Shortly after India celebrated her 60th year of Independence, Shashi Tharoor took time out of his peripatetic schedule for an email exchange with India Currents. The conversation ranged from the personal to the national. What follows is an interview with an author in transit, openly discussing a career and a country in transition.
RCO: The French have a delightful phrase for the third phase of life—la troisieme vie. If we can be so simplistic as to suggest that in your first two phases you have been a diplomat and a writer, what does the next phase hold in store for you?
ST: I hope I am not yet ready for la troisieme vie! I think of myself as rather being in the second phase of my life. The first involved a combination of literature and international public service; the second, on which I have just embarked, combines a new professional venture (my first foray into the private sector) with the freedom to pursue a variety of other interests (my writing, public speaking, and opportunities to support and promote issues I care about, including education, human rights, humanitarian action and even tiger conservation!) When the troisieme vie comes, I expect it will be devoted to the life of the mind and the words that shape it.
RCO: Is there a novel in the works? While I enjoy reading your essays, I do look forward to your fiction.
ST: Thanks. I hope to return to fiction next.
RCO: Also, when will we hear more about the private sector opportunity?
ST: When there’s more to talk about.
RCO: Over the past couple of years in my travels across India, I’ve been asking the followig question to desis from different walks of life. whwat does “desh”mean to you? In reading ETC, I have a sense that for you desh has many meanings. Could you please share your understandings of desh. Do you physically locate it at the country level (India) or at the home level (Kerala village, Bombay theaters, Calcutta neighborhood, Delhi college, etc.)?
ST: Both. Having been brought up with my sense of “home” anchored in Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Kerala, I do have a pan-Indian sensibility and am prone to thinking of India as a whole rather than one region or city within it. But the lived experience of “desh” is inevitably the human one—puchkas with an high school friend in Calcutta, the taste of the red-chilli-and-onion chutney at my grandmother’s home in a Kerala village, the grass on the College Lawn at St Stephen’s in Delhi, the monsoon rains whipping up the Arabian Sea at the Nariman Point waterfront in Bombay. All of those experiences constitute one’s sense of “desh”, just as one’s intellectual appreciation of the land both absorbs and transcends any one of them.
RCO: You seem to privilege the nation-state over the smaller scale of region, city, village, or community. Do you metaphorically dis-locate desh with your definition of dharma (wherever one can “live in harmony with one’s purposes on earth”)?
ST: No. I think I can pursue my dharma in New York or Dubai, but neither will ever be “desh”.
RCO: Where is home now? In other words, where does the postal service (not the folks at gmail) deliver your mail?
ST: It’s becoming harder and harder to answer that question, but I have retained my rented apartment in New York, and that’s still where the post office comes calling!
RCO: Independent India has just turned 60. Perhaps she too is entering a third phase. What is your prognosis for the democratic experiment in India?
ST: Optimistic. What’s striking about Indian democracy turning 60 is how many foreign observers in the1950s and 1960s predicted India’s imminent disintegration or at least the extinction of Indian democracy. Instead India made its diversity into a strength rather than a weakness by enshrining it in a political system of democracy which was both a reflection and a guarantee of Indian pluralism. Today, at 60, it is safe to say that the habits and expectations of democracy—the exchange of hopes and promises, dreams and betrayals, triumphs and disappointments that constitute the flawed miracle of our system—have been deeply entrenched in our people. And unlike in the U.S., it’s the poor who sustain democracy in India; they’re the ones who queue up for hours in the hot sun to vote, because they know their votes make a difference. Democracy has brought real empowerment to the lowest of India’s low. And it has enshrined the simple principle that in India you don’t really need to agree all the time, so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree. That’s why we endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, consonant, custom and costume, and still manage a consensus—on how to manage without consensus. This is what gives me great hope for the survival and success of Indian democracy.
RCO: Why do you think democracies seem so amenable to dynasties? In India, the electorate is enamored with (if not enamored with, then certainly tolerant of) the Nehru-Indira-Rajiv legacy extended on to Sonia’s children. Of course, here in the U.S. we have Bush 41 and Bush 43. And I just read that Japan’s PM (who recently visited India) is the grandson of a former prime minister.
ST: I think name recognition helps in democracies, plus the advantages that familiarity with other politicians and the process of politics provides.
RCO: In ETC you often use the word “change.” In the opening pages, you suggest that India “must change,” that she “must become more like the tigers” of Southeast Asia. And in the closing pages, you observe that “village India is changing…[and that] the pace of change can only accelerate.” With all this transformation taking place, what is your most hopeful vision for India over the next few decades? Do you have a nightmare scenario?
ST: I think change is real, and my hopeful vision is certainly of an India that will take its rightful place in the globalized world of the 21st century, as an ancient civilization with great political and economic weight in the modern world. But this can only happen if change is not confined to the educated elite of software geeks and globetrotting entrepreneurs who have become emblematic of the new India; it also has to benefit the deprived and destitute masses whose despair remains a blot on the country’s collective conscience. We forget too easily that 70% of Indians live on less than a dollar a day, and 26% survive below a poverty line that has been drawn just this side of the funeral pyre. My nightmare scenario would be one in which we fail to ensure that their lives are changed for the better too. The transformation of India must mean getting both the hardware of development right (roads, ports, bridges, airports) as well as the software of human security (food, health care, sanitation, education). I believe we can do that; the changes in the last decade have pulled more people out of poverty than in the previous five. We have to sustain that and do better faster. Then we can speak of the lumbering Indian elephant truly having become a sleek and muscular tiger.
RCO: A recent New York Times headline (“As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes”) suggests that the Chinese model may not be terribly healthy.The Indian elephant may not want to emulate the Southeast Asian tigers. InETC you list ten “dangers to India’s future.” Why the omission of the energy crisis and environmental degradation? I just finished reading Julian Crandall Hollick’s Ganga; it certainly appears that unless a more enlightened environment awareness enters policy and practice, Indians – rich and poor – are at risk of losing not only the ancient civilization that Ganga the goddess represents, but also the economic sustainability that is only possible with a vital, healthy river.
ST: I agree. Maybe I should have had 11!
RCO: Along with your ETC, this issue of IC features Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Assuming you’ve read this big book, any comments about Guha’s approach to historiography and his analysis on “Why India Survives?”
ST: I’m a fan of Guha’s and have bought his book, but its bulk has made it impossible for me to travel with it—and since my life of late has been excessively peripatetic, that means I haven’t read it yet. But I have no doubt I will find much to agree with.
RCO: On my flight back from India, I read Ishaan Tharoor’s piece on Nayan Chanda’s Globalization book. How does it feel to see the next generation of Tharoors in print?
ST: Great! I particularly liked his piece on Indian democracy which was the Timemagazine cover story. And his twin Kanishk has written a wonderful short story that Penguin has anthologized. I am terribly proud of them and expect them to leave my own writing in the dust. My niece, Ragini, is already doing so in India Currents!
Looking Forward: India from Ambassadors to Zero, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone
Objective Portrayal, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s Nehru: The Invention of India
Shoebox Shuffle, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad
Love in the Time of Riots, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s Riot
|After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at [email protected]|