“In writing of Indian culture, I am highly conscious of my own subjectivity; arguably, there is more than one Indian culture, and certainly more than one view of Indian culture.” – Shashi Tharoor (HAPR)


The Five Dollar Smile and Other Stories, 1990
The Five Dollar Smile and Other Stories, 1990

As a diplomat and writer, Shashi Tharoor has explored the diversity of culture in his native India. By exploring the themes of India’s past and their relevance to its future, he has produced both works of fiction and nonfiction. In reaction to his works The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, Tharoor has been referred to as “one of the finest writers of satirical novels currently operating in English” (Shashi Tharoor). Though his works are pointedly satirical and comedic, Tharoor contends that his novels “… are to some degree, didactic works masquerading as entertainment” (HAPR). For instance, India: From Midnight to Millennium, is a nonfiction account of India’s past and projected future inspired by the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.


Shashi Tharoor was born in 1956 in London and educated in Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi (BA in History, St. Stephen’s College), and the United States. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University (Shashi Tharoor 2).

Since May 1978, Tharoor has worked for the United Nations. He served for over 11 years with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose Singapore office he headed during the “boat people” crisis (SAJA). In October 1989 he was transferred to the peace-keeping staff at the United Nations Headquarters in New York (Shashi Tharoor 2). In this position, he served as Special Assistant to the Under-Secretary-General for Peace-keeping Operations. Dealing with a range of issues in this capacity, Tharoor addressed a variety of peace-keeping issues around the world and led the team responsible for the United Nations peace-keeping operations in the former Yugoslavia (Shashi Tharoor 2). On January 1, 1997 Shashi Tharoor was appointed Executive Assistant to Secretary of the United Nations Kofi Annan (Shashi Tharoor 2).

As an author, Shashi Tharoor has written many editorials, commentaries, and short stories in Indian and Western publications (SAJA). In addition, he is the winner of several journalism and literary awards, including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (SAJA).

He is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, the India International Centre in New Delhi, and the American PEN Center (SAJA). He is also an elected Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities 1995-96 (SAJA).

The Author in His Own Words

On his earning his Ph.D. at age 22:

I finished my Ph.D. at 22, but I had a powerful incentive: fear. I was terrified that my scholarship would run out while I was halfway through research and I would spend the rest of my life working too hard to find the time to write it. The day I got to the States on a scholarship I was earning more (after conversion to rupees) than my father earned in India to support a family of five in what most people would consider style. (The Shashi Tharoor Chat)

On his call to write:

I have far more book ideas than books, or evenings and weekends to write them in. Basically I see myself as someone with a number of responses to the world, some through my work. (The Shashi Tharoor Chat)

About his writing method:

I do it on the computer. I tend to write pretty fast (and no doubt unkind critics will say it shows)…with all of my books I have known bursts of frenzied writing on weekends when I’ve woken up and written pretty much straight from 7 am to midnight, pausing only for meals and tea. So you see that my working methods are not to be recommended to any sane writers out there. (The Shashi Tharoor Chat)

On Indian subcontinental literature:

I think the general crop of Indian writers in English is amazingly good. I think they’re doing some of the most exciting, innovative writing being done in English today, breathing new life, new concerns, and yes, new language into English literature.  (The Shashi Tharoor Chat)

On Indian expatriates:

…his [the expatriate’s] nostalgia is based on the selectiveness of memory… his perspective is distorted by exile… his view of what used to be home is divorced from the experience of home. Expatriates are no longer an organic part of the culture, but severed digits that, in their yearning for the hand, can only twist themselves into a clenched fist.  (in The Washington Post)

On Indian nationalism:

Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. It is not based on language. . .geography. . . ethnicity. . . religion. Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-everland that is greater than the sum of its contradictions.  (Tharoor The New York Times)

On Indian diversity:

If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast. (Srinivasan)

On the United Nations:

I believe the UN is still the one indispensable world organization we have. Sure there are wars going on, but the UN can only stop those wars where it has a mandate to do so, which means the parties are willing (or persuadable) to stop…Within those limitations I think we have a pretty good track record. (The Shashi Tharoor Chat)

The Great Indian Novel (1989)

The Great Indian Novel uses the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, to retell the history of modern India. Characters and situations are thinly veiled caricatures of well known elements of myth and politics: Ved, Vyas/Vyasa, Ganapathi/Ganesh, and Gangaji’s Epic Mango March/Gandhi’s Salt March (Goldman). Even the title The Great Indian Novel is a loose translation of the word “Mahabharata.” In commenting on his own work, Tharoor writes that “the concerns in the book emerged from years of indiscriminate reading and slightly more discriminate study of Indian history and politics… [The Mahabharata] had such a contemporary resonance that I instantly thought, here is a vehicle for the book that I want to write about the forces that have made (and nearly unmade) our country” (The Shashi Tharoor Chat).

Tharoor affirms and enhances Indian cultural identity through his novel by reflecting on pluralism and openness in India’s kaleidoscopic culture. He also aims to broaden the understanding of Indian culture and historical heritage. Tharoor writes that “the task of altering and shaping such resonant characters and situations to tell a contemporary story offered a rare opportunity to strike familiar chords while playing an unfamiliar tune” (HAPR). Thus this novel, by interpreting reality through myth and history, concludes that India has a vast heritage from which much can be learned.

