Let’s be quite clear about this. If you have revelled in the refreshingly brilliant Great Indian Novel and turned the pages of Riot with a kind of sombre pensiveness, Pride, Prejudice, and Punditry would not seem to be the essence of the delight, or the incisive author, that Shashi Tharoor can be. But if you let that get in the way of picking up your copy of the book, you would be missing out on more than you would know.
Pride, Prejudice, and Punditry is a collection of 64 essays written over the last two decades, plus 11 works of fiction and poetry.
Tharoor classifies the essays into 10 groups -- giants (of modern India), Indian politics, the world, on the Hindu way, cricket, humour, "the spoken word", and on "the writerly life". Almost all the essays are reprints, excerpts, or enhanced versions of stuff previously published, hence may not have any great novelty value for a Tharoor aficionado. Most of the essays, in the various categories, do not attain the kind of height that Tharoor's past oeuvres would have you expect. And yet there is something in this book that you would not easily get between any other two covers.
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The set of essays on giants of modern India, for instance, is mostly quite insipid. For someone who brilliantly cast Mahatma Gandhi as Bhishma and Jawaharlal Nehru as Dhritarashtra, Tharoor’s essays on Gandhi and Nehru are quite pedestrian. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s appropriation by Narendra Modi is bit of a let-down. But his essay on Rabindranath Tagore is of a different class altogether -- not uncritical (hence the charm), but sincere in appreciation of what was worth lauding in Tagore.
Perhaps the best set of essays are those which speak of Tharoor’s stint at the United Nations (UN), climbing nearly to the very top. The inspired defence of the UN as an organisation is far superior to any set-piece on it by any political scientist or any encyclopaedia entry. This is presumably because he had lived some of his best years looking at the organisation from the inside. The essay on former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who happily signs off as “Freeman” upon being confused with the actor, who resembles Mandela as much as he does him) oozes with a kind of affection and fondness that is rare in public life these days.
Tharoor’s candid account of his abortive run for the Secretary-General of the UN, with malice towards none, and laced with a hint of disappointment, is extremely valuable for anyone with any interest in the world of diplomacy -- even though Tharoor has barely lifted the curtain in that direction.
The essays on Indian politics are of the usual type, nothing refreshingly original or assiduously worked out. But the essay in which the writer speaks of his own brushes with and reflections about Narendra Modi is completely different in its perspective about the man Congressmen have learned to hate without knowing why. Demonisation of the Prime Minister stands in the way of engaging with the phenomenon that is Narendra Modi, and Tharoor steers clear of that. He praises Modi where he believes it is due, and contests the PM where he thinks the man and the phenomenon needs to be questioned.
It is in contesting Modi and his brand of Hindutva politics that Tharoor consciously opens up. In a further set of essays, he talks about being a Hindu by belief and practice. Though not refreshingly original, the worth lies in Tharoor’s contesting the Hindutva narrative not by hitting scores of temples before elections, but by packaging home the truth about the Indian society and the world at large using Hindu terms of reference -- ie by refusing to let the Hindu nationalists dominate the discourse about Hinduism with their hate-mongering.
Among the cognoscenti of Indian English authors Shashi Tharoor is a name that promises a lot, delivers quite a bit and delights the connoisseur with his gift of English language. He has of late become the butt of ridicule among a section of Indians who hate his command over the language because they hate his politics. If you are swayed by those trolls and memes, then you need not bother about this book. If, on the other hand, you take delight in reading good English prose, place your money on Pride, Prejudice and Punditry. It is worth it.
Pride, Prejudice, and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor
By: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs 999