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Reinventing a legacy

Shashi Tharoor speaks about his books.


NOVELIST, NEWSPAPER columnist and United Nations functionary, Shashi Tharoor has "at least three more embryonic novels waiting in his intellectual womb."

On a recent visit,

Tharoor said he has been writing to amuse himself since he was six years old, when his asthma kept him indoors for long hours. "I read inconveniently fast, and so very quickly finished all the books in the house that I could read," he recalled. Tharoor said, "My writing predates my work in any sort of bureaucracy." So when he was offered the job at the United Nations, he "warned" his employers that he would have to have a "license to write", insisting on getting written permission to continue to work on his books even as a full time employee. He's used the license to the fullest, producing a prolific amount of prose in the 25 years since he began his career at the U.N., winning the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (for The Great Indian Novel) along the way.

"Every kind of writing makes different demandsFiction demands that you have a certain mental space to write, and with a full time job, that can become quite difficult," he explained. With non-fiction, however, he can put it aside for days and still establish continuity. While his work (on the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Yugoslavia) provides him with the opportunity to "make a real difference" on the international stage, his writing keeps him connected with India and his Indianness. "Working at the U.N. places you in a strange situation - it makes you conscious of your national identity, but at the same time you are required to transcend it." Confronted with the criticism of the United Nations' ambivalence in the face of a growing unilateralism in international relations, Tharoor said, "The U.N. most definitely continues to be relevant. Countries may make war by themselves, but they can't make peace alone. The U.N. is integral to any peace making efforts." Tharoor's writing draws upon a fascination with India's recent history, especially the years after independence. Nehru, particularly, has fascinated him right from the start, and when his publishers approached him to do this biography, he thought it was "a good idea" and approached it much in the fashion of "a layman talking to lay persons in a drawing room conversation". Tharoor is regretful that some of the "great" ideas that so drove the first prime minister of India seem to be losing ground today, secularism and pluralism being on that endangered list.

Asked whether he would consider setting a novel outside India, Tharoor replied, "I'm not done with India - there are many themes and facets I still wish to explore. My need to write about India is like an itch that refuses to go away." He is busy with his next book - a novel set in a little village in Kerala.

USHA RAMAN

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