Shashi Tharoor has always led two lives. In one, he is the quintessential international civil servant keeping the peace and dousing the flames in the world's flashpoints; in the other, as a writer, he has focused almost exclusively on India: as one of the most prolific chroniclers of the life and times of his homeland, in works as varied as Show Business (introducing Bollywood to the world), The Great Indian Novel, his brilliant retake on the Mahabharata, his essays in From Midnight to the Millennium as well as the justreleased novel Riot. Diplomat and writer Tharoor has so far kept his two lives separate. But that may now be changing.
In an interview during his recent visit to New Delhi to launch Riot, Tharoor hinted that he might move away from India, and focus on some of the global hotspots he has encountered in the course of his 23-year UN career in his future writing. For the first 11 years since 1978, he worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, including a term in Singapore as head of UNHCR operations in South-east Asia. He then moved over to handling peace-keeping operations at UN headquarters. When the Balkans blew up in the early Nineties, he headed the team responsible for peace-keeping in the former Yugoslavia.
Later, he moved back to New York as executive assistant to the UN Secretary-General, and now heads the world body's communications division. "I have kept the writing life and the UN life apart," Tharoor said. But when asked why he had used his experiences as a peace-keeper and diplomat in troubled regions around the world as material for his writing - whether as fiction or non-fiction, he acknowledged with a smile: "I have to admit that I have thought about it... and thought about it quite a lot...
"There are certainly tremendous stories there," he went on, mentioning one of them. He was in Singapore working for UNHCR when he had to deal with his own "boat people" nightmare - when a boatload arrived with some refugees who had evidently practised cannibalism on their compatriots in order to survive the rigours of passage through the South China Sea.
"We couldn't do anything, we had to let them go... because we certainly couldn't send them back to Vietnam, where they would have been shot for trying to escape." recalls the writer, going back over two decades ago.
"I might even do a play," says Tharoor, almost thinking aloud. He recalls his school and college dramatic days - at Kolkata's St Xavier's and Delhi's St Stephen's - and his lasting regret that no director ever thought of producing his farce based on the 1975-77 Emergency, Twenty-two Months in the Life of a Dog.The Emergency was in many ways the defining event in Tharoor's life, at least till he joined the UN.
In some ways too. it was Gandhi's Emergency - with its censorship and brutalities - which probably helped him decide on a public service career away from India when he acquired his PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the US. Otherwise, like many of his mid-Seventies St Stephen's compatriots, he might well have ended up in the IAS.
Like V. Lakshman, the fictional district magistrate hero of his new novel Riot, who seeks solace from having to play God in his small-town fiefdom by having an affair with a visiting American aid worker. Or Charlis, one of his most memorable characters in Millennium, who came from quite a different background: an untouchable in a Kerala village who battled against tremendous odds to enter the elite cadre, and return to his native district as lord of all he surveyed. In other words, the collector.
Tharoor disputes this: he didn't see himself as Lakshman (and of course not as Charlis); not even as the hard-drinking, fun-loving Sardar police officer Gurinder Singh. Lakshman's Stephenian fellow-administrator and friend in godforsaken Zalilgarh. "I never really saw myself as an administrator serving in a district," he gently corrects. "More in the IFS maybe, as a representative of India abroad." But he does acknowledge that characters like Lakshman and Gurinder of the IPS were based on people he knew well in college.
Some aspects of contemporary India disturb him a little. Such as a national newsmagazine's opinion poll released just before Independence Day in which a decisive majority said Indira Gandhi was the best Prime Minister India ever had, well ahead of even her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. This yearning for a "strong and decisive leader" (like Indira Gandhi) leaves Tharoor puzzled. "After (the 1971) Bangladesh (war), when was she decisive