Reading Shashi Tharoor: If you want to be remembered write a novel

By Mohammed Wajihuddin

Sometime in the early 1990s I got issued The Great Indian Novel. It was Shashi Tharoor’s debut novel published in 1989, from Patna’s iconic Khuda Bakhsh Library. With limited vocabulary but unlimited urge to learn the firangi language, I began to read it. I have no compunction to admit that I had to reach out to a dictionary often to understand the meaning of those many words which were unfamiliar to me.

Nevertheless, Tharoor’s lucid prose drew me closer to him. The coinage, the clever turn of phrases, the style to tell stories. They had me off my feet. I fell in love with his English writing. I am among his countless admirers who devour his words but know him only through his writing. I heard him once at a literature festival, tried to ask a question but never got a chance.

I began following him soon after I read his debut novel, have tried to read almost everything he has written and that I could lay my hands on. His novels, non-fiction books, reviews, lectures which got published in periodicals and dailies.

After graduating from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi he went to the US for higher studies. After his long stint at the United Nations where he reached a rung lower to the top, he returned to India and joined politics.

He also began writing a column for TOI. It was sheer joy to read his columns. It was around the same time that I learnt, probably through one of Jug Suraiya’s pieces, that Tharoor began writing while he was very young and would write for Junior Statesman (JS), the magazine from The Statesman stable for the young. Suraiya then edited it.

Now author-publisher David Davidar, in introduction to Tharoor’s new book, perhaps his 21st, Pride, Prejudice & Punditry (ALEPH) tells us that Tharoor “published his first short story, at his father’s urging, at the age of ten.” It was his father who inculcated in him the love for words. Davidar rightly observes that early influences would never desert him. In time Tharoor would become a wordsmith who, according to Davidar’s estimation, “has probably published about five million words over the past fifty years or so.” God, how could a man with such a punishing schedule in diplomacy and politics, write so prolifically?

Many wonder what makes great writers great. It is reading that leads them to writing. Prolifically and elegantly.

Hundreds of young boys and girls enter journalism in India every year. Most of them begin as reporters and retire as reporters. A few of them excel at writing and go on to scale heights and become famous journalists and writers. Who are they? They are those who sell their hearts to reading. Once a journalist on a senior editorial position told me that he hardly read anything beyond his own stories in the newspaper he worked for. Don’t expect him to be remembered as a great writer. If you don’t read voraciously, it is unlikely that you will write lucidly. It is as simple as that.

Once I read a dictum: if you want to be remembered, write a book. Tharoor realised it early.

Comparisons are odious and a city-bred boy with well-off, educated parents providing him an anchorage cannot be compared with someone who grew up in rural setup with limited material and intellectual resources to bank on. Yet Tharoor’s fascinating journey as a writer is exemplary. How did this journey begin?

Davidar quotes him

“My journey as a writer began with reading. Growing up in urban India in the late 1950s and 1960s, my generation was probably the last that could read without the threat of other distractions. Television did not exist in Bombay of my boyhood, and Nintendo or PlayStation were not even a gleam in an inventor’s eye; mobile phones and personal computers remained in the realms of fantasy. If your siblings were, as in my case, four and six years younger (and worse, from a young boy’s point of view, female), there was only one thing to do when you weren’t able to play with your friends. Read. I read copiously, rapidly, and indiscriminately.”

Now we get a fair idea about how did he become such a good writer.
In his piece Davidar refers to English writer and critic Cyrill Connolly’s book Enemies of Promise where the author says that the three venoms that kill a promising literary novelist include early success, journalism and politics. Tharoor published his critically-acclaimed debut novel The Great Indian Novel when he was 33. Noted writer and critic Khushwant Singh called it “perhaps the best work of fiction written by an Indian.” Tharoor began as a journalist and went on to become a diplomat and politician. So, what made Tharoor defy the prognosis of critic Connolly? Why does he write? And, more importantly, why despite so much demand on his time, for a quarter of a century as an international civil servant, and then as a politician, he found and still finds time to write?

Explanation from Tharoor

“I think George Bernard Shaw put it best: I write for the same reason a cow gives milk. It’s inside me, it’s got to come out, and I’d be in real pain if I didn’t. Writing is an essential part of who I am; it’s something I feel impelled to do, whatever the other demands on my time. So, despite holding some very demanding jobs, I wrote when I could: on evenings and weekends, on planes and trains, on scraps of paper resting against the steering wheel of my car while my wife did the weekly shopping. Samuel Johnson’s crack about how a hanging in the morning concentrated the mind applied to me: having to return to work in the morning meant I wrote at night with a will.”

Though Pride, Prejudice and Punditry is a collection of best from Tharoor’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry as well as some pieces written for this volume, I am settling down to read it. For nothing gives me more pleasure than reading immensely readable prose.
And don’t tell your wife that it is priced at Rs 999.

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog