Former United Nations undersecretary-general Shashi Tharoor is driven by his passion for all things Indian, he says. This included his recently-acquired Lok Sabha seat from the prestigious Thiruvananthapuram constituency.
You wonder how this man with his cut-glass accent and designer suits will fit into the cut-throat world of Kerala politics and hitched-up mundus. With ease, he tells us, for he speaks a colloquial Malayalam and is a master in the fine art of idli making. He grinds the batter himself and wields a mean ladle, he promises. And he prefers to enjoy the result of such efforts with a single malt or a nice champagne. God’s own combination, isn’t it?
Would he have come back to India had he not lost out to Ban Ki-moon for the top job in the UN? Ah, doubting Thomases — of course he would have… eventually, says suave Shashi of the famous sideburns. Has he not said that his heart was always in India? With customary modesty, he says the world — rather, the corporate world — was his oyster when he decided to throw in the towel for the top UN job. But he decided that he needed to bring his vast diplomatic experience to Indian politics. The educated middle class should not shun politics, but embrace it, “as has Manmohan Singh”. He did not have to leave the UN — Ban wanted him to stay on — but he decided it wasn’t such a good idea after having contested. And, for the record, he does not consider his UN defeat a “real defeat”. “I beat the other contenders handsomely: a former president, several foreign ministers and a prince.”
Yet, he shrugged off his past life with a vengeance, trading in his diplomatic passport for an ordinary one. As he did with his first marriage to academician Tilottama Tharoor some years ago. “We just grew apart,” he says of the marriage that ended on a bitter note. “Divorce is never amicable, but now, years down the line, our twin sons Ishaan and Kanishk have seen to it that we are cordial with each other.” He has since married Christa Giles, a Canadian who is deputy secretary of the disarmament commission at the UN. He plans to manage his marriage long-distance if he gets the coveted seat.
Elder son Ishaan is a writer with Time magazine in Hong Kong and the younger, Kanishk, is associate editor with the Open Democracy magazine in London. Both, says the father, are far more talented than him. The doting father, meanwhile, has yet another book in the press, one on cricket co-authored with the former Pakistani foreign minister Shahryar Khan. “I’m nuts about the game,” says the man with a cultivated British stutter.
He is an eclectic reader with a passion for Indian writers. Would one of those passions include more than a passing interest in the beauteous Jhumpa Lahiri? “Oh no, she was already firmly married when I met her.” Okay, and Arundhati Roy? “I wrote the first review of her book in the San Jose Mercury Post… I have had no romantic inclinations towards any Indian writer.”
As with all middle-aged people, he says, he feels that the music of his teenage years was the best. “Rather dehati”, he says with that Oxbridge inflection.
So let’s get back to that niggling point. How on earth is he going to connect with the rambunctious and contentious Kerala voter, especially after he ran into trouble in Kochi earlier for asking people to put their hands on their hearts, American style, when the national anthem played? What about the case an over-patriotic gent has filed against him? “It was shortly after Mumbai, and I felt moved to make the gesture. I just asked those who felt like it to do so too.”
Thiruvananthapuram is also his mother’s home. And no, he is not mummy’s boy, but daddy’s. The father he idolised died young but was “a fantastic man quite ahead of his time”.
Could the topper from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy find Kerala politics a little too incendiary? Oh, he will manage, he says. Does he not relish that fearsome concoction so beloved of Malayalis: the singeing onion samanthi, a lurid red chutney that he wolfs down with his idlis?