Who are you?

Question: Who are you?

Shashi Tharoor: I’m Shashi Tharoor. I could be described as an author, a columnist, as Chairman of Afras Ventures, as a former Undersecretary of the U.N. Whatever you wish. Or all of the above.

Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?

Shashi Tharoor: Well that’s a difficult question to answer.  I was born in London, but of Indian parents.  I grew up in Bombay.  I went to high school in Calcutta, college in Delhi.  Did my graduate schooling and my Ph.D. in the U.S.  So I’m kind of from everywhere, and my parents are ethnically from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.  So in the Indian context, if people ask you where are you from, I say Kerala, even though that’s a place I’ve only ever been to on holidays. I think it had a fairly profound impact at various levels.  In the Indian context, just being simultaneously from four different parts of the country meant that in a country where people are often too acutely conscious of their regional, linguistic and sub-regional identity, I grew up with a Pan-Indian sensibility.  My parents were, in a sense, migrants in the domestic context from Kerala.  And every year they’d drag us back to what they called home, which wasn’t home to us because home was only the cities we knew and were growing up in, my sisters and I.  But at the same time it was relatively unusual to have had Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi all in my background before I finished my teens, with the result that I have experienced as connections and friendships – including school friendships – in each of these places.  And as a result, I’ve grown up without feeling that my “Indianness” is circumscribed or limited in any way by one particular part of the world.  Thereafter came the global extension of that.  I had been born in London.  I did my graduate studies in America.  I then joined the U.N. and began my working life in Geneva, Switzerland.  I got assigned by then to Southeast Asia at the peak of the Vietnamese boat people crisis; came back to work in Geneva, then came back to New York and I was posted here.  But in that job I traveled extensively, and indeed for many years was responsible for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia.  So I grew up very much with a sense that the world was, to use the old cliché, my oyster.  I belonged . . . or I felt I needed to belong at pretty much any part of it.  And . . . and . . . and it’s always amusing to me to run into strangers . . . at different airports to run into people I’ve met in different parts of the world at different stages in my professional life, and realize that I can connect with them in this foreign setting in every . . . in every place.  So that sense of the . . . if you like the   . . . the . . . the taking for granted of human diversity is something that I’ve always appreciated.  Politically and philosophically, I’ve been always a very strongly convinced adherent of the notion of pluralism.  I grew up in India convinced about that.  And having lived around the world, it’s inevitable that it simply reinforced my convictions that we live in a plural world, and that’s something worth celebrating.

Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?

Shashi Tharoor: Oh my father without question.  My father was an extraordinary figure – an amazing, warmhearted, generous individual who had done extraordinary things.  He had pulled himself up from a childhood of poverty into relative success.  And at the same time he made mistakes, professional and personal, in his life which . . . which I learned from.  So in many ways I felt that he was the single most important influence on my life for good and for bad – that is both to emulate and to avoid the errors of.   

Question: Is there an Indian identity?

Shashi Tharoor: Well I think what’s so striking about the Indian identity is that it’s made up of so many different identities.  We . . .  I’ve written elsewhere that the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.  There are many Indias.  You guys in America can speak about E Pluribus Unum.  I think if we had to borrow that motto, it would have to be “E Pluribus Pluribum” or some Latin version therefore.  Because we are a country in which there is no fixed stereotype, no one way of doing things, and indeed no one way . . . one way of being – with the result that when we speak of Indian identity, it’s a way of saying you can be many things and one thing.  You can be a good Muslim, a good Bengali, and a good Indian all at once.  And the sense that you can be proud of each of those identities, but each of those identities thrives under the carapace of the common Indian identity, that’s been my personal insight into the notion of . . . of Indian identity.  I’ve argued frequently that we are all minorities in India today – that there isn’t a single type of Indian who can claim to represent the majority community.  Yes, 81 percent of the population follow the Hindu religion; but you can’t just be a Hindu male and say you belong to a majority community because then you’re caste places you in the minority immediately.  So that . . . so that if you’re a Brahmin, well 91 percent of your fellow Indians are not.  And . . . and . . . and if you’re from some other caste, you have the same sort of problem.  And then if you find that you can cut your identity in that direction, it becomes then the problem of region – what state of the country you’re from; which language do you speak?  And each of these ways of slicing identity reveals that no one can truly claim in every respect to stand for a majority the way in which, let’s say, a white male Christian in America can claim to belong to the minority community.  I beg your pardon, to the majority community in America.  We can’t say that.  There’s no . . . no sort of equivalent for that in India.  So that’s been the, to me the most astonishing and remarkable thing about India; is that you’ve got all these extraordinary diversities, and a country that has nonetheless been able to thrive on the basis of the . . . the essential understanding that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, consonant, costume and custom and still rally around a consensus.  So that consensus is on the very simple principle that in a large and diverse democracy, you don’t really need to agree all the time so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree.  That, to me, has been the great strength of India – that it managed to maintain consensus on how to manage without consensus.  So you’ve got people of every conceivable skin color, accent, regional identity, linguistic identity, caste identity, religious identity working together in the same space and fulfilling, ultimately, the same aspirations.  Three years ago in India, we had the extraordinary sight of a Roman Catholic political leader of Italian origin – Sonya Gandhi – making way for a sikh, _________ Singh, to be sworn in as Prime Minister of India by a Muslim president, President Abdul Kalam, in a country that’s 81 percent Hindu.  And that’s not only astonishing in its own right; but when you realize that the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, for 220 years hasn’t yet managed to elect somebody as President or Vice President who isn’t white male and Christian, it’s startling how much this young democracy but ancient civilization has been able to make of its diversity.

Recorded on: 9/18/07


Tharoor grew up with a pan-Indian sensibility despite the many places he has called home.

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