18 February 2008

The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone

A pocketful of India

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Pages: 380
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 495

This book by former under-secretary general of the United Nations and prolific author Shashi Tharoor is a compilation of several of his essays and columns that he wrote in the last decade or so (Tharoor writes for a number of national and international newspapers.)

I, for one, had not read much of him, save for a column here or there. So for me personally, this was an enormously enriching experience with its wealth of knowledge and keen insight on a variety of subjects. It helps that Tharoor is such a P G Wodehouse fan because his writing invariably sparkles with wit and flamboyance. In addition, there's such ease and elegance to Tharoor's writing that anyone with the slightest ardour for the English language will take to his style immediately.

Tharoor demonstrates how intensely protective he is about his roots - and that goes beyond his feelings for India alone. He extols the virtues and spirit of Hinduism and the sense of plurality that it propagates. He adds how fundamentalism that divides people on the basis of religious and other identities, is in itself, against the principle of Hinduism.
He says, "No one identity can ever triumph in India; both the country’s chronic plurality and the logic of the electoral market place make this impossible. India is never truer to itself than while celebrating its own diversity."
Tharoor displays his love for his native land-Kerala, pointing at how the place has shed many of its Labour Union problems --one of its biggest banes in its route to development --- and is being viewed as a hotshot destination by investors. Tharoor constantly points towards the pristine beauty of the land (that attracts foreign investors against over-populated and polluted places like Bangalore or Mumbai) and the fact that it's the only State whose demographics comes closest to that of the US, in terms of education and sex ratio.

The interesting part of Tharoor's writing is that there is not only much insight to be found here, there's also a clear stand that he presents at the end of every essay.

The only places where he stumbles is in his assessment of the Hindi film industry. It’s clear that Tharoor's understanding of the Mumbai film industry is limited and his perception narrow. It's especially difficult to digest what he says about the Big B of Bollywood, " To appreciate Amitabh Bachchan, you have to confuse action with acting and prefer height to depth"
That apart, there's much to reflect and take home from this book. An exceptional guide in the understanding of India and its myriad moods.

12 February 2008

Interview with Shashi Tharoor

A Riot of words 

In an exclusive interview, diplomat and writer Shashi Tharoor talks to Sandhya Iyer on what it means to be passionate about books and literature

When one gets a private audience with a man who the whole world pays to listen, it is a unique privilege to get him to talk just on books. But that’s exactly what we did, and Shashi Tharoor, the strikingly handsome former under-secretary general of United Nations and prolific writer/columnist, fell for the suggestion without much persuasion. “It is great when newspapers promote a book page, especially because space for these things are drastically reducing,” he says, as we meet up with him at Mahindra United World College of India, where he had come at the behest of good friend and Harward batchmate, Anand Mahindra.

The latter gave an eloquent account of the days he spent with Tharoor. “My first impression of him was that of a distinguished-looking young man in a navy-blue woolen jacket, staring at a notice board with great gravitas---as if all of the world’s troubles rested on his shoulders,” Mahindra said to an amused audience. “He was always ahead at studies and I consoled myself that he was just a prematurely grown kid and would end up aging faster, but as you see, he’s only grown younger,” he said to packed hall of students, faculty and press. Mahindra later recounted to a rapturous audience how as a charismatic young man, Shashi's canvassing message at one of his campus election rallies was a pithy ‘Shashi Tharoor, Jeetega Zaroor’.

And winner he has been. Tharoor had an illustrious career with the UN, having spend 29 years in diplomatic service and coming a close second in the race for UN Secretary General.
He is also a prolific writer and a highly regarded columnist. He has so far penned four works in fiction(Riot, Show Business) and five in non-fiction (Nehru, Bookless in Baghdad).
Growing up in the 60s and 70s in Indian cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, Tharoor has made US his home with his wife Christa. Bristling with wit and wonderful insight, each of his books displays his great pride in being an Indian.
So what is his preferred genre within the scope of what he writes? “Fiction, naturally," he says, "because it gives one the satisfaction of creating another world. But truth is that non-fiction is equally special given its interruptible nature. Even battling busy schedules, one can keep going back to it and pick up the threads. That’s not the case with fiction. Here, you need a space inside your head where you create another world inhabited by different characters and episodes,” he adds. However, the aspect to note here is that Tharoor’s fictional work is also anchored in the real world, so that margin isn’t too pronounced.

As for his childhood literary influences and his eclectic taste in books, he says, “I've always been a voracious reader and my range extends from P. G Wodehouse to Gabriel García Márquez. I haven’t been too great on English classics though. I've always been impatient with them. Their concerns seem so remote. But I've read quite a bit of Charles Dickens. Jane Austen? Nothing apart from Pride And Prejudice, though I can see why she’s extolled to the extent that she is.”

