Saturday, July 5, 2008

such is the man’s persona*

Shashi TharoorWhile browsing in a well-stocked Delhi bookshop for some local reads, I was persuaded to buy Shashi Tharoor’s “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” as it would give a foreigner an insight into the India of today. So the shop owner said. As did the blurb.

I went along with the advice, happy to have found some answers. Sadly, with few exceptions, the articles in Tharoor’s well-hyped da capo collection of OpEds and essays gave me little insight into the realities of the contemporary India that would hit me in the face as I walked out of the world of the shop. Though it did generate a worrying glimpse into the mind of one who, but for the grace of god and the Security Council, nearly assumed a global mantle.

Tharoor (see his eponymous website) has had an inexorable rise to stardom since graduating from exclusive St Stephen’s, Bombay, learning how to write con tedio, and leaving India; achieving the lofty height of India’s friendly-fire candidate for Secretary General of the United Nations. If you are interested to know how impossible an aspiration that was, you only have to read his essay on the sari and its sad follow-up. Then maybe not. The UN managed to ignore the 4th Secretary General's background. Stalking saris pales into nothing in comparison...

Like many ex-pats – sorry, NRIs – Tharoor often falls into harking back. Usually critically of British occupation, partition, cold-war politics, or corruption; only occasionally to distant Golden Ages or Globalisation. But also harking forward to when (his) India becomes a tiger in the global jungle. Most irritating from a foreigner’s perspective is his incessant ingratiating posture to (his) India of today. Papering over gargantuan issues from destitution to infrastructure. Maybe I’m wrong. I only spend 4 or 5 weeks a year in India and only read all the English language Indian newspapers I can lay my hands on while there. But I am aware that my views are tempered by my cultural background.

Sir Les PattersonTharoor shares many qualities with another famous ex-pat, Australia’s former Minister for the Yarts, now Cultural Attaché, Sir Les Patterson – oozing excessive bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia. However, one doesn’t get the feeling that Tharoor has humorous intentions. Rather, he turns inside out Barry Humphries' maxim, “there is no more terrible fate for a comedian than to be taken seriously.” Such is Tharoor’s seeming ability to miss the point entirely, to ignore late C20th inclusivities, to manipulate language as if it was something semi-solid he’d found in his nose, and to play the archetypical ex-pat who’s gone left-field, that he would have had to have been invented by a Barry Humphries had he not done it himself first!

So yes, read “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” as you would read John o’Farrell’s contemporary “An Utterly Impartial History of Britain.” You will discover that the latter is a funny and accurate historical critique of Britain today, while the former - well we've been there already...

*the last words in a recent unctuous screed on Tharoor.

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