Author, politician, and former international civil servant, Shashi Tharoor is a man of many talents. He spent nearly 29 years at the United Nations as a peacekeeper and refugee worker culminating as undersecretary general. He's published 16 books, won numerous literary awards and was named by the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos as a Global Leader of Tomorrow. Currently, Shashi is serving his second term as Congress MP in India. This episode of It's A Long Story is hosted by Marc Fennell.
“Instead of the 'Famous Five' and the 'Five Find-outers' I had ... ‘The Solvers’."
"I wrote my first short story when I was six years old. And my dad had it typed up by his secretary so it could be shown to friends. Very derivative stuff, it was sort of my attempt to Indianize Enid Blyton stories.
"Instead of the 'Famous Five' and the 'Five Find-outers' I had—I think ‘The Solvers’ is what I call them. ‘The Solvers on the Trail’ and they went off, as I was doing every year, to our ancestral village in Kerala and solved mysteries there, very innocuous little mysteries. You know, unfortunately, I've lost those manuscripts. It would've been fun to look back at them all these years. Later, my parents preserved them for decades—took a bad marriage to lose them."
"When I was coming of age, India had just gone through what was called a state of emergency, when Mrs. Indira Gandhi for 22 months essentially suspended our freedom, sense of the press, locked up opposition politicians. It was a deeply disillusioning time for anybody who wanted to serve the government. If I had turned 21 at some other time, I would have probably taken the exams. But this was not a time when you wanted to serve the government. And I was always interested in national affairs.
"When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offered me a slot, I really thought I'd do it for a year or two, see a bit of Europe which I've never seen, put some money in the bank and go back to India. That one-year contract, in fact I saw the lot for the UN with a one-month contract that ended up becoming 29 years. I looked back on it with a great deal of affection and pride because I know that I was able to do a lot of things. I'd left my little smudgy thumbprints on the footnotes of the pages of history."
“I'd left my little smudgy thumbprints on the footnotes of the pages of history.”
Saving humanity from hell
"Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN secretary general 60 years ago said it brilliantly, he said, 'look the United Nations wasn't created to take mankind to heaven but rather to save humanity from hell'. And I think that’s very, very good. Sometimes what you can do with the UN is prevent things from getting worse. From preventing the world from going to hell in handbasket, as the Americans like to say, but rather ensuring that at least you can manage conflict and contain the conflict.
"I had begun my first 11 years as the UN High Commission for Refugees, I could put my head to the pillow at night knowing that things are done during the day had made a real difference to real humans beings' lives. And when I ran the refugee operation in Singapore, I could see and meet the very people's lives I was transforming. So, you know, I can look back with tremendous satisfaction of that period. With peacekeeping, I can look back with tremendous satisfaction at the effort I made, and I did make an enormous amount of effort, but did I end the war? No. Did I stop the killing? Not enough. Did I fundamentally alter any of the stakes? No, I essentially managed and contained and coped but I didn't resolve anything. That can be very frustrating."
A reckoning with history
"There are English people who read Jane Austen completely innocent of knowledge of the fact that the lifestyle she depicts was financed entirely by the sweat and the brows of black Caribbean slaves on the sugar plantations. And these are the kinds of things that I think the Brits need to wake up to.
"There's even a statue in the heart of London for the animals that aided the British war effort. And there is no statue to the 1.3 million Indians who fought in the First World War, the 1.7 million Indians who fought in the Second World War or the more than 150,000 who died of those two world wars for the allies. And it's just shameful. I mean they just brushed all of this under the carpet, a very convenient historical amnesia and they conceal themselves with gauzy romanticised soap operas like Indian summers in the far pavilions and so on that make The Raj some sort of, you know, boy’s own adventure, forgetting completely the sordid reality of what they did as well to the people of India. So I think all of this is very important to confront and I hope that in Australia too and other colonies, there will a reckoning with history."
“I mean they just brushed all of this under the carpet, a very convenient historical amnesia..."
History is its own revenge
"I actually made this point in the Indian context because the week my book came out in India, Theresa May was about to make her first visit. At that point she was very anxiously programming trips to Bombay and Bangalore and Hyderabad to look for Indian investment in her presumed to be faltering post-Brexit economy. Then I said to the Indian audiences, 'Look, you don't need to take revenge upon history. History is its own revenge'.
"... to be honest, I'm not so keen on the forget part of forgive and forget. Forgive, but don't forget. Remember the past, embrace it all, but leave it in the past. I often say to young people in India: 'If you don't know where you're coming from, how will you appreciate where you're going?"