Friday, February 08, 2008

‘Kerala is fitfully moving in the right direction’

Says former top UN diplomat and well-known author, Shashi Tharoor

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Shashi Tharoor, 51, acclaimed author and former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, was approaching the dais at the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi, a visually challenged young man appeared in his path. He was Jijeesh, 19, a student of St. Joseph’s College in Devagiri, who had come all the way from Calicut accompanied by his teacher, S. Nagesh, 45. The reason: he was a fan of Tharoor’s writing and had read some of it in Braille and had wanted to meet the author. A moved Tharoor spent several minutes talking with Jijeesh and autographed a book.

Tharoor was in Kochi to attend the release of the Malayalam version of his book of essays, Bookless in Baghdad, which has been brought out by DC Books.

Clad in a brown kurta and cream mundu, he spoke with grace, erudition and humour. Later, that evening, at a reading session at the Taj Residency for his latest book, The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cell Phone, he held the audience spellbound for more than an hour airing his views on the drawbacks of socialism, the rise of China, and the importance of the India-US nuclear deal, among other topics. Today, Tharoor is the chairman of the Dubai-based Afras Ventures, which is interested in investment opportunities, primarily in Kerala.

Excerpts from the interview:

Looking back, do you have any regrets about being a losing candidate for the UN Secretary-General’s post?
One loses, because somebody else got more votes, but I did come a close second out of seven candidates. I left the race with my head held high. When you lose, and if you don’t feel disappointed, then you did not want it badly enough. So, I am disappointed but, at the same time, I have no regrets.

Why did you quit the UN?
The truth is that Ban Ki-Moon, who won the race, was generous enough to invite me to remain as an Under Secretary-General, but I knew that the time had come to step aside gracefully and not crowd the space of the victor. I wanted to do my own thing and reinvent my own life.

Do you miss the stature, the perks and the diplomatic passport?
It was less than I imagined. I don't believe in looking back. And I would rather be valued for who I am, than the position I hold.

You are a former diplomat, a writer and a journalist. For diplomacy, you need to interact with a lot of people. To write, you need to be alone. How do you manage the two?
It is not a contradiction for me. I have always tried to do two sets of things, even from my earlier years. When I worked as a diplomat, which often involved dealing with people, negotiations, meetings and travel, I did it as best as I could. But when I wrote, I reached into a different part of myself.

Bookless in Baghdad has been translated to Malayalam. What has been the reaction of readers to your earlier books in Malayalam?
Unfortunately, I have not read any reviews, but I have met individual readers who have appreciated my books. I don’t seem to have done too badly in terms of sales or popular response.

Is Kerala moving in the right direction?
It is fitfully moving in the right direction. There is a recognition that old ways and prejudices have to be cast aside. We have already seen another Communist government in this country [West Bengal] have a much more successful track record in attracting investment than our government here. But in my meetings with the Chief Minister, V.S. Achuthanandan, and several senior government officials, I got the impression that they are much more open than they would have been a couple of years ago. But I would not say they have changed completely.

Are you happy your twin sons are following in your footsteps: Ishaan, 23, works for Time magazine in Hongkong while Kanishk is working as a journalist for the web site, Open Democracy.
Ishaan went to cover the Maoist camps in Nepal, and wrote an article, which the senior editors liked so much, that they gave him a byline on the cover [Time, February 11, 2008, Asia Edition]. This is unprecedented at his age. Kanishk, in his own way, is doing very well and has become an expert on terrorism and international security questions. I am very proud of both of them.

You are married to Canadian-born Christa Giles. Was it love at first or second sight?
Christa is somebody whom I met professionally in the United Nations a long time ago. The thing is that after the failure of my first marriage [to Tilotamma, whom he had married at age 21], you tend to be a little hesitant before launching into a second one. So, it took me some time to realise I had met the right person. I suppose, it has to be love at second sight.
We got married last year and have not yet reached our first anniversary. Christa is based in New York and is the Deputy Secretary of the UN Disarmament Commission. That is why, even though I am not a US resident, I keep going back to New York because someone very special is waiting for me there.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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