Surely a book can have several origins. But a serious work of scholarship resulting from a video that goes viral on the Internet is novel, still. That’s precisely how Shashi Tharoor’s latest, An Era Of Darkness, came about.
Tharoor, once a UN diplomat, now a directly elected member of parliament — a relatively rare Congressman in the Lok Sabha — was on his way to the Hay Festival in Wales in May, 2005, when he stopped by at the Oxford Union to briefly debate in favour of the motion: “Britain owes reparation to its former colonies.”
The topic itself, he sort of admits, is a bit facetious. As far as reparations go, he was mainly making the case for a token but necessary apology, and a “symbolic reparation of one pound a year at best” owed to India by the British. What he concentrated on instead was the actual experience of British rule in India, and colonialism at large — debunking certain myths surrounding benevolence and imperialism.
By early June the same year, the Oxford Union had posted the debate online that Tharoor had casually retweeted from his popular Twitter handle. And before he knew it, the ‘nationalists’ were talking again about the British returning the Kohinoor (an old chestnut) thanks to his speech. Columnists were issuing rebuttals. The Prime Minister (Tharoor sits in the Opposition) was lauding him publicly for saying “the right things at the right place”. The video, being shared on WhatsApp, YouTube, and over emails, had genuinely gone viral.
If a 13-minute video can have the whole nation chattering, surely a book should do well too. Going beyond the motion before the house at Oxford House, Tharoor’s An Era Of Darkness (from Aleph Book Company) is a more detailed indictment of the self-serving nature of British domination in India that systematically led us down a road that was eventually hard to climb back up from.
Given the inspiration for his book, it was only fair that we began this email interview on his life as a debater first.
ELLE: We know you’ve been a formidable debater right from your days at St Stephen’s. Could you recall some fond or memorable instances from then—perhaps winning the Mukerji Memorial (if you did), or being Prez, Deb Soc, as I’m told you were?
Shashi Tharoor: Plenty. I debated from my freshman year, and enjoyed crossing swords with many of the formidable seniors with great reputations on the debating circuit. Travelling to places like Kanpur, Kharagpur, Bombay and Chennai for various IIT festivals was a highlight – and winning them all, of course! Winning the Hindu College debate was especially satisfying for a Stephanian. I never spoke in the Mukherji Memorial because I presided over it as Member for Debates in the Union Cabinet in my second year and was President of the College Union in my third. But I did win the Hindu College equivalent, as well as the big annual debates at Shri Ram, LSR and the Delhi School of Economics.
Debating taught us to think sharp, think smart, react on our feet, and use our ideas and words to impress and persuade – skills that will stand you in good stead whatever you do in life.
ELLE: From a point of pure debating flourish, where the world’s big issues get solved and poetic justice delivered in a few minutes flat, your performance at the Oxford Union was exemplary. What do you make of the standards at the Indian parliament, where there are supposed to be professional debaters?
ST: A bit uneven, to be honest. But there are many skilled speakers, especially in Hindi, who hold the House captive with the force of their oratory.
ELLE: What’s been the best parliamentary debate that you’ve been a witness to, or perhaps been part of?
ST: I’m still waiting for it to happen! There have been great occasions for set-piece speeches, such as the 60th anniversary of Parliament, but a truly memorable debate should have the cut-and-thrust of disagreement and response. And though we have had several strong speeches by Opposition MPs and some strong replies by Ministers, the latter are too secure in their crushing Lok Sabha majority to try very hard, and get a