinvent and come to terms with India. Beyond a certain point, it is beyond explanation. But I've felt so caught up in the nature of the Indian experiment. It is an extraordinary country in so many levels. And there is no other country on earth that embraces quite as wide mixture of geographical diversity, topographical diversity, human diversity, linguistic diversity, and so on and so forth.

Sounds like the United Nations.

Absolutely. And yet at the same time, it has rich millennial history and culture. It has an extraordinary, wide-ranging tolerance, the religious tradition of Hinduism. It has grappled with many of the problems, many of the great problems of our day today. In India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I talk about the classic dilemmas facing the world at the end of the twentieth century: the bread versus freedom debate, of which the emergency is such an example; pluralism versus fundamentalism, which reared its ugly head in India with a new brand of religious chauvinism coming to light; CocaColonization, the whole issue of globalization versus economic self-sufficiency; and even for a country India's size, decentralization versus federalism. All of this makes India such an astonishingly interesting crucible for the things that matter to me intellectually, that I find myself constantly going back to looking at the way in which India and Indians are coping with these challenges.

But equally, the richness of that heritage is something that I want to explore for myself. When I go back into the themes of The Great Indian Novel, I'm in a sense saying, "These are the things that have shaped me and Indians like me. These are the experiences that have created these people." In Show Business, I'm suggesting that these entertainments, these distractions, reveal a great deal about myself and people like me who go to these films. And I hope in the process, therefore, I am revealing India, too. I am trying, constantly in a sense, but without anxiety ... a critic has written somewhat critically of the anxiety of Indianness amongst writers like myself. I'm not anxious, but I'm curious. I would love to go on experimenting with my understanding of this phenomenon of Indianness, which to me is a phenomenon of our times and of our planet that merits repeated investigation and inquiry.

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