By Kislay Verma
The Great Indian Novel (TGIN) is a satirical/historical novel by Shashi Tharoor. It was first published by Viking Press on 24 August, 1989. The name of the book is a reference to the Mahabharata (literally – “Great India”) by Ved Vyas which is the longest epic in the world.
TGIN is Shashi Tharoor’s masterful melding of two great Indian obsessions–culture and politics. He takes the story of India’s freedom struggle and recasts it with characters from the great epic Mahabharata. The result is an irreverent historical narrative which is identical yet almost unrecognizable from both the history of school books and the mythical story of ages past. The recast can actually be said to flow both ways, and the story can be seen as a re-playing out of the drama of Mahabharata in the times of our freedom struggle with the Indian leadership of the time as the dramatis personae.
TGIN begins when neither the Indian Freedom movement nor the career of Bhishma “Gangaji” in the palace of Hastinapur have quite taken off. From then on it charts the course of Ganga ji’s political development-first into the role of the elder statesman and strange ascetic, and thence into the chief crusader against the britsh raj. With this initial drawing of parallels between Mahatma Gandhi and Bhisha Pitamaha (literally ‘Grandfather’) as the father figures of the power plays of their era, Tharoor brings together all successive personalities and events from these disparate times into a single thread. The book itself says – “An ending is the arbitrary choice of the author”, and Tharoor’s choice of ending is with Indira Gandhi’s re-election.
Narrated by a cantankerous Ved Vyas to a young (So we are told) Ganesh (Lord of Luck in Hindu mythology) just as the original Mahabharata is said to have been (The original author was rather less blasphemous I would imagine!), TGIN gives a most human flesh to mythical personalities and revered leaders alike. Everyone and everything receives the same tongue-in-cheek treatment-Kings and leaders fornicate (the narrator leads from the front in this department), high falutin words hide puny complexes, swearing is common place, the works.
For me, the most fascinating characterization was of Draupadi, and it is to her fortunes that our story is bound. The parts till she arrives are fast paced and exciting, then the plot meanders as her husbands don’t quite know what to do with her, and then regains its tempo as they begin her defence. I would write more on this but I would rather you found out yourself, except to say that the character is as enchanting as it is surprising. To a very great extent, this is Draupadi’s story, as is Mahabharata.
Shashi Tharoor writes with the firm conviction of a Gandhian and the satirical cynicism of a practical man. It is clear that for all the clever characterization, this book is about India and Indian people. The author’s rousing descriptions of the civil movements (lead by “Gangaji” or others), and the vivid way in which he captures the zeitgeist of different times in his story are, as they deserve to be, the high points of the book. The mythos of our ephemeral culture is broken down into earthly terms, and praise and blame is spread evenly, across heroes and villains alike.
The Great Indian Novel is a unique take on Indian history. As insightful as it funny, it offers a new way of interpreting the events of yesteryears, and a delightful opportunity to learn to learn from them. Do not miss this.
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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