I’m sorry I shut the window on your fingers, curved around the frame of the steel car door. It was an accident; I didn’t know how quickly the automatic glass would close. We were driving around Durham, and it was the first time I really had you to myself. You were at Duke to give a series of talks that I, then a college senior, had helped to organize: a reading in the Rare Book Room, a lecture in the school of public policy, a dinner at that tony and remote place that only university big-wigs could go. The great Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman was there to break bread with you. Among others.
I walked you through the gardens and drove you around campus, and it was then, during one of those drives, as we were discussing your imminent departure from the United Nations after a celebrated career and its premature end in October 2006 at the vetoing hand of George W. Bush’s John Bolton, that your hand got slammed.
I remember how you winced. And I remember taking you to the airport later, after that exhausting couple days of events, throughout which you were, as always, exceptionally generous with your responses to even the least inspired questions. You heard the best version of each question, its inner and unthought potential, and you inverted it and returned it with the full force of your creativity and intellect.
You gave a lot of yourself during that trip, and I was tired just watching you and walking with you between events, and I thought about how this was what you did all the time, day after day, traveling here and there to appear before new audiences, to eat and drink with covetous strangers, to just be available, really. I remember the sadness and affection I felt for you then, as I watched you descend the escalator, your black roll-aboard in tow.
Since that afternoon in March 2007, you have worked in the private sector, you have been based in three countries, you have twice stood for elected office in India and won, spectacularly. You have been married twice. You have accomplished much. You have come under fire. You have become even more famous (in some quarters, infamous) than you were then, more celebrated, ever more public. You have gone viral on YouTube. You have published dozens of articles and half a dozen books. You have traveled and tweeted, a lot.
These are the things that the world sees and the chattering classes chat about, which appear on your Wikipedia page in occasionally suspect form, which provide cartoonists the ammunition to draw you up, and ignominious economist-politicians the gall to mention you at all. To the extent that they get you right—that they see and hear what it is you give of yourself every day—these artifacts of your publicity might matter. But to the extent that they don’t see or hear you, to the extent that they don’t know who you are, they matter not at all.
Now you are sixty. And what I want to tell you in honor of your birthday is that I hear you and I see you, descending the escalator, ascending the stage, boarding the plane, answering those thousands of emails, responding with unmatched largesse to the questions of the world.
When you moved from the United Nations to the private sector, I began to edit a magazine, this one. You encouraged me, as you always have, to give it my all.
Then, when you went back to India in 2009, I went back to school to pursue a doctorate, as you had done so many years before. You went back to India and I went back to school, where I would begin the research that would become a dissertation about going back to India, about the narrative registration of repatriation. That’s part of it, anyway.
And you are an absent present in this ongoing work of mine. You are the returnee-repatriate who was once an expatriate writer. You are the old Indian Anglophone—with an accent “more British than the Brits’” and that too born in London—faced with the entrepreneurial aspiration and pent-up desire of the New India. And you, unlike so many in your position, have embraced it, proverbial warts and all. You have married into the New India; you are laboring for it; you are allowing it to make its claim on you as you make your mark on it.
You made a tremendous leap of faith in returning to India, but it was not your first leap. From the French you learned in a summer, to the Malayalam and Hindi you have honed. From Boston to Singapore to Geneva to New York to Dubai to Trivandrum. Linguistic leaps, global leaps, leaps of faith: you travel and write and speak because there is more of the world to know and to which to give.
I admire you deeply for this, for the optimism that undergirds all of your movements, and for the obstinacy with which you refuse to capitulate to the cynicism that seems so often to the rest of us like the only reasonable response to a beautiful but ugly world. Happy 60th birthday, Shashi Mama. May you be seen and heard. Or, to paraphrase the American novelist John E. Williams, may you be yourself, and know, ultimately, what you have been.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.