Kanishk Tharoor is both a nomadic writer and a city-dweller. Currently making New York his home, Tharoor, as evidenced by his imaginative writing, is equally at home in other geographies and chronologies. Perhaps a peripatetic childhood across multiple continents fueled his globalist outlook. And perhaps having grown up surrounded by books (his mother, Tilottama is a humanities scholar and his father, Shashi, is a writer, politician, and former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations). Tharoor was destined to beat literary filigree from gold and silver.
“Filigree” is one of many words in Swimmer Among the Stars that seem to be drawn from another place or time. Rather than referencing the occasionally fusty OED, let’s click on the Oxford Living Dictionary website to search the meaning of filigree: “Ornamental work of fine (typically gold or silver) wire formed into delicate tracery.” There is much in this definition that applies to Tharoor’s writing. First, like the Oxford Living Dictionary, his short story collection is alive; it breathes life into ancient words and worlds. And the stories, while ornamented with lovely metaphoric language are substantial in the way of precious metals and delicate in the manner of fine jewelry.
Tale of the Teahouse is one such story. With all quarters of our contemporary world seemingly under siege, the mythic quality of this tale reminds us that in the midst of the gloom and doom of impending destruction, one can find refuge in humor and philosophy. When a laborer snarls at the denizens of the teahouse saying, “We are about to be destroyed and all you do is make fun of us,” one is reminded of late-night television comedians snarking while Washington burns. But it is not all fun and games in this teahouse, for the tea drinkers are also philosophers. The city of the teahouse is about to be attacked, and “two days before the khan’s army razed the city, the tea drinkers invited a shadow puppeteer to preside over the day’s discussions …on the necessity of vocation.”
Tharoor writes, “It is sad, but sad in an unremarkable way. Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” This hint of melancholy touches many of the stories, but Tharoor’s ability to pump life into history makes the sadness a part of the reader’s life. The impact is like that of a talented journalist who brings distant tragedies to the newspaper at our breakfast table, making those stories a part of our lives.
The puppeteer describes nomads who “tend the fires..make the bows and fetch the arrows..draw milk from the mares..beat filigree from gold.” She differentiates city dwellers from nomads by suggesting that “a city like ours has a teahouse, and keeps men of inaction—who produce nothing, whose only responsibility is to the leisure of thought.” The puppeteer proceeds to defend the vocation of thinking, for “it is we who give this city meaning.”
Indeed, Tharoor’s thoughtful writing gives meaning to the varied subjects he explores. The subject of the title piece, Swimmer Among the Stars, is the last person who speaks a dying language: “At school, they made her speak the common language. The teachers slapped her wrists if she ever misspoke and emitted the unwelcome sounds of her own tongue. As she grew older, the living room was overtaken by the radio, then the television…The language survived a little while longer in the kitchen, nourished by the memory of food.” But what happens when it is only the ethnographers videotaping this speaker who will remember the language? The language will become like photos stored on a computer hard disk stored as a fond memory, but lost as a unique identity.
In reflection, Tharoor writes, “It is sad, but sad in an unremarkable way. Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” This hint of melancholy touches many of the stories, but Tharoor’s ability to pump life into history makes the sadness a part of the reader’s life. The impact is like that of a talented journalist who brings distant tragedies to the newspaper at our breakfast table, making those stories a part of our lives. Indeed, I was reminded of Swimmer among the Stars while reading a recent article in The New York Times about Sphenia Jones, one of the last speakers of Haida, an indigenous Canadian language that is nearing extinction. The echo of Tharoor’s “teachers slapped her wrists” is said in a remarkably vivid way: Ms. Jones recalled her childhood when she was sent away from home so as to be assimilated into a Western way of life; at her faraway school, when she attempted to speak her own language, “the teacher yanked out three fingernails.”
Some of the stories in this collection veer into the world of the whimsical (Elephant at Sea which is playful in the manner of a fable for children) or of science fiction (A United Nations in Space which reminds us that climate change is not fake news) or of the subaltern (Portrait with Coal Fire which scolds photojournalists and their editors for anonymizing lower status subjects by omitting their names in photo captions). But this reader kept being pulled closer to stories that touched on loss. Like the aforementioned Tale of the Teahouse and Swimmer Among the Stars, stories like The Fall of an Eyelash, Cultural Property, The Phalanx, and The Loss of Muzaffar encourage one to hold on to aspects of life that are slipping away.
It is perhaps the immigrant’s dilemma to try to hold onto what is lost. Or perhaps it is a more universal condition. Or perhaps we are all immigrants. Regardless, I was moved to tears by the bittersweet The Fall of an Eyelash.
Kanishk Tharoor reminded me that I can wish for most anything while blowing away an eyelash that has become unmoored from its eyelid; however, as one who has left the golden desert of my Rajasthani ancestors, and as one whose Anglicized tongue struggles to shape itself around my ancestral Marwari dialect, I am home and I am not.
“While an exile can escape her country, she can never escape her exile.”
For Rajesh C. Oza’s parents—Chhaganlal and Vijayalaxmi—his gold and silver.