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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

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(Published on, on 8 March 2011, retrieved from

This is a fun interview I did with Shashi Tharoor when he was on a trip to Madras. Go to the URL for better pictures of him, and a nicer slideshow; but if you're too lazy, the contents of the interview are pasted below, along with a consolation picture. As a non-Tweeter, I visited Tharoor's page today, after receiving an email saying he'd tweeted about this piece. What cracked me up was not his link, but his hilarious response to a jibe from a journalist, who clearly feels accurate transcription is no virtue. Read on.

(Photo Courtesy: Unauthorised use of this picture is prohibited.)

Be it for his “outreach programme” on Twitter or his involvement in the IPL controversy, Shashi Tharoor has been in focus so much that he quips, “I’m no longer breaking news, I’ve already been broken”. However, the writer-politician still fills his flying visits with talks, book launches and meetings. Between warding off Malayali filmmakers who want him to act – to the suggestion that he’s probably younger than most of the South’s leading heroes, he laughs, “I’m not quite sure that’s accurate” – and trying to finish a “non-scholarly” work on India’s foreign policy, the former minister opens up to Nandini Krishnan about his writing, the ups and downs of his entry into politics, and his dreams for India.

You’re working on a book right now. You came out with Shadows Across the Playing Field weeks after assuming your portfolio. How do you find the time to write?

(Laughs) Oh, yes, Shadows Across the Playing Field...Yeah, except that I wrote it the summer of ’08, at the time India-Pakistan cricket relations had just completed a period of sixty years. It was published unusually late. It should have been out by January, when India was supposed to be touring Pakistan, but that tour got cancelled after 26/11. So the book got delayed. I couldn’t have written it as minister, I assure you.

Speaking of becoming minister, after all the things you’d said in The Great Indian Novel, specifically with the character of Priya Duryodhani, the Congress is the last party one would’ve expected you to represent.

No, as I explained during the election campaign, when my opponents tried to make capital of my earlier writings, I’m not fighting the election of 1977. The world’s changed, the country’s changed, the party’s changed, the issues of the period I wrote about are not the issues of today. I mean, at that point, there seemed to be a real threat to our democracy.

Today, if there is any threat, it’s not from my party. There have been undemocratic tendencies elsewhere, so, for me, the Congress party is by far the most attractive of the political options available in the country.

For someone who’s had a career in diplomacy, you’ve had an unusual number of controversies about things you’ve said being taken out of context, such as ‘interlocutor’ and ‘cattle class’.

I must say it was a bit sobering. First of all, you mentioned ‘interlocutor’ – and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, since then, it seems to have become a very popularly used word in politics. But no one has apologised for having tried to embarrass me and the Prime Minister over it.

In the case of the ‘cattle class’ remark, obviously most English-speaking people knew perfectly well that if at all anyone should be offended, it was the airlines, that are being attacked for herding in people like cattle. It is not a reference to people as cattle. But people saw it particularly useful as a stick to beat me on the head with.

The fact is, there’s a certain kind of media culture in our country, which specialises in sensationalism. So in some ways, departing this limelight was a blessed relief.

How did you take it when it happened, and what do you feel now, when you look back at that period?

Obviously, I feel somewhat sad, because I had a three-decade career in the international system, in which, at every one of my jobs, I was requested by my organisations to speak to the press and I did so. And I developed, if I may say so, something of a reputation for being rather good at it. I was the person wheeled out to appear on BBC’s Hard Talk, or to take on not only CNN, but the anti-UN Fox channel, and so on and so forth, and never in my entire career was I ever accused of saying one thing that was out of place, or inappropriate, or provoked controversy.

So, the last thing I ever expected when I entered Indian politics was that, within months, I would be dubbed a controversialist.

To some degree, I was made to feel like a transplanted organ, which the body rejects. But, you know, I’ve taken it in stride. There’s a great story that Natwar Singh told me. After he was sworn in, in 1984, he remarked to Indira Gandhi, “I’d better go and get a few bandhgalas stitched”, and she replied, “You’d better grow a thicker skin.” So that advice has come back now to me. I’m going to grow a thicker skin.

When you successfully joined government, it was the beginning of a new era for a lot of us, because here’s someone who speaks about Hindu culture with a British accent...

(Laughs) It’s an Indian accent, not a British one! But go on...

Well, you nearly headed the UN, and yet you speak Malayalam, you belong both here and there, and you didn’t use family influence or muscle your way into Parliament. Do you think of yourself as a trend-setter?

I hope that others will follow this example, because whenever I speak to students, lots of questions come up about how youngsters can engage in politics, whether you have to be the son of an MP to get in, and I say, ‘No, you can get involved at the grassroots level.’

