This book in the author, Shashi Tharoor’s words, is a collection of “—over sixty articles, op-eds and essays that I have published in the last half-dozen years on subjects related to contemporary India—-”, and that is exactly what it is. Tharoor it may be recalled, is an ex-undersecretary General of the United Nations (and thus an international bureaucrat), St. Stephen’s (India) and Tufts university (US) educated, a journalist, novelist and famed columnist, and is presently a cabinet minister. His chief claim to international fame however probably rests on his widely publicized race to be the top dog in the United Nations, which campaign though ended in a whimper.
The essays are well-crafted and smooth and testify to the author’s intelligence, suavity and facility with words. They take a look at Indian society, culture, economy and people, and largely project India as a vibrant, young, confident society carving its own road to a glorious future – if only it can find solutions to its chronic problems of over-crowding, pollution, corruption, illiteracy and poverty. What those solutions could be is what the essays are silent on. Mr Tharoor, we all know about the Indian economic miracle and the problems it hasn’t been able to solve – not to mention the problems it has created. Its the solutions we Indians are interested in, and as a cabinet minister to the government of India, you are expected to have atleast the beginnings of some answers.
The essays as I said are technically good, but Tharoor is no Charles Lamb and the articles lack a soul – except when he is writing about his secular beliefs; that is when his passion shines through and the essays become lively. I especially liked his take on Hinduism as a religion that is actually not a religion, but rather a way of life for Hindus, a faith without fundamentals so that a Hindu fundamentalist is a technical impossibility. He further clarifies that Hinduism is the only religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion, and argues successfully that the tolerance for all other faiths and beliefs espoused by Hinduism makes secularism a way of life for the Hindu; a secularism not quite like Western secularism which is the absence of religion, but a secularism which in the author’s words is a “profusion of religions, none of which is privileged by the state and all of which are open to participation by everybody”.
Tharoor also confesses his passion for cricket, but slips badly in calling Sunil Gavaskar the greatest all time Indian batsman. Whatever happened to a guy called Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar? Are we to put a mere technician – admittedly a greatly skillful one – above sheer genius, the sort that evokes comparisons to the great Don Bradman himself ? That would be like calling Thomas Addison a greater scientist than Albert Einstein.
His other great sin is calling Amitabh Bacchan a mere hammer, who has got success and recognition out of all proportion to his talent. This is so patently unfair to the great man, that there isn’t even a need to refute it. Admittedly Amitabh hasn’t done many critically acclaimed roles, but the way he has enacted lame implausible characters in popular cinema and infused them with life, etching them forever in the minds of the Indian people, is an achievement that not even an Oscar can match. Tharoor would do well to remember that in the minds of the Indian people he is a very small ‘S’ (pronounced in the desi way that rhymes with ‘has’) in comparison to the big ‘B’.