“Once you see your name in print, it’s like tasting your first bar of chocolate,” renowned Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor said as he addressed a ballroom packed with students at the Sharjah International Book Fair.
He published his first story at the age of 11 and there was no turning back.
“I think our generation is concerned that your generation would stop reading either because they have no time or because they don’t have the inclination to read,” said Tharoor, who said he was an avid reader from a very young age and that he published his first story at the age of 11 before realizing there was no turning back.
“Video games are great because they train your reflex and makes you do quick judgment but the beauty about reading is that you discover new ideas, new worlds, new words and trains your concentration strengthening your attention span,” he said.
Tharoor’s love for reading started at a young age and he had a special fondness for Enid Blyton’s books. “When we went to libraries to borrow books, I’d inconveniently read them too fast, finishing them in the car before we got home,” he said.
It is that love for reading that turned him into a writer. “I became a writer because I discovered the power of reading and the beauty of choosing the right words. Writing a story teaches you how to unfold a narrative, which is something that you only learn by doing,” he said, calling literature a very intimate thing. “Expressing yourself in writing is very personal. Your style is your essence.”
Growing up, his parents were encouraging of his fondness for reading and writing with his father keen on getting his stories typed so that he could share them. It is then when he started to believe in himself as writer.
“If you’re a good writer then you’re a good reader. You learn how others have done it, how others share their thoughts.” He urged students to make the choice to take time for reading and writing. “You can’t have it all, you have to make choices in life. You can choose to go out with friends or you can chose to sit alone for two hours and write,” he said.
Tharoor who served for 29 years in the United Nations before moving to the political arena in India, said that he never dreamt of being a politician but a writer. “In a typical middle class family in India, you had to study hard, get into a good college and then get a good job. Those who weren’t able to do all that would be in politics,” he said.
In the UN he was an advisor to former Secretary General Kofi Anan and came second in the race for the top position after that. He reflected fondly on his time at the UN saying: “As an advisor in the UN your nationality is subdued because we all worked together for a common cause.”
When asked about his shift from international politics to domestic politics in India, where he now serves his second term as Member of Parliament, Tharoor said that it was a financial sacrifice and meant loss of comfort but that his motivation had always been the need to make a difference. However, he said, some people in the political arena in India however felt that he had encroached on their space, that he was an intruder.
During the session with students, he was asked to comment about brain drain and intellectuals and professionals leaving India to which he said that brain drain may be been the case in his generation but not anymore. “Many Indians go abroad for studies and yet come back to invest and support their country. When it comes to Indians traveling abroad, India has anyway been the gainer,” he said.
He said that while NRI is the abbreviation for Non Resident Indians he has coined alternatives: Never Relinquishing India, Not Really Indian, but also the ‘National Reserve of India.’ “They are the indispensable resource for India. Even during the recession, there were remittances being sent back to India. You are an important voice for pro-Indian politics. You invest in India, both financially and emotionally. Many Indians going back have raised the level of public discourse,” he said.
A student asked him about the fact that he wrote his books about India from abroad and to that he eloquently answered: “A writer doesn’t have to be in the same geographical place to write about a book. It’s just an address, it doesn’t matter where you are if you know about the place you’re writing about, if you care about it then where you are is irrelevant. I’m passionate about India. India matters to me and I hope I matter to India.”
One student was curious: What does he enjoy more? Being a writer or a politician? “Writing is a part of who I am, the politics is what I do. I can become an ex-politician but I hope I never become an ex-writer. If I stop being a writer, I stop being me,” he said.
So what happens when he suffers from writer’s block? “I haven’t suffered from writer’s block because I have such little time to write that when I do have time I write veraciously,” he said.
In another session, Tharoor discussed a classic book that he authored which celebrates its silver jubilee this year: The Great Indian Novel. He read passages of the book, which showed witty political satire.
“I didn’t want it to be a story that was just about Indian nationalist against British occupation. I wanted people to rethink the independence movement through a story that would entertain them and that they would enjoy.”
He said that political satire is “a legitimate way to see with irreverence political situations that are always looked at with reverence,” adding that over the years, readers have shown the maturity to see the satire in the book and appreciate it for what it is.
In this session, Tharoor also discussed modern day journalism in India and said that it was sensationalized, mainly due to TV’s hunger for breaking news and the print media trying to emulate that fever. “There was a time when my friend’s father would say: I don’t believe anything if it wasn’t in the Times of India now he says he doesn’t believe anything that was in the Times of India.”
Tharoor said that he grew up in the newspaper environment as his father had a managerial position in a newspaper and so it has been painful for him to see how journalism has changed. “A basic concept in Journalism 101 is the distinction between fact and opinion, between gossip, speculations and facts that need to be verified. What is biased and what are lies.”
The literary arena in India doesn’t seem less bleak. “Novels in India today seem to appeal to large segments of the population though the plots seem to be half-baked and the characters 2 dimensional, but they sell a lot more than literary writing. To the young people I say: the more you read the more you’ll develop your own discernment. So read indiscriminately,” he said adding that he is grateful that his parents never controlled what he read.
When answering a question about the relevance of writing in changing opinion in today’s age Tharoor said that 20 years the answer would have been yes but today the spoken word has a stronger impact in changing opinion. “Most people don’t read books but watch TV and listen to people shouting at each other. But I’m glad to see so many of you here, which means you like to read and there’s hope for us writers.”