|Politicians & Literature|
Shashi Tharoor | 56 | Kerala
Minister of State, Human Resource Development, Congress
I HAVE ALWAYS read fiction widely and for pleasure, never treating reading as prescriptive or as a means to self-improvement. In Bookless in Baghdad, I wrote how growing up as a child of middle-class parents in urban India in the late 1950s and ’60s was to grow up with books. I was often ill as a child and the pleasure I took in books meant that being confined to bed was a burden easily borne. There were times when I read a book a day, sometimes more.
I suppose I was quite a precocious reader, supplementing a diet of Richmal Crompton’s William books, Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter and Capt WE Johns’ intrepid Biggles with Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and lots of Dickens. PG Wodehouse was the first great literary passion of my life. I was drawn to his good-humoured subversion of canonical English literature as much as to his hilarious plots. He also awoke in me a sense of the extraordinary potential of language as both a vehicle and a destination.
The aesthetic pleasure to be derived from language is indescribable, and has little to do with content. I read John Updike and Philip Roth for their use of words more than their ideas. Translators brought me to other worlds: the joys of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Milan Kundera were evident to me regardless of their politics, with which I didn’t necessarily agree. Amongst Indian writers, Raja Rao, RK Narayan, Manohar Malgaonkar all have very different sensibilities and worldviews. It doesn’t stop me reading and enjoying them despite my criticism of, say, Narayan’s stylistic limitations.
Reading fiction, engaging with the sensibility of creative writers, is a fundamental part of one’s response to the human condition. As for profound influence, if I had to pick one work of what can broadly be described as fiction, it would be the Mahabharata. My own novel, The Great Indian Novel, uses the Mahabharata to retell as satire the political history of 20th-century India, recasting events, episodes and characters. I have written before how the Mahabharata is a tale of the real world, one whose heroes have feet of clay, whose stories have ambiguous ends, whose events include dubious compromises, broken promises and expedient lies. It is fiction anchored in basest human reality. I like the irony of what critics have called the ‘godlessness’ in my writing coming from the Mahabharata, which so many consider a godly source.
Non-fiction, though, rather than fiction, animates my political thinking. I have read all of our significant 20thcentury leaders, essential if you are to grasp the forces that shaped India. From MN Roy to Savarkar, taking in Gandhiji and Jayaprakash Narayan, I covered the lot. Of all of them, it was very, very much Nehru whose personality I found incredibly attractive and compelling. It was not just his vision that appealed to me but his style, the way he expressed his ideas, the way his use of language revealed the qualities of his mind. He certainly had the single largest political impact.
I also read and admired such iconic figures as Frantz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah. One appreciated, as a teenager, their searing anger. I read Marx extensively and Engels, and a fair bit of Lenin, but I never went through a Leftist or communist phase. From reading the likes of Arthur Koestler, Minoo Masani and the testimonies in The God That Failed, reading about those who had had that youthful infatuation with communism only to become disillusioned, and seeing the conduct of communist regimes in the Soviet bloc and in China, I felt a profound scepticism about communism throughout.
Perhaps it’s unusual for a young man not to be excited by thoughts of revolution but I was much more drawn to Benjamin Franklin’s encomia to democracy; to Tom Paine’s liberalism and Thomas Jefferson’s democratic principles; to James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and The Federalist Papers, and above all to Gandhi and Nehru.
Human liberty was an important concept to me from a very young age, and reading political philosophy from Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Kant entrenched my faith in liberal democracy, which remains fundamental to my worldview.