The nation in multicolour



Anyone familiar with the earlier works of Shashi Tharoor — fiction and non-fiction alike — will by now have come to recognise his style of thinking and writing that mark him off as a serious Indian litterateur. His remarkable turns of phrases, astute insight into seeing connections between events, passionate involvement with the wide-world of politics as well as that of cricket, his subtle wit and liberal humour, combined with perspicacity and political sagacity, are characteristics that make his writing compulsive and engaging.

With India Shastra, he has concluded a trilogy of works attempting to explore the past and present of our country. While India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, dealt with the politics, economics, society and culture of India in its first 50 years of independence, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone brought in a collection of writings on the same themes following the narrative of India’s transformation up to its 60th year of independence. India Shastra updates the story with more recent writings. The three books when taken together are his personal Smriti (memory), Shruti (hearing) and Shastra (thinking).

India Shastra is a collection of 100 essays that seek to portray contemporary India, dealing with varied aspects of Indian life, from politics to history, from astrology to prohibition, from internet to violence against women, from Swami Vivekananda to Khobragade. Taken together they proffer lively reading. They also manifest a multicolour portrait of their creator who is vibrant, creative, quick-witted, intelligent, rational, and ever-willing to share a joke and laugh out loud with his readers. Some of them of course retain their spontaneity of the moment when delivered as extempore speech, while others are obviously reworked to fit into their roles as contemporary critiques.

Gandhi, Nehru, Vivekananda, Tagore, Tilak, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi all figure in their own various ways as subjects in several essays. One feels as though they are all effigies picked up one after the other by the deft fingers of a miniature carver who gives them a final polish and makeover before displaying them on the shelves of time. There are innumerable strands and connections that bind them to each other and to their country and countrymen. Two outstanding essays are the one on Gandhiand the other on Gurudev.

“No dictionary imbues truth with the depth of meaning Gandhi gave it,” says Tharoor. “The improvement of his fellow human beings was arguably more important to him than the political goal of ridding India of the British. But it is his central tenet of non-violence in the pursuit of these ends which represents his most significant original contribution to the world.” Tagore’s disagreements with Gandhi are also highlighted by Tharoor. His idea of freedom was far more profoundly individual than national, and the essay ends with a supreme homage to the poet and artist . “Rabindranath Tagore would have won immortality in any of his chosen fields; instead he remains immortal in all.”

For Tharoor, India is a remarkably young country, with half the population under 25 and 66% under 35 and the nation’s average age: 28! If 300 million Indians were to migrate to cities in the next two decades will it be possible, he wonders, to educate employ and absorb all of them into the functioning democracy? Will it be possible to connect to all Indians and lead them into the dawn of a new era? To make such a connection is to reach into the legacy of India and empower a society in flux. Towards this end it is also necessary to alert the young minds to India’s past and legacy.

He decries the ravages of colonialism and observes wryly: “No wonder the sun never set on the British Empire: even God couldn’t trust the Englishman in the dark!” Democracy after the dark days has historically served to ensure inclusiveness rather than fragmentation, and the idea of India is of a nation greater than the sum of its parts. In an open letter to the PM, Narendra Modi, he stresses the role of Jawaharlal Nehru as its architect and gently goads the leader of the country to rededicate the nation to his ideals. Tharoor is of course critical of Modi’s politics but his arch admiration for the man seeps through several essays and he is open about it: “I must confess,”he writes,&ld