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Great Indian hope

Author, diplomat, Tharoor wears many hats, writes N Bhandare.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2006 17:57 IST

He is India's man in New York. Although Shashi Tharoor is a UN official, he’s got India’s backing for the United Nations top job. And if the 50-year-old gets the job when UN chief Kofi Annan steps down at the end of this year, he’ll be the youngest UN head ever.

“My allegiance is to the UN charter, and India respects this,” Tharoor told the Hindustan Times over the telephone from New York.“I have given a full commitment to the UN through my life and work.” That commitment is evident. His first job in 1978 had him serving with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1981 he headed the Singapore office during the ‘boat people’ crisis. It was a time when he would go to bed “feeling I’d made a difference to the lives of real human beings.” In 1989 he was back in New York where he was responsible for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia. In 1997 he was appointed executive assis tant to Annan and made director of communications and special proj ects in his office in 1998.

Tharoor was on a roll. In 2001, Annan appointed him interim head of the department of public information, and just over a year later he was confirmed as the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.

That’s his day job. By night, Tharoor switches to his other great passion, writing. The author of nine books—four of them fiction—his latest, Bookless in Baghdad is a collection of essays. Walking through the book souk in Baghdad, he saw middle class Iraqis selling their books in order to have the money to survive. Given his passion for the written word it was an image that wrenched his heart. Early start Shashi Tharoor was born in 1956 in London—he speaks with a clipped British accent— where his father worked as a manager first with the Amrita Bazaar Patrika and, later, The Statesman. After 10 years in England, he moved to Bombay when a vacancy opened up.

Shashi was sent off to Campion School. As he recounted, he was an asthmatic child who couldn’t get involved with the usual activities of cricket and running. “I had to read, there was no television in those days, there were no computers,” he recalled.

Writing began early: At the age of six. Childhood friend Rajeev Mehrotra remembers his first novel serialisation, Operation Bellows published in the Junior Statesman: “He was 11,” he says.

The young Tharoor was hooked. “There is nothing more addictive than seeing your name in print,” he said. “Writing became something I always did the way other people go jogging, or collect stamps or take photographs. I write, that’s my hobby.” That is a bit of an understatement from a man who could easily have a full-fledged career as a writer. His first book, Reasons of State (1982) was a scholarly study of Indian foreign policy. Along the way, there have been works of fiction— The Great Indian Novel (1989) and Show Business (1992). India: From Midnight to the Millennium was published on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. This was followed by Riot and Nehru: The Invention of India.

Balancing two lives, as a writer and a UN official, hasn’t been easy. Tharoor’s day job demands both time and energy. Writing is what he does when he can steal the time. And yet, writing, he says, is integral to his existence: “I write because I have to.” Man of letters Slipping into a three-piece suit as dawn breaks over the East River, Tharoor moves into the suave international diplomat role, then returns to his Manhattan apartment at dusk, dons his kurta, rustles up a light dinner — he is divorced and has twin sons in Yale— and heads for the computer to express his thoughts, a diplomat said. “People don’t realise how much work that entails,” he added.

His memory is phenomenal. He remembers little details, like who said what at first meetings, says fellow author and friend Pavan Varma. “Shashi is an excellent public speaker and debater, with a sharp, ready wit, able to hold forth on almost any subject under the sun.” Varma had asked Tharoor to launch the Nehru Memorial Lecture series at the Nehru Centre in London in 2004, to which he promptly agreed, com ing over to London for the day to address a packed hall.

There are others who testify to his brilliance.

“He was two years junior in college,” says Salman Khur shid, senior Congress leader.

“He was self assured and charm ing. One could tell even then that he would go far. We were on the debating team together. After col lege he did his PhD from Fletcher at breakneck speed.” Native sensibilities Tharoor is a great believer in India's potential. "We have resources, we have brains, we have skills, we have talent, we have so much going for us. The proof of that lies in the NRI community. Indians who have left India have thrived almost without exception. The only thing that has held Indians back in India is the system, and that is now changing."

Right now it's anybody's guess whether Tharoor will actually become Secretary General. Already there's much debate on the pros and cons of his candidature: Will Tharoor's nomination come in the way of India's bid for a Security Council seat? Will his years with the UN—many of them working closely with Annan—be a possible disadvantage? Will the selection process plumb for someone from the outside; someone who will bring a fresh perspective? Will Pakistan (with the help of China) try and derail him?

There are no clear answers. What is clear is that India is rooting for its man. Most would say, he really is the right choice.

with Nilova Roy Chaudhury