Our system certainly is affected by our cultural tendency to have sons and daughters follow their father’s profession. It’s not just cultural, it’s also partly political logic that in large constituencies with limited means of communication, name recognition and old loyalties are genuine assets in an election.

In my case, I had the advantage that I was relatively known despite never having been in politics, despite never having had a political pedigree. But even though I got elected, the disadvantage of not having had a political background became rapidly apparent.

What makes that a disadvantage?

Well, you’re in a profession to which most people have devoted their lifetime, people who entered politics as students, worked their way through to the youth wing of the party, became active politicians at the state level and then moved on to the national level.

So they feel they’ve put in a lot of hard yards, and whatever you may have accomplished outside, you haven’t gone through what they have, and so there’s bound to be a certain level of, shall we say, non-acceptance.

I’m working on it. I do show a genuine willingness to learn, and I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I think I can ask some of the right questions because I’ been dealing with all sorts of issues and problems around the world. But I’m fully conscious that in politics, I’m still a novice, and that’s an inevitability.

On another note, there’s a dichotomy between your speeches about India and your writing. Your speeches tend to be optimistic and inspiring, whereas in both your fiction and non-fiction writing, you can’t really escape the reality of India.

I still think I’m basically an optimist. An optimist is someone who regards the future with uncertainty. A pessimist tells you everything’s bound to go wrong. The optimist says things might go wrong, there might be a possibility of, if you do the right things, getting the right result. I’m that kind of optimist.

I still think there are things wrong in our society, in our politics, in our economy, things we need to fix. But I see enough grounds to say ‘but we can get the right things done’. My speeches are anchored in the same set of facts that I write about, but I think they come out perhaps as a distillation of those, perhaps as more overtly bullish than the books.

Books have space for nuance and detail, but fundamentally, it’s the same set of analyses, the same thought process, and I am upbeat about India.

There’s been a sort of case of India vs. Indians over the past few decades – Emergency in the seventies, a closed market and red tape in the eighties, teething problems after liberalisation in the nineties, and corruption in the new millennium. So, as an optimist, what are your dreams and aspirations for India?

I think my dreams and aspirations are already coming through in the sense that there’s much more demand for accountability and reform in our system. Even though I said some negative things about aspects of our media, as a whole, our media is playing a good role in showing up miscarriages of justice.

The Jessica Lal case would not have been resolved without courageous media intervention. I think public awareness of Naxalism, of the alleged charges of corruption that recently came up, is certainly a huge change from the days when such stories would never make it to the media, when people did things quietly under the table and citizens lived with it.

Similarly, in terms of the economy, if you look at the range of professional options available to the average bright young person graduating from college, it’s twenty-thirty times the number my generation had, when essentially, if you were in the sciences, you became an engineer or a doctor; if you were in the arts, you were going to be IAS or IFS. So I would say my optimism is certainly in the process of being vindicated.

You spoke about how you sobered down after joining politics, but even when it comes to your novels, your earlier writing was a lot cheekier. Riot was subtle and poignant. Do you think your writing has sobered down too?

Yes, definitely. You see, each book meant a lot to me in the sense that it took a lot out of me just to find that time and space to do it. So I didn’t want to be typecast, to be formulaic or repetitive, because I was trying to bring more out of myself as a writer.

When I wrote The Great Indian Novel, it got almost uniformly enthusiastic reactions here and elsewhere in the world. Show Business got very good reviews in the West, but in India, many people thought, ‘oh, you know, this chap, what is this, he’s just interested in trivial things like Bollywood.’

If I wrote another satirical novel, I was afraid I would get the same sort of dismissive reaction from people who are not prepared to see beyond the ...what you call ‘cheekiness’, or others may call ‘exuberance’ the serious message I was trying to convey. I’ve often argued that the duty of a satirist in any case is to entertain in order to edify.

So I thought, let me write a serious novel to show that I’m capable of a different kind of depth, and that was what Riot was.

Do you think the quality of Hindi cinema has improved since Show Business came out?

Oh, yes! It’s changed. I’m not going to judge whether it has improved or not, but it has changed. And I think one of the factors is the NRI audience, which wasn’t there in the period I was writing about. Now, it’s a very significant part of the marketing strategy of a Bollywood filmmaker. The second thing that changed, of course, is the role of smugglers. (Laughs) One trend I completely missed, because I wrote the novel in 1990, was the subsequent infusion of crime money into Bollywood, which seemed in danger of taking over the industry until they managed to clean it up.

But would the goats chewing away at the pile outside a Bollywood studio still find the book better than the film?

(Laughs.) Yeah, I think so.


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