Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 14 1998 3:30 AM

Shashi Tharoor

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       This was going to be the "Diary" of an untypical week. How untypical even I couldn't have guessed. At least not until I found myself on a hillock on the Aspen Institute campus amid a group of my fellow Executive Seminarians, all dressed in sheets. If it weren't for the laurel wreaths on some heads, passers-by might have suspected that the Ku Klux Klan had decided to open an Aspen chapter. Instead, we were performing Sophocles' Antigone, though probably not an Antigone that Sophocles would have wished to take credit for.
       The idea, of course, was for us to understand and debate the great issues of leadership. Creon, King of Thebes (played by me in a tinsel crown and a flowing Indian kurta, bed sheet wrapped more in the South Indian mundu style than like a toga) has decreed that the body of his nephew Polynices, slain in the course of a treacherous attack on Thebes, may not be given a decent burial but must be left to the dogs and vultures. His niece Antigone (a CIA strategist with an uncommonly clear voice), however, feels it her duty to disobey this order as repugnant to her conscience and is arrested while trying to bury her brother. There is much stirring oratory on all sides, especially from the Chorus (a dozen seminarians and companions, as motley a crew as ever wore tablecloths around their necks and little wicker baskets on their heads). Creon rejects everyone's advice, even that of the wise blind seer Tiresias (a colorful Pittsburgh lawyer, with a bearded MIT professor on all fours playing his seeing-eye dog). Antigone, entombed by the vengeful Creon, kills herself; Creon's son Haemon, her intended bridegroom (and a beefy American Airlines executive), does the same; Creon's wife (played by the CEO of one of India's biggest multinationals, in drag) follows suit. Creon sees at the end where his obstinacy and inflexibility have led him and mourns his tragic mistakes. An object lesson, our course-designers assumed, for decision-makers of the future.
       And so it proved. Even though Antigone's sister was played by a Toyota administrator with a twangy Kentucky drawl and a penchant for paraphrase ("Antigone, you're in deep doo-doo"). And even though the royal scepter Creon carried was actually a candle-on-a-stick you light outdoors to repel mosquitoes. And even though the Messenger, who brings all sorts of calamitous news to the tragedians, wore a FedEx envelope over his toga to advertise his calling. Creon had most of the lines: My vocal cords haven't been so sorely tested since I played Antony to Mira Nair's Cleopatra at a college Shakespeare Society production 24 years ago. But it wasn't just fun: Nelson Mandela has written of playing Creon in Robben Island Prison 30 years ago, and of how he admired Antigone for resisting an unjust law. A play that inspired one of the greatest men of our age was certainly worth the time and the effort of us Aspen seminarians.
       I am abandoning the seminar before its official conclusion tomorrow to make an Independence Day speech to the Indian community of Atlanta Aug. 15 on my way back to New York and reality. It's been a stimulating and educative experience, and reality hasn't even been that far away. The secretary-general, who has finally embarked on a much-deserved summer holiday, called to remind me of a bunch of things I need to do as soon as I get back. He also asked me to pay close attention to at least one author in my seminar readings: Machiavelli. I'll spend the next week trying to figure out what he meant.

Shashi Tharoor is a prize-winning Indian writer of both fiction (The Great Indian Novel, Show Business) and nonfiction (most recently, India: From Midnight to the Millennium). He is also director of communications and special projects in the office of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.