Shashi Tharoor: The Conviction of Banality

It takes a special skill to nail the essence of a writer in one pithy sentence, and Chandrahas Choudhury does just that when he describes Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone as “a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms are aimed at the reader with a quite breathtaking conviction.”

Anyone who has read Tharoor’s Sunday column in the Times of India will surely sigh and agree. My beef with Tharoor, though, is not with his monumental banality or his lack of insight, but with his double-standards on matters like free speech. For example, in a piece earlier this year, he correctly supported MF Husain, but refused to stand up for the Danish cartoonists. He wrote:

[I]‘d like to deal with those who’ve questioned my own record: many have written to ask whether I have spoken out in favour of freedom of expression elsewhere (I have, for decades, and continue to do so); whether I have publicly defended Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses (I have, widely, and in writing as well as in person); and whether I have spoken in favour of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (I have not, because I consider them a needless provocation). The last line of questioning, I must say, irritated me; those who draw a parallel between Husain’s art and a bunch of cartoons have not begun to understand the first thing about either.

This excerpt makes clear, of course, that Tharoor does not understand the first thing about free speech—if it was only allowed to those whose expression has the approval of tasteful commissars like Tharoor, what meaning would freedom have at all?

One of the things Chandrahas points out in his review, by the way, is how “one of Tharoor’s main subjects” is “the ‘I’” And indeed, in the first sentence of the excerpt I quoted above, there are eight ‘I’s and one ‘my’. Prolific.

Also read: Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal.