Monday, November 12, 2007

Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India

A newspaper column is, as demonstrated by its best practitioners, a minor but nevertheless demanding art form, the essence of which is to give memorable expression to the topical by linking it to deeper realities. Those who carry it off most successfully on the Indian scene – Ramachandra Guha, Vir Sanghvi, Girish Shahane, Santosh Desai, Mukul Kesavan, Swaminathan S. Aiyar - delight and provoke us not only with their command over their subject but also their flair for shrewd generalisation and the economy and lucidity of their expression.

Sadly none of these qualities are visible in Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms are aimed at the reader with a quite breathtaking conviction. Tharoor has never been a very good columnist anyway, so his unwise (but in some ways perfectly characteristic) decision to gather up his jottings only serves to expose more clearly his considerable shortcomings in the realm of both thought and expression.

Let us begin with the thought. India, pronounces Tharoor, is an ancient civilization of great diversity and richness, "a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities", "a land of contrasts". Our pluralist ethos is our greatest strength, yet because we have so many differences we often lapse into anarchy and division. Our economy is booming and our middle-class expanding; the cellphone is the symbol of this economic revolution. But a large chunk of our population still languishes in poverty, and if we don’t attend to this problem then, in Tharoor's heavyhanded metaphor, the elephant which is turning into a tiger may turn back into an elephant.

Tharoor asks us to mark also that elected leaders are often corrupt and unprincipled, and a blot on the name of democracy. Corruption is so endemic that the size of the black economy is probably as large as that of the white economy. To turn now to cricket: cricket emerged in a foreign land, but its spiritual home now is India. Cinema: movies are the great Indian national pastime, and Bollywood dominates popular discourse in India. Health: Indians are somehow acutely conscious of personal hygiene but unmindful of public sanitation. The mango: the mango is the king of fruits, but it sells at prices that make it the fruit of kings. Although Tharoor is an Indian writer writing about India for Indian readers, his writing is somehow pitched at the level of, say, a Norwegian writing about India for Norwegian readers.

Tharoor's interpretation of particulars is as dismaying as his stultifying generalities. Nowhere is he more wearisome than when composing elaborations on his favourite theme: the Nehruvian idea of India's unity in diversity. Take his reflections on the rise of the cricketer Irfan Pathan. That Pathan, a Gujarati Muslim and the son of a muezzin, could play for India and attain the popularity he did in the wake of Gujarat 2002 is for Tharoor "a testament to the indestructible pluralism of our country". This is dubious in itself, but a further advertisement of pluralism, Tharoor avers, was the Indian team itself,a champion side "including two Muslims and a Sikh, and captained by a Hindu with a wife named Donna". Tharoor here carelessly seems to confer an honorary Christianity upon Sourav Ganguly's wife Dona – one can't see any other reason why her name merits a mention – to fill up a blank in his pluralist headcount.

Elsewhere Tharoor recounts an incident, which he knows only through the testimony of "two American scholars", of a Muslim girl whose father refused to let her play one of Krishna's dancing gopis in a play, but had no objection to her playing a stationary Krishna holding a flute. Anybody can see that this story is marked by doubt and confusion (and distaste for low activities like dancing) as much as assent, but for Tharoor it is "a lovely story that illustrates the cultural synthesis of Hinduism and Islam in northern India". Tharoor sees himself as a proud carrier of the Nehruvian torch, but is happily oblivious to how complacent and patronising a Nehruvian he is.

Nor is Tharoor much more edifying when talking about another of his pet subjects, "the new India". Watching the excitable cricketer S. Sreesanth slog a bullying South African fast bowler over his head for six and follow it up with a frenzied war dance, Tharoor is convinced that this incident epitomizes "all that is different about the new India" – bold, fearless, confident. As the flagbearers of the bold new India and the secular and pluralist India respectively, Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan may, to go by Tharoor's reading, be the most meaningful pair of new-ball bowlers in the history of cricket. Tharoor continues: "Sreesanth's India is the land that throws out the intruders of Kargil…that wins Booker Prizes and Miss Universe contests." I felt embarrassed even reading such twaddle.

