"Licence to write" Interview with Shashi Tharoor

Mr. Shashi Tharoor, is perhaps the youngest Under-Secretary-General appointed in the history of the United Nations. Apart from being highly skilled and a fine diplomat, he got his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University at an early age of 22, Mr. Tharoor is also a successful author of 8 novels and has more than a thousand articles published to his credit all over the world. (Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, Newsweek).
Mr. Tharoor, when did you start to write?
I was quite young (6 years old) when I began writing. I was an asthmatic child. Growing up in Bombay at the time I did, there were not many distractions available there. There was no television in India in those days, no computer games and I was not well enough to go out and play with friends. For a long period of time I was frequently wheezing with asthma so reading and writing were often my only distractions.
I was the oldest child in the family, so I did not have elder brothers’ or sisters’ books that I could borrow and read. I finished my own very fast. I also exhausted those of my parents’ that I could understand. I was a very fast reader so whenever my parents took me off to the library, I would finish the book in the car on the way back home. The result was that I started writing as a form of distracting myself. You could not sleep when you were busy wheezing so I would lie there or sit there in the bed and I would write.
I was blessed with parents who took it seriously and my father got my stories typed up and circulated to friends. By the age of 10, my first story had appeared in print. It was a short story of mine which came out in the Sunday newspaper. I can tell you that there is really nothing more addictive than seeing your name in print like that; you want to keep seeing it. So I continued writing throughout my school and college days, and later after I joined the UN, so the writing became something I always did the way other people go jogging, or collect stamps or take photographs. I write; that’s my hobby.
So you only consider writing as your hobby?
In some ways, it’s more than a hobby because I have published 8 books; I have published hundreds, probably more than a thousand articles all over the world. I write a column in an Indian newspaper, I write occasionally in places like Newsweek, I do reviews of books where I can, Washington Post, or New York Times or elsewhere.
So I suppose, in that sense, it is true to say that it’s something that has almost become a second career except that for me, my first career always takes precedence. The United Nations is where I devote the bulk of my time, and most of my energy. And the writing is what I do when I can carve out the time from the rest of my life. I often joke that as James Bond has a licence to kill, I have a licence to write. When I joined the UNHCR in Geneva back in 1978, I said that while other people have other hobbies, what I do over the weekends is to write, and I want to make sure that I can do it. So they gave me a written permission to be able to write that has been renewed regularly all the time. So I always say that I have a licence to write!
Equally, I’m also probably the only author, certainly the only novelist, whose book carries a disclaimer that says « although the author is an official of the United Nations, none of the views expressed in this book should be construed as those of the Organization or of the author in his official capacity ».
I do not want my writing to undermine either the Organization or my own effectiveness as UN official. The writing and my UN work are quite distinct from each other. I keep my two worlds quite firmly apart.
From where do you get your inspiration?
Where does inspiration for anything come from? Where does an artist get his inspiration? It is somewhere out there, and somewhere inside you. The two of them click together and the spark is lit. I see myself as a human being with a number of responses to the world, some of which I manifest in my work, some of which I manifest in my writing. The two are equally important parts of who I am, and if I neglected one or the other, I think that a part of my psyche would wither on the vine. So it’s important for me to be able to do both.
Do you feel a kind of moral obligation to share your vision with the rest of world?
Partly. I do write because I have something to say. I am not writing only for pleasure. Of course, I occasionally write diverting pieces just for fun. My pieces in Newsweek, for instance, are very light-hearted descriptions about life in America. Most of my writing, however, is pretty serious, especially in my books, because I feel I have something worthwhile to say to my readers.
And, the truth is that, when you have so little time to write – it always comes at the expense of other things, comes at the expense of your entertainment, family and friends and so on – so you really want to use that time in a very focused and constructive way. But having said that, it also is true to say that, George Bernard Shaw probably said it better than. I did, that “I write for the same reason a cow gives milk”. It is inside you and it has to come out. I write because I feel I have to.
Looking around, at the obligations that I have at work, it does mean that frequently, the writing has to be put aside. I began a novel over Christmas, but I have not touched it in 2004 as every weekend in 2004 I either had official travel, or I have had a backlog of work I have to catch upon or I have had other more temporary bits of writing like my columns and so on. I have not been able to go back to the novel. That is often a real problem. Because with non-fiction, you can usually, at least in my experience, you can interrupt yourself for weeks and still come back and pick up where you were. But with fiction, you need not only time, you need a space inside your head, to create an alternative universe and to inhabit it with characters, with people as real as the characters that you meet in your daily life.
And that becomes more difficult, to go back and forth. So my last novel, Riot, took me almost 5 years to write. It is not a very long novel, but because of all the interruptions, it took time to finish. So that’s part of the problem with fiction. I write whenever I can. The happiest time is when I’m sitting in my own study in front of my computer.
Do you consider yourself as an Asian/Indian writer or a more universal one?
I consider myself an Indian writer. All my books are about India. That’s partially because unlike other expatriates, I have not emigrated anywhere. I’m in NY because my UN job obliges me to be here. In our jobs we carry our identity and national background with us. So I’m an Indian writer who happens to live in New York. In my writing I have focused very much on the things that matter to me about India, in both fiction and non-fiction. I will say though, that a writer really lives in his head and on the page; geography is merely a circumstance. You can certainly look beyond your geography as a writer, and just as people can sit in America and write about the Caribbean (or vice-versa!), so why cannot I as an Indian sit here to write about India?