‘Hope never to be a former author’
Shashi Tharoor talks to UMANG AGGARWAL about his upbringing, an Indian identity, and his hopes for himself as a writer
Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, Why I Am A Hindu, talks about how rigidity and superstition do not mix with the Hinduism that his parents taught him. The author-politician, who is best known among the youth for his much-applauded speech at the Oxford Union, his witty tweets, and his scary vocabulary, spoke with us about his upbringing, an Indian identity, and his hopes for himself as an author.
You are obviously very well-read. The youth listens with a lot of eagerness when you speak. Was there ever a point when you considered being a teacher or going into some related profession?
There were various professions in mind but academic teaching was not one of them because I always felt that the problem that teachers and professors have is that they have to deliver the same lecture on the same topic repeatedly. And after a point that can be rather dulling. As you know, I like to move on two different issues. I have a fairly eclectic mind; I do find a lot of things very interesting and so I would have felt a little too confined, I think, by the rigors of academic lecturing. But I do an awful lot of lecturing anyway, to a wide variety of students — mainly college students. But still, I do get around, trying to have some impact on young minds. And I guess a lot of the students watch my stuff on YouTube because they keep coming up and telling me that so.
...And the other professions?
Journalism was something that appealed to me from a very young age. My father worked for The Statesman and later for the Reader’s Digest, and I always used to joke that the newspaper ink runs in my blood, in my veins, and I would have been quite attracted by that idea. Had the UN almost accidentally not happened, that is almost certainly where I would have headed. There was a lot of interest in me from some of the media houses because I had published a lot even as a student and therefore I had a bit of a track record as a journalist. There used to be an award called the Rajika Kripalani Memorial Young Journalist Award for journalists under 30. And the only year I entered which is when I was 20 — in fact I was 19 when I entered, I won it when I was 20 — you needed to submit 10 pieces from the preceding year, and I had written only 10 because I had gone off to graduate school to the States, but those 10 were good enough to win me the award.
So, I do feel that I had some journalistic credentials. And because I had this affinity to the profession, I sort of, might have rather fancied that as a long-term profession more than the other professions available. I suppose if I hadn’t got the scholarship to go to the States into graduate school, I might have considered going into law as well if for nothing else than that with the talent for debating, I would have stood one in good stead.
And then the other option which would have been always there — except that the Emergency kind of put me off the idea — was Government service. The IFS had always been a bit of a dream. My late grandfather wanted me to go into the IAS. In those days, the IFS was considered the more desirable of the two, but either way, since I had a talent for doing well in the exams, I was fairly confident that I would crack the UPSC and then that would have been probably the way forward.
Anyway, looking back at all that, I am Hindu enough to believe that you lead the life you are destined to lead.
What is the Hindu way of dealing with people who attack your private life?
There is no good way for it. I suppose the Hindu way, strictly speaking, is to forgive them, which I find very hard to do. Another possible way is to ignore them, which I’m doing a little more successfully now. Initially, you are stung, you are human, so you react. But over time, you realise that this is more to do with their insecurities and inadequacies as human beings. One has to grow a thicker skin. I still remember Natwar Singhji telling me this wonderful story of how when he was first sworn in, he was wearing a suit and he very apologetically said to Indira Gandhi, “Ma’am, I will get some bandhgalas stitched.” She replied: “Natwar, you just better grow a thicker skin.” And in politics, in many ways, that is the most important thing — to grow a thicker skin.
When did you first realise that you were Hindu? And as a thinking individual, when did you first question it?
As a child, of course, it comes from birth, from parents taking you along whether it’s to poojas or pilgrimages. The very fact that there is a pooja room and that your parents are praying there — all of this you see and you learn a lot of religion and cultural practices through emulation, by watching and following. When did I first start questioning it? I think I was in my teens. And it’s part of the intellectual curiosity of the child to question pretty much everything. Including going on a South Indian pilgrimage with my family and kind of interrogating my father throughout, when I was 14. So, these are the kind of memories that stay in one’s mind.
Have you ever done anything that you would call un-Hindu?
Difficult to say because you know, again, since the whole argument is that you have no litmus test as to what is Hindu or what is appropriate Hindu behaviour, then it becomes very difficult to say that something was un-Hindu because then you’re already creating a yardstick, which to my mind doesn’t really exist.
Do you rate yourself higher as a politician or as a writer?
(Laughs) Ratings are for others to give. One thing I do know — I am already a former Minister, one day, I would be a former MP, but I hope never to be a former writer.
You are somebody who has a very strong sense of an Indian identity. Many among the youth of our nation still want to settle abroad. Why do you think that is?
