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January 24, 2017

Zee JLF Conversations: Shashi Tharoor

Text by Huzan Tata

“I’m glad there are alternative forums to showcase new writers’ works. After all, we all write to be read!”

Challenges of writing An Era Of Darkness
“The core argument was the one made in the speech, so I knew what I wanted to write was an argument and not history as it unfolded. What interested people was what I’d said in the speech at Oxford, so I broadly knew what I wanted to look at, to flesh out what I had thought of. In the course of research, I found new nuggets. It’s really an effort to put forth a cogent argument on what happened in those 200 years, and to find the most relevant arguments made on the side of the British, so I could refute them. The plot was all there, it was just the question of putting it down.”   

Negative reactions
“I guess the most relevant criticism is that the Dalits didn’t get enough attention till the British came along. But I would argue that you didn’t necessarily need the British, there are plenty of examples of Indian rulers and activists who’ve conducted reforms. The only other criticism is that ‘Oh the British gave us lots of good things’, and to those people I would say they haven’t read the book enough! I’ve acknowledged all of it in the book, saying it wasn’t for our benefit.”

Rewriting histories
“It’s normal human nature to think ‘what if?’. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove in any context. I think one can look back and explore the possibilities of different outcomes, but it’s obviously not serious history, nor is it useful as an exercise. It may be nice to read books on Dara Shukoh as a Mughal ruler, or on an India where Partition never happened. But all these things didn’t happen. We are living in a world that emerged from what really happened so it’s best to stick to that.”   

The apology
“A senior British official once told me ‘We’ll never apologise to you because if we did, we’d have to apologise to 131 different countries!’ which is true.  The fact is that in the case of India, it was a thriving country that was despoiled by the British.”

On beginnings
“My very first debate was in class four in Campion School, Bombay. My father wrote my speech for me and I mugged it up. He was very keen that I go in for debating and thought initially I needed help. I daresay the first few years he wrote most of my speeches. We also had elocution that taught us to speak clearly. When I moved to high school in Calcutta, they had ex tempore speeches – that really challenged me. I have a lot of gratitude for my father for introducing me to public speaking.”

Conversations at home
“Well now we’re all scattered around the world so we rarely get to sit together for a meal. Yes, the instinctive topics are literature, politics and current affairs worldwide. Ishaan is now a diplomatic correspondent and Kanishk is a fiction writer. I do feel we have a life that sustains that kind of dinner conversation. But we’re normal human beings, we also talk about cricket, movies, the latest fads.”

On reading
“I’m an eclectic reader, I read whatever I can lay my hands on. But to be frank, my present engagements don’t leave me with enough time to read as much as I would like to.”               

On literature fests
“They all vary in appeal, quality and ideas. For writers, any platform for their books is valuable. You may see some people every year at every fest; but some younger writers need attention and these festivals are the best for that purpose. I’m glad there are alternative forums to showcase their works. After all, we all write to be read!”

Read our interview with Shashi Tharoor on India Shastra, here.

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