Hope I will never be a ‘former writer’: Shashi Tharoor

The Asian Age.  | Sucheta Dasgupta

India, All India

A “book of words” by him, with anecdotes attached to each of them, will be published by Penguin sometime in the first half of this year.

Author and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday. (Photo: PTI)

I am a former minister, and one day I will be a former MP, but I hope I will never be a former writer, said Shashi Tharoor on the second day of JLF 2020 in a freewheeling talk where he also reminisced about how he began his writing life as a campus journalist and got his byline published in almost every English publication, including Eve’s Weekly and Chandamama, before leaving for the United States aged 19 for graduation. The following year, he discovered that he had won the Radhika Kripalani Young Journalist Award and his father collected it on his behalf. Tharoor regretted that he no longer has the bandwidth for writing fiction — for which you have to “not only create a world of illusion in your mind — a glass palace, so to say — but also inhabit it for a few hours every day and if you don’t do that when you return you find cracks beginning to appear in the palace — and too often the whole palace is destroyed”. At some point in his life, he would certainly write an autobiography. A “book of words” by him, with anecdotes attached to each of them, will be published by Penguin sometime in the first half of this year.

On a political note, Tharoor objected to the government’s directive to the finance commission to move away from the 1971 census to the 2011 census. “And soon, we will have the 2021 census in which some southern states will actually lose population. The result is that about 40 Lok Sabha seats will disappear and be reborn in the north, and you can imagine what political consequence that’s going to have,” he said.

Craft and process figured large among themes discussed today, with Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson slamming the literary subgenre of the Holocaust novel. “I don’t like concentration camp novels. I don’t think they should be written. I don’t like big themes. I feel you are cheating when you choose big themes. As writers, we should let the words do the work, create the meaning. I like making tragedies out of nothing — there should be nothing behind the words,” said Jacobson.

In a frank talk with Tharoor, Namita Gokhale, too, opened up about her process as well as her motivation for writing Jaipur Journals, her new book. “People now see me more as a literary festival organiser which pushes my writer self to the background, and like Rudrani Rana, the character in my novel, I, too, sometimes feel angry about that. This book was a return to my roots as a writer in short snatches. The form of it was such that it would allow me to go for brief, intense periods of writing in which I would complete a story, and then move to the next one the next time I returned,” Namita said. The inspiration behind Rudrani Rana was, in fact, a man — an intelligent man — who, to her, could perhaps have been a great writer but became “too attached to the role of being an unsung genius rather than a recognised one”.

What is the writer’s muse? It can be many things — ranging from cancer for Lisa Ray which has, for her, been a gateway to a new, more perceptive, world in which she finds energy and direction through Buddhist meditation to the urge to document lived social history for 2019 Man Booker International awardee Jokha Alharthi who, unfortunately, was trolled by the intelligentsia in Beirut — they resented the fact that despite their large literary heritage, they had lost the honour of being the first Arab to win this prize to a woman from Oman.

It can also be the need to do some life accounting at the end of completing a work which can form the purpose of writing, say, a memoir. Says Avi Shlaim, historian, who has completed one: “My mother is not a reliable source. She is completely narcissistic and that colours her narrative. What I did to counter that was to interview my sisters. We lived in Iraq in the 1940s. It was a very conservative society and, as a boy, I never understood what was going on. When I grew up, I apologised to them, but they said there had been no need of it. They blamed my mother and grandmother for the discrimination.” So sometimes it is toxic femininity, too, rather than toxic masculinity that holds back women, especially in conservative societies. How politically subversive was it to contemplate that?