Shashi Tharoor is a man of many parts, as is his latest book India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in Our Time. Covering a wide variety of subjects, it showcases Tharoor, the politician, man of letters, diplomat, and as is inevitable for anyone who seems to have passed through that institution, Stephanian. Putting together a collection of one’s writing is always a hazardous task, and India Shastra does not quite bypass these pitfalls. The book is a trifle too long, and there are many bits that feel repetitive. Tharoor has a tendency to be too correct at times, and while this is a sterling quality to possess otherwise, it does make a lot of the essays little more than well-written homilies. This is particularly true of his shorter pieces, most of which never get around to offering much by way of insight, so busy they are in ticking all the right boxes. As a result, for much of the book, he seems to be taking his eloquence for a test drive, without taking us anywhere new.
Then there are exceptions, pieces where he says what needs to be said, without fox-trotting around the subject, such as the concrete set of suggestions he makes in his piece on the need for a smaller council of ministers, the characterisation of India as the ‘unloved giant’ amongst its neighbours, a principled and unambiguous stance against torture and his prescriptions to states like Bengal and Kerala on how to get their economies working and a few others, but these pieces have to be hunted out.
Many of the essays are just well-written homilies. But Tharoor does better with longer, non-topical pieces.
Where Tharoor does better is in the longer pieces, particularly those that do not respond to contemporary events. It is here that a deeper, more thoughtful exploration takes place. It is also where Tharoor’s ability to tell a story of ideas gives a reader a sense of the subject as well as its context. The essays on Swami Vivekananda, Tagore and Annadurai, two pieces on the state of education in India, his take on India’s sanitation problem, the argument he presents for allowing asylum-seekers to seek refuge in India and the text of the speech that he made to Kerala legislators on the role of civil society in law-making are some of the more engaging parts of the book, precisely because he goes beyond the surface of issues and digs in. Reading these makes one wish for Tharoor to have turned his gaze towards less immediately pressing questions and towards those subjects that he could have explored more fully. What one does miss though, is the Tharoor wit, which makes shy guest appearances only.
India Shastra is not an easy book to read, in spite of Tharoor’s obvious facility with words, because of its unevenness. Between the politician’s patter (admittedly sophisticated and ‘fair’ in a self-aware kind of way) and the raconteur’s practised routine, it is easy to lose patience and give up on the tastier morsels that lie scattered within the book. It would be a shame, but truth be told, not a very big one. For a book of its size, the pickings from India Shashtra are too sparse to be satisfying. Tharoor has written better and said more. His considerable talents need a worthier project.