Of course we have still not approached one of Tharoor's main subjects, one that looms almost as large in the book as the India he loves so. This topic begins with the same letter as India and stops right there: it is the writerly self, the "I". Tharoor is a highly energetic and committed self-promoter: in fact some of the most ingenious writing in his book takes the form of his acrobatics of self-aggrandizement.

Consider these two examples. Coming across a photograph of a sadhu chatting on a mobile phone at the Kumbh mela, Tharoor remarks that this contrast "says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today's India – a country that, as I wrote many years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time." In another passage about India as a land of contrasts and extremes, Tharoor closes a paragraph with the lines: "Any truism about India can be imeediately contradicted by another truism about India. I once jokingly observed that 'anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true.'"

What is going on here? In these lines we find not one but two Shashi Tharoors – Shashi Tharoor present and Shashi Tharoor past – supporting each other in confirmation of the most trite characterisations. Tharoor is not only saying something that all of us keep saying, but also insisting that he said the very thing earlier, as if by a continuous process of self-quotation he can lever the thought into the domain of his personal copyright. The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone abounds with such predictable moves out towards India on the one hand and preening gestures in towards the self on the other.

Not all of Tharoor's book is so tedious. In one chapter he argues persuasively that Hindutva, an ideology without any base in Hinduism even if it shares the same root word, is in effect a separatist movement, one that appeals to a majority rather than a minority. Another section offers some useful profiles of little-known or neglected figures. But most of Tharoor's writing is just noise. Although we know from Tharoor that "anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true", there is little chance about the same diversity of opinion about a work so banally, so fatally, in love with India as The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone.

And a recent essay on another book about the meanings of India: "Mark Tully and India".


Space Bar said...

Shashi Tharoor is the kind of pompous old bore you will find in a Georgette Heyer romance, where there are at least two characters blessed with a sense of humour enough to show up said bore's ridiculousness with their laughter.

I think you've been rather nice to him under the circumstances.

Rohit Chopra said...


Nicely done. Your review is a masterpiece of comic writing (comedic? as the Americans might say). I will read the book, to enjoy the cliches, but won't buy it.


Balakrishnan said...

Finally somebody who doesn't fall over Tharoor's writing, and values it for what it is,is what I felt after reading your review.

It has become a practice with Tharoor to regurgitate his ideas and thanks to his reputation,he always gets away with it.His writings,unmistakably smacks of a penchant for marketing well known ideas about India as his own creation.In fact,what he once thought of R.K.Narayan's writing, as dull and nothing much to be talked about, more applies to his own writing than of others.

amit varma said...

Chandrahas, thanks! Long have I wanted to say some of these very things about Tharoor's hideous column, and now you've put it much better than I ever could have. Super review.

Sisyphus said...

Good stuff, my friend. wonderful.

Raj said...

You have been extremely charitable in your review. This guy is not only a 'pompous old bore', but also manages to get unjustifiably high visibity in the media. His columns in the papers are exclusively meant to promote his books. Then he publishes a collection of his columns in a book form, and this viscious spiral keeps perpetuating itself.

wormwood said...

Very very mediocre writer, shashi tharoor! I happened to read his book 'Show Business' and it was a torture. He is nothing more than a poster boy!

skeptical desi said...

Hash -- great review

You've hit the nail on the head.

The biggest thing Tharoor has going for him may well be the TINA factor. He's got very little competition! How many half-decent observers on Indian politics and economics are as visible or voluble as Tharoor?

Tharoor is a well-packaged master of glib phrases. He spends his energy showing off his cleverness, rather than coming up with anything new to say. Razor-quick repartees and witty word-tricks make for formidable extempore debating. However, they're no substitute for meaningful analysis or true insight.

This superficiality is partly why almost all the well-read desis/ FOBs I've met don't think much of Shashi Tharoor..

For instance, a friend, when asked what he thought of Tharoor replied, "I don't".

Another friend called Tharoor the John Kenneth Galbraith of India pundits ie, taken as an expert on India by outsiders but ignored by those with any knowledge of India. I think the analogy is apt.

Then there's the matter of Tharoor's personality -- the most common adjectives used while describing Tharoor are probably "self-aggrandizing", "superficial", "supercilious", "glib and lightweight", "pompous", "irritating". And of course, his pseudo-Brit accent, which interestingly enough, disappears in private parties featuring a large contingent of FOBs/ desis.

However, at the end of the day, we desis ignore Tharoor at our peril. For just as Galbraith seduced the non-economists with his guff, Tharoor is coloring the views of many otherwise intelligent people.

That's why we need to provide, or at least, highlight alternative voices, among them the Sushmita Sen of Libertarian Journalists

Amitava Kumar said...

Good review.
In the last line of the piece, you write of "a work so banally, so fatally, in love with India as The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone." In love with India? I think you mean "in love with Shashi Tharoor."

Kartikeya said...


Great review!

Chandrahas said...

Amitava - These matters are now so ancient that it seems most prudent (and I am a big one for prudence) not to take them up again. But I am happy that you have read my essay all the way through, instead of heading straight to the conclusion like you usually do.

dirk said...

Thanks - can't count the number of times I've been smiling while reading your post :-)

Anonymous said...

I somehow do not understand the 'contrast and irony' in a sadhu using a cellphone. Nobody sees any irony if a pastor/priest or Bishop in the west uses a cell phone.
I wonder if this subconsciously equates the west (or Christianity) with modernity.
I think you have been very kind to Tharoor. Tharoor comes across as a pompous, superficial 'liberal', the type who keeps using empty phrases like 'ancient civilzation' and 'diversity' without knowing anything about Indian history or culture. He is a Nehruvian pseudo Indian born and brough up in India, holds an Indian passport but would be utterly lost among most Indians. If I were to pick the worst columns and editorials in TOI in the last one year 9 out of 10 would be Tharoor's.

Trailblazer said...

Wonderful review. Eye opening.

you prat ! said...

Firstly, I haven't read any of his books. So, I don't really have a right to have an opinion on a review. But, I do have an opinion on what kinds of works can/need be out there, and how we should view them.

Don't know how true, the statement 'if one thing is true about India, the opposite is also true', really is. But, one thing is noticeable. If someone writes or makes movies on India's poverty and slums, they get thrashed for it. Then there's somebody, praising India and what Indians have accomplished, they get thrashed for it. What gets left in between these two forms are newspapers - facts, mostly stripped of opinion or evaluation ( Very very personal to each author. Hence, very varied). Each kind of (author's) opinion serves different purposes. One wants to say, don't get too much above yourself, look at all the muck and destitution. The other sort says, don't get bogged down, we've accomplished so much, we can do more! I think we need both kinds. We needed that Tharoor book, and the thrashing of it. So that we may find some edification in the whole process.

I agree [:)] that too much use of 'I' can be annoying. Well, we'll just have to somehow tell him.

Anonymous said...

wow, you got it perfectly correct. he had come to my college and had used his tiresome metaphor of the damn elephant repeatedly, it was just painful. oh and talking about the "cellphone revolution" he also "recalled a humorous paradigm": "long back, the sons of fishermen would run miles to inquire about the prices of fish, but now, mind you, even the daughters may help the father for they dont have to walk miles but can just use the cellphone to inquire about the prices. (add shashi tharoor deep diplomatic-esque laugh to it) and we all know the affinity of girls towards a phone" (more of tharoor's laugh)" and yes these are his exact words.
good lord.

Anonymous said...

The only book of Shashi Tharoor's that I have read is 'Riot', and I regretted it almost as soon as I had begun. Not only was the book shallow and practically unreadable, Shashi Tharoor just couldn't resist mentioning that the protagonist was also from that great institution, St. Stephen's College. The mark of all successful men like yourself, isn't it Mr. Tharoor?