Yet, no great work of literature must be excluded from a scholar’s reading list, believes Tharoor. “I may not have followed every great author or read all their books but I do feel it’s important to know where they were coming from, what their background was. That’s crucial because what they published had an influence on subsequent works and writers. Ultimately, what does a ‘novel’ mean? It means doing something new. So as I said, one needs to have a sense of what has been there before. A well-read person will know the realms of the possible that have already been explored by earlier writers.”

Given his bustling social life and wide interests, does it allow him the leisure of re-visiting some of his favourite books? Much like most of us who carry the guilt of leaving most of the books on our shelves unread, Tharoor too says it was only thanks to a very bad flue recently that he managed to read up Vikram Chandra’s monumental work, Sacred Games. “I always carry books with me but it’s still always a challenge to find time to read,” he says.

Tharoor selects his top 5 books
1. The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru; a profound vision of what has made India and Nehru
2. One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez ; extraordinary, magical reinvention of the Latin-American experience.
3. The Heavy Weather by P. G Wodehouse: One of the great masterpieces, among the many others he’s written.
4. The Saga of Khassak by OV Vijayan: This was originally a Malayalam novel that invented magic realism 20 years before Gabriel García Márquez attempted it.
5. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milind Kundera: A moving, evocative experience of East –European history.

02 February 2008

Book Review: The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Who really wrote Wuthering Heights?

The popular belief of course is that Emily Bronte wrote this 19th century classic but if one scratches the surface, one will discover there’s an altogether different story here.

While the three Bronte sisters, Emily, Anne and Charlott met with great literary success with Wuthering Heigths, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre, biographers suggest that it was actually their genius brother Branwell Bronte who was behind it all.
So why did he alone perish in anonymity? It’s a sad story of a man whose fertile mind and high flights of fancy were never allowed to take wings in the real world. As a child, Branwell was the leader among his sisters. If he cried, they cried. He laughed, they laughed. They followed him everywhere; delighted by the fantastical characters he created and awed by his brilliance. Branwell’s ‘infernal’ world was full of kings, queens, ghosts and worriers. He liked blood and gore in his stories and almost convinced himself and his sisters that such a world actually existed.

Many believe that Heathcliff was his own creation, which Emily developed further. One can’t deny that Emily wrote Wuthering Heigths but the ideas, characters and inspiration behind the story was indeed Branwell’s.
Till the age of 19, hopes were still riding very high on this whiz kid. Everyone knew that great things awaited him and Branwell was almost certain to make a great name for himself. This is one of the reasons why their aunt didn’t deem it necessary to leave any money for him in her death will. So confident was she of her nephew’s prospects that she divided her money among the three girls instead. Ironically, he needed the money most at a later stage.

Branwell was rejected at a premium painting school that came as a shock. After that, there were a series of disappointments. Wordsworth to whom he sent a selection of his poems for his opinion gave him no reply. Several publishers rejected his work and slowly disappointment started to set in. He was 23 and nothing was working for him still. Not that the young man was not trying but there was no reassurance that was coming forth from the literary world.
In his late twenties, a slow resignation started to creep into his poems. A particularly poignant line was
‘I lost the race I never ran’

The sisters were tiring of him, though they did bail him out at several points. They were sympathetic but couldn’t understand why he was living the life of a wastrel.
Charlott, who published Jane Eyre under a pseudonym, met with great success. Emily’s Wuthering Heights got some critical acclaim but overall, it was considered a far-fetched, weird sort of story when it was first published. Later of course, it won its rightful place in literary history.
The sisters preferred not to tell their brother about the success of Jane Eyre. As Charlotte said later after his death, “We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent and talents misapplied. Now he will never knew…”

But the truth was different. Branwell knew about these novels. How could he not? Especially when most of it consisted of his own thoughts and ideas?
He too preferred to stay quiet, not letting them draw any happiness from the fact that he already knew it.
At 31, he was still languishing after the failures of a couple of jobs.
He said in one of his letters, “I know I also had stuff enough in me to make popular stories, but the failure of the Academy plan ruined me. I was felled, like a tree in the forest, by a sudden and strong wind, to rise no more. I simply degraded me in my own eyes and broke my heart,” --- source Daphine du Mauriers’ biography on Branwell.

A few days later, he died suddenly.

Many feel Branwell’s trouble started when he couldn’t differentiate between childhood fantasy and adulthood but personally I think fate too acted brutally towards this affectionate, sensitive and brilliant man.