Shashi Tharoor Interview: Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Photo by Jane Scherr
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What lessons might students draw from your career? You've managed in one persona living two lives to be a man of letters and to be a man of action who is involved in some of the most tragic but challenging of world events. What would you tell a student who would want to prepare for either or both careers?
I would certainly not encourage anyone to try to do it my way because if nothing else it's completely exhausting, and denies you other opportunities -- what are those famous lines of Wordsworth? -- "What's the point of this life full of care if you have no time to stand and stare." Believe me, I have no time to stand and stare. And the fact is that there is such a thing as feeling, from time to time, that you really have bitten off more than you can chew. Because every human being has certain responsibilities he must fulfill as a human being -- professional responsibilities, personal responsibilities. And you do wonder sometimes whether in taking on so much you are failing to do justice to all of them, and do as much as you could have done. If I'd perhaps only been a writer, would I have been a more worthwhile writer? If I had only been a UN official, would I have had more time to devote to my family in the time that I now try to jealously guard for my writing and for talking about my writing? And so on. I don't know.
Looking back later on in life perhaps, I'll have found greater clarity. Right now I'm too caught up in doing it all.
But I would say one thing, that if anyone is motivated enough to be crazy enough to try and do all of this, I would say, do what comes to you naturally. Do what you want to do, not because you feel obliged to do it. I write because ... George Bernard Shaw put it far better than I can. He said, "I write for the same reason that a cow gives milk." It's in you. It's got to come out. At this point in my life, I know that if I'd give up one or the other aspect of my life, half of my psyche would wither on the vine. But at the same time, the circumstances that led me both to train , as it were, academically for a life in international affairs and at the same time to develop my skills such as they are and my interests and talents as a writer, those circumstances need not necessarily obtain elsewhere for other people. I think it might well be possible for someone else to be able to do justice to one thing more than to another, while focusing a little bit more on what they want to do.
I once asked a famous writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, how he'd coped with writing when he needed a job, because he mentioned to me in conversation that he initially couldn't afford to support himself on writing. And he said, "I just did a couple of jobs that didn't require the sort of emotional and time commitment that would have made it impossible to write." I said, "Oh, what jobs are those?" and he said, "Teaching and journalism." And I thought, my God, those two professions, in my mind, require an enormous investment of time and emotion and energy. And I realized what he was really saying to me was that it doesn't matter what the job is that you do, it depends on how you do it.
It's certainly possible, I'm sure, for another international civil servant or diplomat to find himself working in a nine-to-five job and have plenty of time to write. Unfortunately, or otherwise, that has not been my experience. I've never known what it's like to go home much before eight o'clock in the course of my working life, having begun quite early in the morning. So for me, I realize the way in which I do my work at the UN is a reflection of the way I apply myself, and those are the kinds of assignments that I've been fortunate enough to have been given, that they have demanded that sort of time and that sort of commitment. So ultimately, as long as I do my work in the way in which I feel I should do it, writing will always have to find its space. But no doubt the time will come, I don't know when, when I will be able to either reverse those priorities or finally tell myself I've done what I can in my professional field and let me see what I can leave behind on the bookshelves of my grandchildren.
Mr. Tharoor, thank you very much for taking time, for being with us today, and talking about your fascinating lives.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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