Beyond Boundaries

"Profiles in Success", The Indian Express

July 22, 2005


How do you define your experience of working at the UN?


Immensely challenging. The last few years have been particularly tough due to the divisions within the UN over Iraq. As the Under-Secretary-General for public information, it is my duty to present the organization's view on the crisis. The UN is turning 60 this year. And 60 is the age at which we at the UN normally contemplate retirement! However, at 60, the UN is seeking renewal: we are in the midst of a major reform exercise which we hope will restore the institution's credibility across the world.


What is the solution for terrorism?


Terrorism is a method, not a cause; there can be no ‘solution’ until people stop resorting to this method in pursuit of their causes. The United Nations strategy on terrorism can be summarized as ‘5Ds’: Dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals; Deny terrorists the means (especially but not only financial) to carry out their attacks; Deter states from supporting terrorists; Develop state capacity to prevent terrorism (some states have weak institutions and expertise that we can help strengthen); and, Defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism: we must not sacrifice liberty in the name of security.


What is the solution to the Iraq crisis?


We are working to ensure that the Iraqi people are able to take control of their own destiny. We have helped with the elections and are now extending support to the writing of a new constitution. Of course the security situation remains a major worry.


What is your inspiration as a writer?


I think each hook has had different inspirations, but if I had to answer in one word, it would be India. I have been extraordinarily, emotionally and intellectually fascinated by the idea of India, by the forces that have shaped and made India and by the forces that have sometimes threatened to unmake it. And of course what I do with all my writing is try to answer the question, what is India? What does India stand for in the world, what makes it tick? Why does it matter?


Tell us about your childhood.


My father began his working life as the London manager of the Amrita Bazaar Patrika. Then he became The Statesman's London manager at a time when all the managers for that paper in India were Englishmen. But he always had one eye open for opportunities to go back to India. At the end of a little over 10 years in England, he applied for the first vacancy that opened up when an Englishman retired, the manager of the Bombay edition. That's when I moved to Bombay. I was an asthmatic child so I wasn't able to get involved in all the normal activities of running around that all children do, apart from the occasional game of cricket. I therefore had to read, there was no television in those days in Bombay, there were no computers, so reading was the only form of diversion available to me. I finished all my books too fast, so I started writing when I was six years old. My father was generous enough to take my writing seriously. He got these stories typed out, passed around among friends. He thought it was good enough to submit to newspapers and magazines to be published. My first story was published before my 11th birthday.


What do you miss about India?


When you are in India, you know that it's your home. I have written in my last book, India from Midnight to the Millennium that in certain circumstances you can stand in the sun and feel whole again in your own skin. That's something I miss, whatever it's like, whether it's right or wrong, it's mine, I care about it, I can argue about it, I can try and change it: it's mine, I belong. I belong to India, and India belongs to me. I miss all the specific things that I can mention, but ultimately the thing that is lacking is the sense of belonging that you have when you are on your own soil.


What do you think the future holds for India?


I smashed my crystal ball last week, so I am sorry I can't give a direct answer! But the truth is that India has a strong potential, yet a great capacity to screw things up. We have both possibilities. I think potentially if we can free the creative energy of our people, then India's future is unlimited.


We have resources, we have brains, we have skills, we have talent, we have so much going for us. The proof of that lies in the NRI community. Indians who have left India have thrived almost without exception. The only thing that has held Indians back in India is the system, and that is now changing. I have talked in my books and articles about India becoming truly a leading country, a country that could make the 21st century its own. A country that can really provide for its people, but those predictions could look rosy and naive, if we do not get the basics right, to provide decent livelihoods for all our people, strengthen the infrastructure of the country, provide education and better public health.


Give us your insight on the future of the NRI community.


There is not one answer to that, because the NRI community which has been in Guyana for 150 years is in a totally different situation from that which has been in America for 30 years, or in England for 40 years.


First of all I find the younger members of the NRI community breaking free of many mental shackles of their parents, and that I think has already made an impact upon the way the community is perceived.


Another thing which I find very interesting is the way the NRIs have been able to affect this country's agenda, its politics and the way in which it sees the world. NRIs like other Americans are playing their roles as mainstream Americans. You find them in congressional staffs, in hospitals, and in the media. So you find that Indians are also leaving their mark across American society. This will have an impact on India too.

Shashi Tharoor inhabits several worlds at once. During the day he’s dressed in a suit as a civil servant at the United Nations. On evenings and weekends, often dressed in a kurta, he is an Indian living in New York, interacting with the expatriate community, at a Holi or Onam function. And finally, he is a writer. His three worlds and identities co-exist in balance. The London-born, India and US-educated writer often features in news pages as head of the United Nations department of public information in New York, the latest in a string of high profile UN jobs.


Born in London in 1956, Tharoor was educated in Bombay, Calcutta, Dehli (BA in History, St. Stephen’s College), and the US (he got his PhD at the age of 22 from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University).


Tharoor joined the UN in 1978 at the age of 22; and in the 27 years since then, he has served with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose Singapore office he headed during the “boat people” crisis. In October 1989, he became senior official at UN headquarters in New York, where, until late 1996, he was responsible for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia. In 1997-98 he was the executive assistant to the Secretary General Kofi Annan. And, on June 1, 2002, he was confirmed as the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information of the United Nations.


His books include Reasons of State (1982), a scholarly study of Indian foreign policy; The Great Indian Novel (1989), a political satire; The Five-Dollar Smile & Other Stories (1990); a second novel, Show Business (1992), which received a front-page accolade from the New York Times book review and was made into a motion picture titled Bollywood; India: From Midnight to the Millennium (1997), published on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence and cited by President Clinton in his address to the Indian Parliament; Riot (2001), a novel about Hindu-Muslim violence in India; Nehru:the Invention of India (2003), a biography of India’s first Prime Minister; and most recently, Bookless in Baghdad (2005), a collection of essays on writing and writers. He also co-authored, with the eminent painter M.F. Husain, a coffee-table book, Kerala: God’s Own Country (2002).


Tharoor is the author of numerous articles, short stories and commentaries in Indian and Western publications, and the winner of numerous journalism and literay awards, including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1991. In 1998, he was awarded the Excelsior Award for excellence in literature by the Association of Indians in America (AIA) and the Network of Indian Professionals (NetIP). He was also given the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2004. he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in International Affairs from the University of Puget Sound in May 2000. In January 1998, he was named by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as a Global Leader of Tomorrow.