Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 13 1998 3:30 AM

Shashi Tharoor

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       After Tuesday's distractions I'm trying to resist the allure of the Net, but I check religiously for messages from my kids, who are holidaying in Calcutta with their mother (they are all in academe, which means longer summer holidays than the rest of us can dream of). I invariably enjoy what they have to say. My 14-year-old twin sons are better writers than I was at their age, even when they're just tossing off a few lines on e-mail. (Fatherhood and objectivity are, of course, incompatible.) One of them proposes to craft a Web site for me: He says he is mastering HTML, which I always think of as an abbreviation for "hatemail." I reply trying to dissuade him.
       The seminar goes stimulatingly on, but there are phone, fax, and e-mail reminders of the real world beyond Aspen. And a courier has tracked me down. A Kerala publisher--some would say the Kerala publisher, since the firm controls 80 percent of the market--DC Books, has just sent me a contract for a Malayalam edition of The Great Indian Novel. Following the success in Kerala of its translation of India: From Midnight to the Millennium, the first print run of which sold out in 10 days, it has decided to resurrect my backlist. The same translator will probably render the irreverent, satirical English of my novel into Malayalam, my palindromically named mother tongue, which I speak colloquially but which I never learned to read or write.
       This, of course, makes me Kerala's last surviving illiterate, since the state is justly proud of being India's only fully literate state. That's not all. Kerala's birth rates, life expectancy stats, and other demographic indicators are comparable to those of the United States, on one-seventieth the annual per capita income. It's a remarkable place, both for visitors (the state's intrepid tourism department calls it "God's Own Country," and as one who keeps returning to its lush beauty, I can confirm it is) as well as for students of Indian social, political, and economic development.
       Kerala is a state that has practiced openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reforms, and political democracy; which has honored its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling, and empowered lives. It's my Kerala heritage that informs my sense of my own Indianness, and of my hopes for India as a whole.
       I find myself portraying my vision of India to an audience of 350 Aspen folk in a formal lecture. This is a sort of "town and gown" event, which brings the residents of Aspen, including tourist transients, into the institute's campus to benefit from the wisdom of its visiting seminarians. I wouldn't have thought there were 350 people in all Colorado who cared enough to spend an hour and a half in attentive silence listening to me talk about India, but this was a marvelous and interested crowd, which peppered me with questions and pursued me afterward. I am beginning to think the notorious insularity of America has been exaggerated. Or maybe it's just that Aspen in the summer is more cosmopolitan than any place outside Manhattan ...

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.