Swarthy men, their mundus (dhotis) hitched up in the sort of sartorial horror peculiar to Kerala, wait by the seashore in the pouring rain. Next to them the Arabian Sea snarls and froths like the hellfires in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Suddenly, the little posse of people surge forward as their MP and political supernova Shashi Tharoor alights from his Honda Accord.
The angry wind whips his perfectly coiffed hair back and ruffles his crisp kurta and mundu, tugging at his orange and green angavastram. Standing on that bleak shore, I thought I had stepped into a Malayalam remake of Chariots of Fire as Tharoor began his slow motion entrance towards the crowd. The violent sea has washed away parts of the stone dykes and this is why he is here, to assure his constituents that he is their all-weather representative.
Nimbly leaping to the precipice of the dyke, Shashi of the Seas stands overlooking the devastation, very much the Malayali Marianne on the prow of the ship of state. The people crowd around him, telling him to help stave off the angry tide. He listens sympathetically, hopping from the local temple to the mosque. “Can’t leave out any place of worship,” he says.
Nearby Basheer, the Jamaat treasurer, shows me a weatherworn foundation stone laid by Rajiv Gandhi for a bridge to have been built across the lagoon connecting this village to the mainland. “Our children cannot go to school, our women die in childbirth without a bridge. Their souls wander this accursed shore,” he says. Suddenly overwhelmed by his own eloquence, he tells me, “Rajiv’s soul will hover over this beach unless the bridge is built.”
In the car, Tharoor, still bandbox fresh despite the buffeting wind and sea spray, says, “I am doing whatever I can, but my access to resources is limited. And one can never do things in a hurry given how our system has got used to this slow pace of functioning.”
Controversy has followed Tharoor in his political avatar as relentlessly as the Furies in a Greek tragedy. He got off the block to a flying start only to encounter several hurdles thanks to his tweets on various issues ranging from travelling cattle class to improving the work ethic. Many of these were seen as an insult to the party that elevated him to high office. The final obstacle was his ill-fated involvement in the Indian Premier League bidding.
It did not help him that he had many detractors in the political establishment, resentful of the fact that he had got things on a platter – the coveted Thiruvananthapuram seat, and the even more sought after external affairs portfolio. A Congressman who did not want to be named said, “It was unfair that not only did he sail into the ministry of external affairs while we have been working relentlessly for the party for years, but also that he took the whole thing so casually.”
Many supporters are bewildered over why he seemingly threw it all away by putting his foot wrong all too often. Said a well-wisher, “The next stop was a full-fledged ministership; he should have known when to maintain a discreet silence.” It is no secret that both the Prime Minister and Congress president had nothing but goodwill for Tharoor whom they considered an asset to the external affairs set-up. And indeed, he was a great favourite with the diplomatic circle. On his foreign trips, he was able to deal with leaders with the polished ease he picked up from his UN days, something that did not go unnoticed by his ministry bosses.
Tharoor’s breezy, informal style seemed to go against the grain in a political set-up known for its elaborate deceptions. But he seems to have learnt from experience. Today, he will not say one word about the past, will make no attempt to set at rest the speculation that whirls around him. He makes it crystal clear that he will not go there again. His cousin Sharad tells me that Tharoor spends at least 10 days a month in his constituency trying to engage with the people and problems of this sleepy town. And yes, he tweets but only on innocuous daily events.
Away from the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League and the social whirl of Delhi, post his ministership, Shashi Tharoor seems to be back in touch with his Malayali roots. He thinks that the Malayali is smart enough to see that he was a victim of the Byzantine politics that rule both the IPL and the political establishment. Here in Thiruvananthapuram, the seat of the former Travancore kings, this former diplomat from Palakkad seems determined to reinvent himself.
“Of course, I know that people are still sceptical of how well I will be able to handle the change from the salons of the UN to the sands of Thiruvananthapuram, but I see no contradiction in this,” he says.
He drops by a fish market. The staunch vegetarian shows no discomfort when several fisherwomen, some holding silver mackerel, burst upon his elegant personage in an iridescent explosion of scales and complaints. “We sit here in the searing sun and scorching rain with no shelter. Tell him to do something for us,” they tell me. I take copious notes if only to comfort them. Tharoor immediately tells them that if it’s a shelter they want, shelter it will be from his MP funds.
“Let’s see, we’ll believe it when we see it,” says Selena from behind a mound of spindly prawns. As he leaves this malodorous market, a thunderstorm breaks. The swollen raindrops leave the rest of us bedraggled and wrecked. Not so Tharoor, who shakes off the damage and smoothly glides on.
Does he miss the adulation and power of ministership? “I certainly miss the sort of work I was doing, but being an MP means I have to deal with so many different things. I was able to use my skills from a previous life in the UN. But I feel that I can make so much difference to the lives of these people if I can function the way I want to.” We are now motoring down a smooth as silk road, a rarity in Kerala, which Tharoor has helped to build with funds he got cleared from the Centre.
Now and again, he whispers fondly into the phone. I cannot help but ask about the reported object of his affections. He will not comment on his personal life, he says, citing the fact that he was scalded by it earlier. But, from all accounts, despite the somnolent grapevine in Thiruvananthapuram, the Palakkad pin-up boy’s heart has been lost to the much-covered Sunanda Pushkar.
However, his aides are emphatic that his itinerary is open to all the world to see that he will be nowhere near Bangalore this month, where according to some press reports, he is to marry the winsome Ms Pushkar. He will be away in Hong Kong to celebrate the 26th birthday of his twins, Kanishk and Ishaan, apart from attending a host of other engagements. He seems resigned to the fact that there will always be media interest in his extracurricular activities but will not confirm or deny any speculation.
