Confined to bed as an asthmatic child, Shashi Tharoor considered books his oxygen.
"Books were the salvation. I read voraciously," the Indian politician said. "When I rapidly exhausted the books available to me, I wrote. Writing caught up with my very existence. It gave me a way of escaping my own suffering."
When Tharoor's work got published, the effect of the written word became further evident to him. "It was a thrill comparable to a first kiss, an intensely passionate memory," he said. "That makes you want to keep going." It is lucky for his readers that he did keep going. Tharoor is now an award-winning author of 12 acclaimed books of both fiction and non-fiction.
In a style both witty and profound, Tharoor's works grapple with the nature of truth, love, the collision of cultures and the intersection of the political and personal.
Riot is an unflinching examination of Hindu-Muslim violence; The Great Indian Novel, a retelling of the Hindu epic of Mahabharata in the context of the Indian Independence Movement, is now required reading in many post-colonial university literature courses; Show Business, a parody of formulaic Indian cinema, was made into a motion picture titled Bollywood.
Tharoor's talent took him far from his bed-bound days of childhood. Born in London, raised in Bombay, educated in Delhi and the US, Tharoor would occasionally return to Kerala for "an annual reaffirmation of roots". After university, he joined the United Nations and worked as a peacekeeper, a refugee worker, a human-rights activist, an under-secretary general for communications and public information and a minister of state for external affairs. He resigned from that position last year due to political pressure stemming from his alleged involvement in the Kochi IPL cricket franchise bid. He is currently a member of the Indian parliament in Kerala.
In addition, Tharoor is a columnist in each of India's three most-read English-language broadsheets. His monthly column "India Reawakening" appears in close to 80 newspapers around the world. His following was evident at the recent 30th Sharjah International Book Fair, where Tharoor spoke of the contributions made by the large diasporic community of Indians to the UAE and how his books explore the making of India.
Tharoor shared that his dream for India is to keep improving the well-being of its citizens. He pointed out that with 70 per cent of the population living under US$2 (Dh7.34) a day, "there are still so many challenges to create decent lives for our people" and that "we can all help contribute to a better world".
The author has employed stylistic techniques – including multiple perspectives – to impart empathy to his readers. "Non-fiction appeals to the mind. It is analytical, an argument. Fiction, however, aims at the heart. When the reader relates to a character, empathy flows from that connection," he explained. "Some of the most moving kind of feedback I've had has been precisely when readers have felt a connection." The issue of empathy is one he's explored both in his life and literature. As a UN peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, he saw how "history and religion divided people".
"A lot of violence, terrorism, hatred comes from a failure to connect with the other, the demonisation of the other," he said. "You attack people as you don't see them as being like yourself."
He raises profound questions that cut to the core of life and death: When people are able to conduct such terrible butchery of each other, how is it that they forget their essential humanity? "Those who kill are rejecting their basic humanity and denying the humanity of the person they have killed. We need to understand the other, to look across the chasm of religion, nationality – whatever it is that divides us – to the humanity that unites us," he said.
Tharoor continues: "All human beings basically want the same things in the world – they want to be able to live and love, to breathe, to eat, to feed their children, educate their families, have better opportunities to lead better lives tomorrow than yesterday. It becomes very difficult to kill or maim a person who is breathing the same air as you, seeing the same stars, dreaming the same dreams."
In his own life as an author and politician, Tharoor has effectively combined the written word with action, the details with the big picture.
"We can't ever be perfect but we can work at perfecting ourselves – and that applies to individuals, to relationships, families, countries," he said.
Tharoor hopes the next generations will have the courage to make writing a vocation.
"The famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, 'I write for the same reason a cow gives milk.' It's inside you and has got to come out and if a cow is not milked, it's in terrible pain."
Tharoor is currently writing a book on India's place in the world, set for release on the first half of next year.
Updated: December 4, 2011 04:00 AM