I did live abroad for a long time but never took any other passport and you could argue it was easier for me because as a UN official, I could go with my Indian identity everywhere. But it was not like because I had gone to Geneva, I was trying to be Swiss or because I was living in Singapore, I was becoming Singaporean, etc. The fact is that the job placed one there and that was the spirit.
The second issue is where your heart lies. I think it’s fair to say that many who aspire to go abroad are seduced by the material comforts of life abroad. It’s usually the US that’s in their mind, or the UK; very few go for exotic destinations. But, in all cases, it’s material factors. Many people go abroad and remain very much attached to India. The Indian who totally assimilates abroad, looks Indian, has an Indian name but knows nothing of India, speaks no Indian language, eats no Indian food, wears no Indian clothes — such an animal is very rare indeed. Everyone is still very much connected to his or her homeland, and for that reason, I would say that the challenge is to somehow be able to reassure them that the kind of lifestyle they’re hoping for, they can achieve here.
The book has been dedicated to your mother, Lily Tharoor. Could you tell us more about her and about your growing-up days?
I was always closer to my father. And my mother and I are, in some ways, a study in contrast and yet, she’s had a tremendous influence, and the older I get, the more I realise how much of an influence she is. She was always a very restless spirit. Never satisfied, which can be tough on a son. I would come first in class and she would say I wasn’t as good as the kid who had come first in the class one year behind. You know that is tough. And that, in another dedication, I referred to as a divine discontent. She really did have divine discontent about a lot of things. And one of the feelings that move me a lot about my mother is that she never gave up. She was determined. And she still is. She is 81 years old and insists on driving herself to the temple or the market. She’ll hire a driver for long but she likes being self-reliant. She has only part-time help; she does not want somebody full-time. She wants to feel that she can do things, and this spirit is terrific; it’s very impressive. She’s also someone who has a sharp tongue and a sharp mind to go with it, and that means that sometimes you know she will say things that not all of us like, and we have to deal with it.
But sometimes, she’ll also say things that open eyes. In the dedication, I say, “Her skepticism hasn’t undermined her devotion.” And it’s true, because she’s very devout, goes to temples every week, sometimes two or three times a week on all of our birthdays, our star birthdays or nakshatra birthdays, because that’s what we call it in Kerala. She would go and give alms to the poor. So that’s very much a part of her belief and faith. But you can listen to her talk about some of the cynical motives of priests or pujaris or Godmen, and you would say, “My God! She can’t possibly be a believer, can she?” So, because she has a sharp mind, she’s skeptical, but because she’s devout, she’s also faithful. And this is the kind of balance she has always managed.
Your speech on ‘Does Britain owe reparations to its former colonies?’ went viral. What is the biggest disservice that the British did to Indians and their sense of the self, according to you?
Well, the British did a number of disservices there. First, of course was making the Indian identity contingent upon a series of British descriptions and understandings of what the self was all about. The rigidification of the caste system was a British contribution. The Divide and Rule policy, that created separate religious community consciousness among people, all of this was done by the British. And beyond that, there’s the colonisation of the mind. Because when you set up everything English as the model and everything Indian as somehow unsuitable... When literature was being taught, Kalidas was very consciously excluded whereas Shakespeare and other British poets were promoted... that sort of a thing. The inevitable result was that you had Indians who saw the ideal as being as English as possible. So, even some of our most talented writers, thinkers, poets and so on, felt that they had to aspire to an English model instead of reinventing the culture from which they themselves had emerged. And I think that itself is in some ways the worst disservice.
You know, we still have schools in this country where students are organised in houses named after Macaulay and so on, and it’s embarrassing. But we’re doing it subconsciously. We haven’t realised how peculiarly in some ways humiliating this ought to be seen as. Conversely, we also have people in our country who pride themselves on their ignorance of Indian languages or customs, or who don’t wear Indian clothes very often and so on. And in some ways, I accept the cosmopolitan Indian wholeheartedly — somebody who is comfortable in a kurta or in a pair of blue jeans, somebody who enjoys Western music as well as Indian, who reads Indian books as well as Western, and so on. That kind of cosmopolitanism is to my mind very natural in our society. But somebody who has become a pale imitation of the British sorts to show as the ideal, that I think is a loss of self.
What would you say to someone who might be scared of picking up your book because of your famed use of difficult words?
(Smiles) I want to show them that I pride myself on being an effective communicator and you can’t communicate if people don’t understand you. So, for the most part, any words I use should be understandable, or at the very least, they will be clear from the context of the sentence, the paragraph, or the idea that’s being discussed. So worst come to worst, there will only be a handful of cases where you would find yourself rushing to the dictionary. But even that is not essential because it’s the thrust of what I am saying — I like to feel that after I have spoken or written something, people are left in no doubt about the point I’m trying to convey.
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