Permission to reprint or copy the article has to be obtained from The Hindustan Times
Interview/Shashi Tharoor/UN Under-Secretary General for Communication and Public Information
In the West or Africa, or the Far East, would there have been such a furore over the Paul Volcker report?
I would not like to generalise. Because India is a turbulent democracy, we do tend, particularly with our thriving and proliferating media, to rake up a lot of issues once we seize upon them. There is a marvellous New Yorker cartoon, which had a television anchorman saying, “Those were the headlines and we will be back after the break to blow them out of all proportion.” That is exactly what has happened. [Former External Affairs Minister] Natwar Singh’s name was mentioned on a list of names annexed to the fifth volume of a report, which listed over 2500 companies and individuals. It was, by no means, a major finding. So, there is a certain mystification among my colleagues in New York about what a huge story this has become. But I think it is a tribute to our democracy. It is a tribute to the independence of our media and it is very healthy that we, as a society, are demanding accountability.
You mentioned the UN has no documents about Volcker’s findings? So what does the Indian government do then?
Though it was created by a resolution of the Security Council, the Volcker enquiry committee is completely independent of the secretariat. We have the same report that the media has. The only thing the UN can do is to facilitate contact between the Indian investigators and Volcker’s staff.
Do you think it was right to sack Natwar Singh?
That is not appropriate for me to say. I have the highest respect for Natwar Singh, whom I have known for many years.
You have said India is a growing world power but the exchange rate for the American dollar is still 46 rupees.
It is a growing world power, but the challenges are enormous. You should not worry about the dollar being Rs 46 but that there are 200 million Indians who live on less than a dollar a day and who are living on the wrong side of the poverty line. We have a lot to celebrate, including economic growth and the advancement of the middle class, but we cannot afford to forget those who have been left behind so far.
You have been in the UN in senior positions for several years. Yet, your writing has carried on unabated. Where do you get the time?
It is very much abated these days. Writing is very much a part of who I am. Some of my reactions to the world are manifest in my work at the UN and some are manifest in my writing. To be very honest, if I give up one or the other, a part of my psyche would wither.
It is very rare for a creative person to be practical, like you are.
In some ways, it is a legacy of growing up in India. I was writing from my childhood but my parents always said, you can write as much as you can but you had better do your studies because writers can’t make a living in this country. I think it has something to do with middle class parents who were afraid that their son would starve on the streets.
Most of your books have received good reviews but the sales have been poor. What is the reason behind this?
I have no idea. I am writing because I have something to say. But what will strike a chord, you don’t know. However, in the Indian context, I have not done that badly. Penguin India brought a list of books that have sold over 10,000 copies and three of my books were on that list. But I certainly have not had international commercial success.
You have had a lot of experience in various countries like the former Yugoslovakia. Yet, very little of it appears in your fiction. Why is this so?
That is a very conscious decision. I feel it would be incompatible now, with my obligations as an UN official, with the diplomatic reticence, the obligation not to cause offence to other member states and so on. One day when I will put the UN behind me as a profession, I would want to interpret some of my experiences as a writer.
Some people say working in the UN is not tiring at all: A cushy job, with a solid pay packet. Is this true?
That has been the image in some people’s mind but it is not only wrong but out-dated. The UN is a competitive employer in the international marketplace but by no means as generous as the private sector. And few of our jobs would qualify as cushy. We may have accountants or administrators leading conventional working lives but we also have people who have 18 hour working days in the field in refugee camps. We have people who are sleeping in tents right now in the so-called Azad Kashmir because of the recent earthquake. We have people in developmental projects in Africa who often don’t see a foreigner for weeks. We have all of these experiences within the UN. So to generalise about the UN, in that sense, is flawed.
You mentioned that one of your sons was shouted at in New York because he was brown. How have things changed in the US after 9/11?
There was an enormous tension in American society after 9/11. Mainland America, not counting Hawaii and Pearl Harbour, had not been attacked by foreign forces since 1812 when the British attacked. For the Americans, there was no historical memory of an attack and it seared the consciousness of people. Of course, many people reacted with a great deal of decency and nobility and grace. But some, in every society, always react badly. And those who did, were the kind of people who shot dead a Sikh because he was wearing a turban thinking he must be like Osama Bin Laden. Two persons shouted at my son, saying, “Dirty Arab, go back from where you came from.” However, this is not at all representative of an entire society. But it is a reflection of the extreme fear and passion and anxiety generated by that event. Today, all that has subsided. But I don’t know what it would be like if there is a second attack attributed to the same sources.
Are you amazed at the way your life has panned out? A Kolkata boy hobnobbing with the world’s elite. A Kolkata boy, yes indeed! But my parents came from villages in Kerala. My father had spent much of his childhood walking barefoot several kilometres to school. Yes, it is amazing. When I look back at my own family and my own experiences in growing up in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, I would not have been able to imagine the kind of opportunities that life has given me. For which I am deeply grateful to the forces beyond my control.
How do you define ‘forces beyond my control’?
It could be luck or destiny or divine blessing, but I am reluctant to talk about these things. I remember when Michael Chang won the French Open at 17, during his winner’s speech he said that God had made him win it. I thought to myself, ‘God is there for everybody. What makes him think God picked him instead of somebody else?’ There is an arrogance in presuming to interpret God’s wishes that I would not like to presume. Let me simply say, I have worked hard, and have done my best with as much sincerity and dedication I could muster. But I am also aware there are all sorts of people around the world who have also worked hard and honestly and sincerely and may have had different outcomes in life. Why this happens is beyond human comprehension. All I can say is hard work may not be enough but without hard work you are not going to get anywhere.