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Bookless In Baghdad Essays

United Nations senior official Tharoor (Nehru, 2003, etc.) reflects on some important—and neglected—literary influences of his cultural heritage in 40 columns originally written for Indian newspapers.

Who reads Enid Blyton anymore, or Malcolm Muggeridge, or even P.G. Wodehouse? Tharoor, who was raised in middle-class Bombay during late 1950s and ’60s, ponders his colonial literary inheritance in the initial essays here. “Growing Up with Books in India” notes how reading English gave him “access to a broader world,” while, in a curious inversion, he encountered many traditional Indian fables through the European versions in Aesop’s fables. “The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold” scolds John le Carré for “buttressing his tawdry fictions with op-ed assaults on the post–Cold War peace between the superpowers.” For Tharoor, the engagé life and politics of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda serve as a heroic humanitarian model, as does the committed stance of Salman Rushdie, subject of “The Ground Beneath His Feet,” which thoughtfully reflects on India’s astonishingly pluralistic national identity. The author doles out sterner treatment to fellow Indian fiction writer R.K. Narayan, faulted for “the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose.” Meanwhile, Tharoor frequently plugs his own novels: “Mining the Mahabharata” acknowledges the role the 2,000-year-old Indian epic poem played in the shaping of his Great Indian Novel, and “How Riot Nearly Caused a Riot” describes the agitation caused by a reading from his work among a group of Indian expatriates in New York. Nervily, he takes the U.S. to task for its illiteracy in one essay, then in the next ridicules the desire of 81 percent of Americans to write their own books. Most relevant of all is “Globalization and the Human Imagination,” a description of Tharoor’s UN mission dedicated to responsible media.

Intriguing thoughts by an author of worldly range and depth.

Bookless in Baghdad
by Shashi Tharoor, Penguin
Price: RS 325 Pages: 248

Shashi Tharoor says he writes, as George Bernard Shaw famously said, for the same reason a cow gives milk: "It is inside me, it's got to come out, and in a real sense I would die if I couldn't."

Happily, Tharoor's ninth book doesn't subscribe to the law of diminishing returns usually dogging miscellaneous essays collated for authorial vanity.

Every litcrit, every profile of icon and place screams out Tharoor's anxiety of audience, his love for the written word and India.

Often I don't agree with Tharoor: Nirad C. Chaudhuri, for all his waggishness and petulance, certainly deserves more than scorn; and reacting to a stray bad review by Shobhaa De after all the plaudits he has won points to a pointlessly thin skin.

But even when Tharoor is "far from gruntled"- to quote his guru P.G. Wodehouse- he fumes with style. Anecdotal and far from pedantic, Tharoor displays an honest willingness to engage.

In the moving "Ex Libris" as in the title essay "Bookless in Baghdad", books sold for a song in souks by the middle class make their own comment on the state of Iraq. An essay on Salman Rushdie gives way to a meditation on the idea of India.

In "Globalisation and the Human Imagination", Tharoor posits the specificities of literature as its best antidote. Amen to that.

Analysing a writer who gives the endangered art of reviewing such careful thought (four essays) can be eerie, but the feeling soon passes to joy.

Has Tharoor-child prodigy, a doctorate at 22 and now under secretary-general of the UN and prize winning author-found his true calling, as an essayist?

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