Shashi Tharoor once again shot into fame with the publication of his sixth book Riot.Two renowned and established publishers in two different corners of the world published this novel almost simultaneously. These two publishers - Viking Penguin (in India) and Arcade Publishing (in America) - published the book with different cover designs and subtitles to suit the audience of different sensibilities and, in turn, to reach a wider audience. The instant appeal of the novel to readers can be fathomed by the fact that all the leading English newspapers in India were found replete with different reviews of the novel immediately after it was launched with a great fanfare at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, in the presence of many celebrities like Sudhir Kakkar, Kushwant Singh, Mark Tully, artist Jatin Das, Namita Gokhle, Manju Kapur, Indian Express editor Sekhar Gupta and Sunny Singh. Additionally, this novel found some critics and reviewers abroad too. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel hails Shashi Tharoor as 'a major voice in contemporary literature' 1 . This major voice has been trying to solve different kinds of global problems as a senior official of the United Nations for more than two decades. Nevertheless, India always matters immensely to him and, in all his works, he wants to matter to India 2 and Riot is a great testimony to this fact. Shobori Ganguli perceives rightly that you can take him out of India but you cannot take India out of him 3 . A reading of this novel, supposedly, makes it clear that Tharoor seems to be living his life on two levels. On one level, he appears to be 'the quintessential international civil servant keeping the peace and dousing the flames in the world's flashpoints' 4 and on the other, he seems to search the way-out of pacifying communalism and violence plaguing Indian awareness to a great extent.
Tharoor has been generous, unlike most of his predecessors, in giving interviews about his writings and literary theories. This enables readers to appreciate his works better - sometimes, arguably, with mathematical precision. In an interview with Sunil Sethi, he claims that, unlike his earlier two satirical novels, this novel is to be taken seriously and that takes itself seriously 5 . He also adds that it focuses on collisions of various sorts - between individuals, between cultures, between ideologies and between religions. He goes on to say that the novel by focusing 'on one place, one time, a small group of people helps illuminate the kind of issues I want to talk about - our identity and communalism and so on' 6 . In the interview with First City he discloses that he wanted 'to showcase the multiplicity of perspectives, since people are disputing the ownership of history and trying to uncover the truth behind a certain event' 7 .
Several writers have acclaimed the novel as a great piece of literature. For instance, Elie Wiesel finds that the novel is not only 'written with elegance and sensitivity' but it is also 'a remarkable tale of violence and hope in a land that has known both…'
The college student does not want to know if the MEA has started engaging with Tony Abbott’s administration. Why would a fisherman care about the country’s relationship with SAARC? Or a housewife about India’s strategic objectives in Africa? Unless the man happens to be running a small business in Siliguri.Or the student is looking to pursue graduate school in Australia. Or the fisherman’s family lives in constant fear of accidentally entering someone else’s territorial waters and facing dire consequences. Even the housewife, juggling bills for fuel and food, is not left untouched by it all.
Shashi Tharoor’s most recent book, Pax Indica, explains why foreign policy matters for a country like India, and outlines how it could very well be a powerful instrument for her own domestic transformation. Beautifully written, Pax Indicais evocative of an engaging and exciting conversation which, while dotted with tongue-in-cheek anecdotes, misses neither the historical context nor the intricacies of the topic at hand.
In fact, it is important to point out the shades which the author has painted the work in. While Tharoor remains a celebrated scholar in the international relations space, this is not an academic work, but is instead meant to be read and understood by a plethora of readers, from the non-fiction aficionado high-scholar to the geopolitically-inclined enthusiasts. Another interesting amalgamation is that of Tharoor the former UN Under-Secretary General and Tharoor the MP for Thiruvananthapuram, both of whom can be seen and heard.
Pax Indica opens a window to the inner workings of the MEA and other domestic stakeholders in India’s dialogue with the rest of the world. The book also examines these links with different partners in some detail as well. The strategic approach taken by India, especially during the Nehruvian era, is showcased and reflected upon, and helps trace an outline of India’s identity and unique position in the world as a thought leader and as an emblem for self-righteousness and peaceful coexistence.
India’s unique challenges in grasping contemporary matters of flaunting soft power and public diplomacy are also discussed. It is extremely disconcerting for Tharoor as it is for the reader to see the persistence of infrastructural and logistical challenges plaguing India’s foreign policy, such as the understaffed diplomatic corps, the lack of structure, coordination, and personnel planning, and the absence of informed public debates, although the latter has seen some initiative in recent years.
Particularly noteworthy is the chapter on the complexities of living in ‘A Tough Neighbourhood’. India’s leviathan bulk and the sensitivity by which it is obliged to handle matters in the South Asian region make it the proverbial elephant in the room not only in terms of magnitude, but also due to the sheer awkwardness of conduct. Tharoor also laments the decline of the north-eastern states of India, which had a higher per capita income than most of the rest of the nation in 1947, but have since been “the stepchildren of India’s development,” cut-off from the heartland and suffering as a result of poor integration with Bangladesh.
The north-east comes up once again, as Tharoor demonstrates his central thesis that foreign policy, while focused outward, can bring much benefit to domestic populaces. The region can in fact, be thought of to be occupying prime real estate due to its significance not just for international relations but for commerce and tourism. Indeed, the north-east of India can act as a bridge for south Asian integration, linking two economically rich expanses of the continent. The wealth of the region in terms of biodiversity, cultural diversity, energy and mineral resources, and the human resource potential, is vast and waiting to be developed and tapped. India’s ‘Look East’ policy, can thus only be fully appreciated if the seven sisters states, each of whom has a long international border, are developed and revamped to avail of the economic consequences of our new-found kinship.
The book ends with a reminder of this nation’s sovereignty and independence of thought, and calls for realisation of a grand strategy involving a multi-aligned approach and playing a leadership role in shaping of the new world order. This leadership role is not about domination or superpower politics, but rather about a sense of responsibility in instilling global cooperation. A sense of peace that India can bring to the world. Pax Indica.
Shrey Goyal is based in New Delhi, and is the editor for MInd: The Mensa India magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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