Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The wisdom of Shashi Tharoor

The following excerpt is from Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel. To make understanding easier for the reader, a very short preamble - the novel presents modern Indian political history through the characters of the Mahabharata (hence the title). The passage presented here is Tharoor's take on history and memory. Brief list of parallels: 
Gangaji - M.K. Gandhi
Bibigarh Gardens - Jallianwala Bagh
Pandu - Vallabhbhai Patel Netaji Subhas Bose
Dhritharashtra - Jawaharlal Nehru

Independence was not won by a series of isolated incidents but by the constant, unremitting actions of thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands of men and women across the land. We tend, Ganapathi, to look back on history as if it were a stage play, with scene building upon scene, our hero moving from one action to the next in his remorseless stride to the climax. Yet life is never like that. If life were a play the noises offstage, and for that matter the sounds of the audience, would drown out the lines of the principal actors. That, of course, would make for a rather poor take; and so the recounting of history is only the order we artificially impose upon life to permit its lessons to be more clearly understood.

So it is, Ganapathi, that in this memoir we light up one corner of our collective past at a time, focus on one man's actions, one village's passion, one colonel's duty, but all the while life is going on elsewhere, Ganapathi: as the shots ring out in the Bibigarh Gardens babies are being born, nationalists are being thrown into prison, husbands are quarrelling with wives, petitions are being filed in courtrooms, stones being flung at policemen, and diligent young Indian students are sailing to London to sit for the examinations that will permit them to rule their own people in the name of an alien king. It is no different for the protagonists of our story, the little band of individuals and families selected from the swirling mists of an old man's memory to represent a past in which others too have played a significant but unrecalled part. Time did not stand still for them as Ganga plodded through Motihari or starved to such good purpose in Budge Budge. No, Ganapathi, our friends too lived and breathed and thought and worked and prayed and (except for Pandu) copulated the while, their endeavours unrecorded in these words you have so labouriously transcribed. History marched on, leaving only a few footprints on our pages. Of its deep imprints on other sands, you do not know because I do not choose to wash in the waters that have swept them away.

The compelling thing about Tharoor's book is that it packs wit, laugh-out-loud humour and wisdom often in the scope of the same line. And as far as I have read, there have been no faultlines. It's promising to be very enjoyable throughout - not in the least because Tharoor's recounting and evaluation of history, of which his current party has a major chunk of the action, is balanced and honest. I mean, did those self-righteous protectors of the honour of middle-class Indians travelling by air (read, the ilk of Tom Vadhakkan) read Tharoor's books before they allowed him a ticket? I doubt! Those tweets are far less forthright and biting than what's in TGIN.


The opening chapters of the Mahabharat are real saucy, I'm having a roll imagining chaste good-natured grandmas of bygone generations stumbling over those parts while reading out to their wide-eyed patient grandchildren.