Of Novels and Nations: A Diverse Life in a Diverse World. (Interview)

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Shashi Tharoor was appointed UN Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information as of June 2002. In this capacity, he manages the external communications and media relations of the United Nations. Mr. Tharoor joined the United Nations in May 1978 as a staff member for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Prior to his current assignment, he served in the United Nations as director of communications and special projects in the Office of the Secretary-General, executive assistant to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and special assistant to the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations.

Mr. Tharoor is also an acclaimed writer, having authored six books and numerous articles in publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, and Foreign Affairs. His most recent book, Riot (Arcade Publishing, 2001), has won widespread praise, while his last book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium (Arcade Publishing, 1997) was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Born in London in 1956, Mr. Tharoor was educated in India and the United States. He holds a PhD from the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Senior Editor David Huebner recently spoke with Mr. Tharoor about the challenges of reconciling his literary and professional life and managing the image of the United Nations.

HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:

You have led these two lives, your literary life and your life with the United Nations. While your writing is rooted in India, your job has taken you everywhere, most recently the United States. How do you lead this double life?

I see myself as a human being with a number of responses to the world I see around me. I manifest some of those responses in my writing and some of them in my work. I try to keep the two firmly apart, though, so in my writing I deal with nothing but India, at least so far, and then in my work I deal with almost everything but India.

I think they are both such essential parts of me that if I were to neglect either aspect of my life, part of my psyche would wither. As a UN official I am bringing to bear a lifetime of interest in international affairs, a PhD in international politics, and a concern with the fate of the world that goes back to my childhood; and as a writer, George Bernard Shaw said it better than I could: "I write for the same reason that a cow gives milk." It is something that has to come out. Both of these are choices that are not really choices; they are things I feel I have to do because of who I am.

Your most recent novel, Riot, focuses on an American girl who is killed in a riot while working for a nongovernmental organization in Uttar Pradesh. Was this riot inspired by a particular incident, perhaps the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque?

The book is actually set in 1989, and it is based on a period in Indian contemporary political history when a group of Hindu zealots led an agitation that ultimately led to the 1992 mosque demolition. In 1989, there was a movement to consecrate holy bricks and carry them to where the Babri mosque stood, in order to build a temple to replace the mosque. This movement actually did cause real riots in late 1989 and I had a firsthand account from a friend who was a district administrator at the time.

I was also struck by the tragic death of an American young woman named Amy Biehl in South Africa in 1994. Here again was somebody who had gone to do good and had been murdered by the very people she had been there to help, by black people who could not look beyond the color of her skin. Though this had no particular direct relevance to India, the image of this foreigner caught up in political turmoil and murdered by the forces of incomprehension, her own and those of others, struck me as very powerful. The two merged, this image of the young woman and the story of the riots, and I put them both together and created my own fiction. …