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“I Am Chronically Over-Stretched”
|Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena and Photographs by Amit Dey|
Published: Volume 20, Issue 7, July, 2012
Author, peace-keeper, refugee worker, human rights activist and a member of the Indian Parliament. Dr Shashi Tharoor, a man of the world, has shown time and again that he wears all his hats with equal felicity. Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena meets the avant-garde dapper politician – who is in the limelight for the ‘write’ reasons this time as his latest book Pax Indica - India and the World of the 21st Century readies for release – and his wife at their New Delhi home
The Parliament session is on. Delhi is reeling under the summer heat. My car glides into the compound of a bungalow on the tree-lined Lodhi Road in the capital, a short while before the sun sets, for my appointment with its headline-making residents – Dr Shashi Tharoor and his wife, Sunanda Tharoor. The couple has just returned from a short break in Istanbul to plunge into the business of their lives. Travelling is a part of their regular routine – located as they are across two cities – the country’s capital and Dr Tharoor’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala.
In the cool confines of his office, I have been welcomed by young Manu Pillai who is his principal aide in Delhi. As I look at the works that line the shelves and the illustration on the wall, I remember some lines of Dr Tharoor: “Both an oath and an affirmation can be a promise.... I will work with sincerity and dedication for your well-being.”
I soon walk past the lawn, into the hall where the Tharoors are. Both are attractively attired in Indian outfits – later on in the evening they are to attend a discussion on whether the Presidential system of government is possible in India. I glance across the well-furnished room, in which paintings, furniture and artefacts dominate the space. Sunanda smilingly tells me, before we embark on our three-way conversation, “Cricket and the computer are my competition. You cannot drag him away from either!”
Our freewheeling chat begins with talk about his soon-to-be-released book, Pax Indica - India and the World of the 21st Century. It is a work that focusses on his constant love – India. Dr Tharoor, as all of us know, has literally been a global citizen – so India and her role on the platform of world interactions is something he has often held forth on with knowledge and conviction. Today too, he reiterates, “I am talking about a world in which we would play a responsible role, a world where like the Internet, there would be an increasingly networked globe, of countries working with each other in different configurations, attempting to pursue their objectives through various kinds of relationships. In such a world, India would contribute both on its own strength, as a country that is a pluralistic democracy and through its relationships with others.”
Dr Tharoor – by virtue of his assignments and, of course, his love for travelling (you could probably say he spends a lot of his time in planes) – has experienced a multiplicity of cultures and seen India not just from within, but from outside as well. The India he returned to – post his UN stint – was different from the one he had left. “Naturally,” he explains, when I ask him how he sees India poised today, “India has changed and keeps on changing, so any answer I give you today will be out-of-date in a year or two.”
His perspective of India and the world has been shaped by the various roles he has performed – and continues to perform – in the limelight. The ‘Global Leader of Tomorrow’ – so named by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 1998 – has mastered the art of slipping into his several avatars with dexterity. On being asked to choose the one that is most him, he replies, “It’s very difficult to answer that because I’m a human being with a number of responses to the world – some of which I manifest through my work and some which I manifest through my writing. As a writer, the role is profoundly satisfying because you are controlling the words you use to express the thoughts you have. But there is meaning in the work I have done across the globe. Years ago, in refugee camps in Singapore, for example, I found a tremendous amount of satisfaction knowing that I could put my head to the pillow at night, feeling I had made a difference to a human being’s life. At the UN, I didn’t have the satisfaction of immediate results. But you have a different kind of satisfaction – one of leaving your smudgy thumb prints on the footnotes of the pages of history. And then the final change of coming here and being elected as a MP. That was for me, very satisfying because I didn’t know I could do it; I knew it was worth trying. To be able to connect with the ordinary voters, specially after so many years away, not just from Kerala, but from India and be able to communicate enough with them to win a near record majority was very satisfying. And, I feel a lot of satisfaction in serving the people of India.”
Globe-trotter he may be but at heart he is an Indian. Today, as he often is, he is clad in the classic kurta and jacket – only a flower in the buttonhole is required to complete the picture. He is an instantly eyeball-grabbing figure, with his intense eyes and hair falling gently on the forehead. Laughing at the compliment, he points out, “What helped me remain Indian was that I wasn’t seeking to become an American or anything else. I was simply an Indian, with an Indian passport, an Indian identity who happened to be posted somewhere else. You know, when I read, for example, an Indian writer who wrote that she considered herself a Canadian of Indian origin rather than an Indian-Canadian, I thought to myself that’s the kind of thinking I would never do because even if I’m sitting in New York and writing a novel about India, I’m still an Indian writer and my focus is very much on my Indianness.”
His interest in the movies and different aspects of culture are well-known. As we are chatting, he invites his two guests outside – musician Salman Ahmad of Junoon fame and his wife, Samina. Watching their camaraderie, I ask Dr Tharoor after the couple has disappeared to get ready to leave for the debate if ever the world of entertainment had beckoned. His effortlessly elegant appearance and comfort before a camera prompts the question, “Did you ever consider acting as a serious hobby?’ Those who know him remember that he had taken to the stage as an amateur actor. On his youthful hobby, he states, “The only acting I did was amateur theatre and I gave it up after joining the UN (I did one play and stopped). While I was a graduate student in the US, a TV producer approached me in a café and invited me to audition for a major soap opera (Search for Tomorrow), but I didn’t go. I felt I should focus on my studies. Who knows whether, if I had been approached by a serious director when I was still young enough, I might have been tempted? But I’m now embarked on a different path. Since my entry into public life I’ve had a lot of approaches from Malayalam film-makers and a few Bollywood producers too, in a couple of cases to play myself, but I’ve always said no. I have to focus on repaying the trust my voters have placed in me.
