Q: Lay a lot of columns end to end and what do you get?
A: A lot of columns laid end to end.
Okay, technically Shashi Tharoor’s collection of occasional pieces is a book. It has a spine and hard covers with 236 nicely printed pages in between. But is it ‘a book’? The truth is, it is one of those ghastly things “a made book”: the product of an unholy union between a publisher keen to beef up the frontlist and an author eager to squeeze more mileage out of his backlist.
The opening scene is of amar chhota Shashi at home in 1960s Bombay, devouring the works of Blyton and Richmal Crompton, Tintin and Tenaliraman. Even when tackling ‘adult’ writers, his tone is that of a book enthusiast rather than a literary critic – all very well for the newspapers and magazines for which these articles were intended; not so great for a book.
Four of the six essays in his first section (“Inspirations”) are about his own books: The Great Indian Novel, Show Business, Riot and a eulogy to Kerala (with M.F. Husain) called God’s Own Country. The rest of the book is peppered with phrases like “as I point out in my book…”. He doesn’t actually say “available in all good bookshops”, but it’s so heavily implied, he doesn’t have to.
One of the longest essays is dedicated to his first and most famous book, The Great Indian Novel. “What, I asked myself, would a twentieth-century Ved Vyas tell about his India, about the great events of his times? So I used the great epic as the framework for a satirical reworking of the major Indian political events of this century.” I remember reading this novel, and quite enjoying it, but despite its title, heroic aspirations and historical sweep, it was, and still remains, a minor Indian novel (in English). Somehow, one wouldn’t mind reading Rushdie’s thoughts on the birth of Midnight’s Children, or Arundhati’s on God of Small Things, but Tharoor is not Vyas and his novel is not the Mahabharata and no amount of explanation by the author is going to alter that.
It’s fine to be a fan rather than a critic, but it works so much better if the object of your admiration is someone else. His essay “In Defence of the Bollywood Novel” turns out to be less a championing of a genre (small though it is – Shobhaa Dé’s Starry Nights, Hero by I. Allan Sealy…erm…Justine Hardy, anyone?), than a defence of his own ‘Bollywood novel’, Show Business. “The book was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and enjoyed raves elsewhere, but in India the disappointment was palpable.” Tharoor’s leaps at the chance to set us straight. Ironically, Tharoor narrates an incident later in the book, in a piece called “How not to deal with a bad review”, in which the famously pugnacious author Norman Mailer counter-attacked a critical review published in the New York Times. The moral he draws from this tale of literary fisticuffs – “A review, good or bad, is a transient thing; a book, if it was worth writing, will endure long after the review is forgotten” – is one that he fails to learn himself.
Tharoor the Fan, writes breezily and easily. With authors he admires, such as P.G. Wodehouse, he positively bounds around like an Alsatian pup. He seems almost prouder of former post as President of the St Stephen’s College Wodehouse Society than his current one as Under-Secretary-General to the United Nations. Even when he attacks, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, he goes for targets – Winston Churchill, Nirad Chaudhuri – that are almost impossible to miss.
In his essay on Salman Rushdie, Tharoor writes that “as an Indian novelist, I can only repeat what Waugh said of Wodehouse: he is the head of my profession.” The essay is more than a loveletter to Salman, however: it is a plea for a new India, no less. Addressing the question that has foxed Board X Examinees through the ages – “What is an Indian?” – Tharoor’s clarion call is for an India in which “people of every imaginable colour, creed, caste, cuisine and consonant can live and strive and triumph together in one gloriously mongrel nation.” Inspiring rhetoric indeed, but give me the edgy vigour of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City or even the unflinching searchlight of Naipaul any day. Tharoor’s paean to a rainbow-coloured melting pot owes more to airy UN aspirations than to tough Indian reality.
The piece from which this book takes its title is something of a misnomer. The equivalent of Kolkata’s College Street, Baghdad’s book souk, is a veritable “cornucopia … for the indiscriminate reader”. Bookless it ain’t. But then, perhaps it’s not so inappropriate after all. This strange mishmash, a book-lovers book about books with a book on its cover, is not much of a book either.