What the Critics Have to Say about The Great Indian Novel:

Tharoor astutely fastens fiction to politics, and myth to reality ultimately put forth a tale arisen from the depths of his soul and scope of his political career at the United Nations. (Rajay)

I found The Great Indian Novel an entertaining and occasionally moving book that will certainly repay the time of anyone interested in and moderately knowledgeable about two somewhat disparaging subjects, the Mahabharata and the history of modern India which are so cleverly and pointedly intertwined in this remarkable book. (Goldman)

Show Business (1992)

Concerning his novel Show Business, Tharoor writes that he was “looking for a new creative metaphor to explore aspects of the Indian condition” (HAPR). He considers film to be “the primary vehicle for the transmission of the fictional experience to the majority of Indians,” and thus “particularly useful for such exploration”(HAPR). The novel explores the Bombay movie industry. Tharoor explains the culture of this industry as “contemporary myths invented by popular Hindi cinema” (HAPR). He uses these myths to portray his perspectives of the diversity contained within India (HAPR). The Bombay movie industry thus becomes the context for this perspective.

What the Critics Have to Say about Show Business:

Exuberant and clever… both affectionately and fiercely done…What makes Show Business particularly impressive and accomplished is its elaborate structure, [which] replicates the crazy razzle-dazzle of the Hindi film world. (What the Critics say about Show Business of “Bollywood”)

A wacky, satirical tale of hits and misses in the worlds of politics and cinema… engagingly presented. . . . Through a montage of shooting scripts, narrative and monologues, he invents a fictional world that is a metaphor for deeper concerns. (What the Critics say about Show Business of “Bollywood”)

India: from Midnight to the Millennium (1997)

This work commemorates the 50th anniversary of India’s independence and provides analysis of both India’s past and future. Tharoor felt that a book was needed that explored what independence really meant for India (Srinivasan). Tharoor’s themes include India’s rich cultural heritage, India’s contribution to the Western world, and the far-reaching role of the past in present day problems. He explores these themes through a variety of issues such as affirmative action, the caste system, governmental corruption, and the strength of Indian democracy (see Partition of India, Salman Rushdie).

Tharoor’s observations about India are extremely optimistic. Tharoor provides this assessment:

[India has] tremendous strengths…energy, dynamism, skills, and great will to work and to achieve, and astonishing capacity to save and invest, perhaps, above all, the freedom to express our views, change our leaders and determine our own fates. (The Shashi Tharoor Chat)

The modern India he describes possesses entrepreneurial sprit, diminishing corruption, and a strong sense of democracy. India has survived all these years because “it has maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus” (Srinivasan).

What the Critics have to say

In this charming book which combines elements of political scholarship, personal reflection, memoir, fiction and polemic, the author deals with a wide range of subjects…contemplating fifty years of Independence from afar in the context of his own upbringing and future hopes. (Kamath)

Blending memoir, essay and empirical argument, Tharoor carefully reviews the core questions about India’s unfinished experiment in self-governance – the durability of its constitutional democracy, its persistent struggles over caste, the rise of Hindu extremist politics, and the recent and historic attempt to catch up to Asia’s economic tigers through adoption of free-market reforms. (Coll)


Works Cited

  • Coll, Stephen W. “A Nation Comes of Age.” The Washington Post. 3 Aug. 1997. X05.
  • Goldman, Robert. P. “The Great Bharata War in Recent Film and Fiction.” India star. 12 Feb. 1998. Web. <http://www.indiastar.com/goldman1.html> No longer available online.
  • Kamath, M. V. “Sashi Tharoor’s India: From Midnight to the Millennium.” India World Short Stories. 23. Mar. 1998. Web. <http://www.indiaworld.co.in/subscribe/rec/stories/jan21-98kamath.html> No longer available online.
  • Rajay. “Review of The Great Indian Novel: A Twice Born Tale. Panwala Web. 16 Feb. 1998. Web.
  • <http://www.panwala.com/greatnovel.html> No longer available online.
  • SAJA (South Asian Journalists Association). “Bio of past SAJA guest speaker Shashi Tharoor.” SAJA. Columbia University.1997. 12 Feb. 1998. Web. <http://moon.jrn.columbia.edu/SAJA/shashi.html> No longer available online.
  • “Shashi Tharoor.” Rutgers University. 1997. 12 Feb. 1998. Notation in text: (Shashi Tharoor). Web.
  • <http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~lcdean/about/tharoor.htm>No longer available online.
  • “Shashi Tharoor.” Serve.Com. 1997. 12 Feb. 1998. Notation in text: (Shashi Tharoor 2). Web. <http://www.serve.com/netipaus/shashi.html> No longer available online.
  • Srinivasan, Rajeev. “Freedom: An Interview with the author of India:From Midnight to Millennium.” Rediff On The Net.1997. Web. <http://www.redifindia.com/freedom/08tharur.htm> No longer available online.
  • Tharoor, Shashi. “Growing Up Extreme: On the Peculiarly Vicious Fanaticism of Expatriates.” Mnet (from The Washington Post). 12 Feb. 1998. Web. <http://www.mnet.fr/aiindex/i_aii/tharoor.html> No longer available online.
  • Tharoor, Shashi. “India’s Odd, Enduring Patchwork.” The New York Times. 8 Aug. 1997. A31.
  • —. “Whose Culture Is It Anyway? The role of culture in developing countries: an Indian writer’s view.” Harvard Asia Pacific Review (HAPR). 12 Feb. 1998. Web. <http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hapr/tharoor.html> No longer available online.
  • “What the Critics say about Show Business of ‘Bollywood’. Arts-Online.Com Film. Web.<http://www.arts-online.com/videotv/bolywood/bolly3.htm> No longer available online.

Links to articles by/with Shashi Tharoor

India: From Midnight to Millennium, the entire text of chapter one

Author: Brian Oubre, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2017

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