The next day, he is more in his element at the Taj where he releases a book, Shabdatharapadham, by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Eulogising Tharoor as one of the great supporters of Slumdog Millionaire, Pookutty drones on about his life story. I sit at the back of the hall sipping a coma-inducing squash, listening to Pookutty’s broad Malayalam-accented account of his journey to the Auskaar awards. Tharoor breaks out in an alphabet soup of Malayalam, his cut glass accent never far from the surface. “People likes it,” says Pookutty of his book, reminding me of Javed Jaffrey in Salaam Namaste.
Earlier, it was a visit to a palliative care centre for Tharoor. In this place of pain and sadness, Shashi of the Sorrows seems to come into his own. He is genuinely at ease among the patients, mostly suffering from terminal cancers, reassuring them and chatting with their families. They ask for nothing, but he offers help, his cousin Sharad who runs his office taking down details. The nurses look at him with covetous eyes as he swishes past in starched splendour. In between, he stops to chatter in Bengali to a doctor from Kolkata. “I grew up in Kolkata,” he says almost apologetically while the doctor looks dazed with happiness.
In the evening, the rich and powerful of the city have gathered in a tony hotel. The Spanish ambassador Ion de la Riva who has come for the Barcelona festival spearheaded by Tharoor, drops in, his dark, brooding good looks adding to the glamour quotient of the evening. The event is a Thiruvananthapuram Citizens’ Action Network (T-Can) or as the MP puts it modestly, “Tharoor-Can” initiative that seeks to upgrade the decaying capital to make it a world class destination. While the congregation listens to Tharoor’s mellifluent tones, the appam pans warm up in the background.
Several worthies are spurred to oratorical heights by the presence of the MP and the Spanish diplomat. Thiruvananthapuram must be the next Bali, no Krabi, no Barcelona, says a spirited gent who is clearly as well travelled as he is eloquent. Ion de la Riva pours cold water on this peroration by chiding him and telling him to capitalise on Thirvananthampuram’s unique qualities. And what are these, you may well ask. Its immensely intelligent people, its unbeatable location and, of course, its man-on-the-move MP, says de la Riva. Tharoor accepts this without demur.
He is trying to build more roads, bridges, a homegrown Bono come to the aid of his people. So what about a spot of leisure? “Oh there is no time for that,” he says somewhat joyously. But, when he can he listens to classical music and watches movies. “I used to read a 100 books a year, now I just read when I can.” At his mother’s well-appointed home in Thiruvananthapuram with its Burma teak carvings and eclectic décor, he works next to a gigantic Ayurvedic massage table and his cross trainer. A quick round through the wringer with his trainer, a vigorous massage and he is ready for breakfast. It is always idlis and an incendiary chutney made of onions and chillis.
“I used to make this even during my UN days,” says the man who enjoys a good wine and single malt. On another occasion, we are at the Flora Family Home, a restaurant close to the rainswept Arabian seaboard. A bizarre meal materialises, the star of which is gobi mutter, not a well known Kerala delicacy. As Tharoor struggles to eat a soggy ice-cream for dessert, he is set upon by diners nearby. They are a doctor couple from Gujarat on holiday with their children. Immediately, the discontent with the dripping ice-cream melts, and he becomes Shashi of the Smiles.
Was it all too sudden for him? The first time voter, the first time MP and instant ministership? In the Medici-like world of Indian politics, this cannot have won him too many friends. He is circumspect on this but it is no secret that many in the establishment ensured that the negative spotlight stayed focused on him. “I had an advantage as a minister especially in the Francophone countries as I can speak French,” he says. He is a believer in morality in foreign policy. “It is in our enlightened self-interest to stand for certain values. But foreign policy is all about flexibility and adaptability.”
At this point, as if fearing more questions about the Brutuses who may have stabbed him in his Savile Row-clad back, he changes the topic to that of an island off the Thiruvananthapuram coast that was accessible only by a rope-raft, a dangerous contraption prone to toppling over. Fed up by bureaucratic delays, Tharoor sprung the cash for a boat from his Chandran Tharoor foundation, named after his father. “He was my hero, I really looked up to him.”
At home he is his Mummy’s boy, fussed over and chastised in equal measure by her. The matriarch Tharoor is immensely proud of her patrician son. “Have you come to write about his girlfriend?” she asks with disarming candour. I assure her that this is not so. She warms up and tells me about Tharoor’s sisters, who are apparently super-achievers too like her son who got his Ph.D from the US at the age of 22. “My children don’t really know Kerala culture, never having grown up here. But they fit in when they are here,” says the mother of the MP from Kerala’s most prestigious constituency. She is none too pleased by his Ayurvedic inclinations at home. “I don’t like the smells of all this medicated oil.” Sharad tells me that the Ayurvedic ministrations have done Tharoor a world of good.
The son of the soil image does not fit Tharoor despite his love for avial and appams and his appreciation of Malayalam films. He will never be able to master the marbles-in-the-mouth Mallu accent nor wade elbow deep into the Kerala sadhya. “I will be here more and more though I will keep my base in Delhi since I have to attend Parliament,” he says. Home in Delhi is near Lodi Gardens, a place where he hopes he can be partly rooted after a nomadic life in the UN.
On the promontory, the monsoonal tempest whirls around Tharoor. For a moment, I imagine he is Moses about to part the sea and walk to a promised land. Far away, the lights on ocean liners blink like fireflies. The tide roars impotently in the wind as Tharoor makes for his car. He might have just stepped out of the changing rooms of the Ritz in Paris if it were not for the lungi-clad gaggle of fishermen crowding around him. “I wonder when I’ll ever get home today,” says Shashi of the Sighs.