As a writer he has dabbled in both fiction and non-fiction. His newest offering belongs to the latter genre. Personally, though he prefers the former, he finds the latter easier to pen. “Fiction is more challenging,” says Dr Tharoor surprisingly. “The advantage of non-fiction is that given the very busy life I am professionally leading, it is an interrupt to me. Over the years I’ve abandoned so many novels I started because with a novel you need not just time which is scarce enough but space inside your head to create more characters and a universe – time to populate the world with people and incidents as real to you as the people you meet on a day to basis. That frankly became very difficult because I was constantly in positions where I would start something, travel for some weeks, have late nights – the spell kept getting broken and I found it very difficult to sustain in it. Non-fiction is much easier to sustain. The universe that has interrupted you is the same universe you are writing about. So, I can come back and pick up the same threads again even if it’s been a many weeks gap between the last portion I wrote and what I am going to write now. As an MP I live a very demanding life. I’m frequently travelling between the Parliament and my constituency, I often don’t have time to read, let alone time to write. In fact, Sunanda asked me, ‘You’ve been promising to finish this book, when will you?’ I told her she would get it for her birthday, which is in June. The publisher has promised me that he’ll give me one of the first three copies coming off the press before that.”
Dr Tharoor has a way with words, whether he is delivering a speech, writing a work or posting his views on Twitter. He is one of the few true-blue netizens of his generation who have taken to the social space with commendable facility, even though a remark or two may have sparked comment. On his engagement with the virtual space he says, “I find it very enjoyable. It can become too addictive because my habit is to Tweet in the car, between meetings or even while I’m chatting with my wife. If I don’t do it this way, then I have to find time at home, and it can become time-consuming. I find it very gratifying that so many people are interested in what I have to say; the count is now 1.3 million. I try very much to make my Tweets interactive, I don’t use Twitter just to broadcast my thoughts – I react, I answer questions but the volume is so great that it’s very difficult to keep up with. There are between 400 to 1000 messages a day, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. It is not possible to read all of them. People keep saying we sent a question seven times to Shashi Tharoor but he’s never replied. They might simply be unlucky that I didn’t see that question.”
The gentleman-politician inspires awe in those who are in their 20s and 30s. On his iconic status and fan following he remarks, “Adulation has never turned my head at any stage of my life, so that doesn’t matter, I’m very happy to have it. When strangers come up to me at airports, railway stations and other public places and say nice things, or want to be photographed with me, I never deny them. I always exchange a brief word with them for that is simple decency. Sunanda is exactly like me in that way. She is always very sporting about it. And I also accept legitimate criticism. God knows, as a writer you always get bad reviews and good reviews. But, the kind of unfair criticism that comes with public visibility in politics can sometimes get under you skin. For both of us it is tough not to be affected by it.”
Rewinding to all the flak she has received since her marriage to Dr Tharoor – on several issues – I turn to Sunanda who has been listening intently to our exchange and ask her if it is easy to live life in the public eye and cope with the carping critics. She says, “I find it sad most of the time. In my case, it’s been very unfair in terms of the lies – if only they had done their research on me. It was almost as if they wanted to berate him so they decided that here was a pawn, let’s use her any which way we can. People come to me and say, ‘Ma’am, we’re starting a spa, could you help us’ and I ask them how I can do that. They reply, ‘But you have your spa, you are a beautician’. And when I tell them I am into real estate they say they had no idea. I never really understood why they did that. It’s never going to go away for how many people are you going to turn around and tell that was all nonsense? You just learn to not mind.” And Dr Tharoor adds, “She was someone they had never known. She was not a part of the daily party circuit; they’d never met her, they had no grudge against her. She was just a target because it suited them to have a target. And that is irresponsibility.”
I ask him to get into rewind mode and state what he would change about himself. Dr Tharoor feels, “I am chronically over-stretched because I take on too much and am often strained to breaking point to fulfill all my obligations. What I would ideally change is to learn to say no more often, but I find I’m no good at it.”
It has been said that in many ways, he is ahead of his times. Does Dr Tharoor feel that his avant-garde thoughts often get him unwanted attention? Not really, for as he opines, “I’m stimulated by the world around me. I wake up each morning looking forward to the new experiences and ideas the day will bring. I see myself as a product of my times, who likes to think out of the box whenever I can. The times will eventually catch up!”
It is time for Dr Tharoor to leave for the debate. He vanishes for a moment, returning with some pages in his hand. The Tharoors bid adieu...and the MP’s parting advice to Gen Next is: “Be true to yourself. Be the best that you can be. No one else, after all, can be better at being you than you can!”
‘Indian diplomacy,’ a veteran diplomat told Shashi Tharoor many years ago, ‘is like the love-making of an elephant: it is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for two years.’ In Pax Indica – India and the World of the 21st Century Tharoor shows how Indian diplomacy has become sprightlier and forecasts where it will need to focus in the new millennium. Explaining why foreign policy matters to an India focussed primarily on its own domestic transformation, Tharoor offers a clear-eyed vision of an India now ready to assume global responsibilities. The work is stimulating, elegantly written and passionately engaged.
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