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Shashi Tharoor Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: London, 1956. Education: Delhi University, B.A. (with honors) 1975; Tufts University, M.A. 1976; M.A.L.D. 1977; Ph.D. 1978. Career: Assistant to the director of external affairs, 1978-79, public information officer, 1980-81, head of Singapore office, 1981-84, senior external affairs officer, 1985-87, executive assistant to the deputy high commissioner, 1987-89, all United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; special assistant to the undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, 1989-96, executive assistant to the Secretary-General, United Nations, 1996-98. Since 1998, director of special projects, Office of the Secretary General, United Nations. Awards: Rajika Kripalani Young Journalist award, 1976; Federation of Indian Publishers and Hindustan Times Best Book of the Year, 1990, and Commonwealth Writers prize (Eurasian region), 1990, both for The Great Indian Novel.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Great Indian Novel. New Delhi, Penguin, London, Viking, andNew York, Arcade, 1989.

Show Business. New Delhi, Viking, 1991; New York, Arcade, 1992;London, Picador, 1994.

Short Stories

The Five-Dollar Smile: Fourteen Early Stories and a Farce in Two Acts. New Delhi, Viking, 1990; as The Five-Dollar Smile and Other Stories, New York, Arcade, 1993.

Other

Reasons of State: Political Development and India's Foreign Policy Under Indira Ghandi, 1966-1977. New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, 1982.

India: From Midnight to the Millennium. New York, Arcade, 1997.

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Critical Studies:

History-Fiction Interface in Indian English Novel: Mulk Raj Anand, Nayantara Sahgal, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, O.V. Vijayan by T.N. Dhar, New Delhi, Prestige, 1999.

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Despite living and working overseas (in Switzerland and the United States) for much of his adult life, Shashi Tharoor's writing shares few of the concerns, such as identity, place, and displacement, that have become the stock-in-trade of writers of the Indian diaspora. The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, and a collection of early stories, The Five-Dollar Smile: Fourteen Early Stories and a Farce in Two Acts, have in common Tharoor's postmodernist interest in playing games with his readers. Indeed his taste for sometimes awful puns and his delight in elaborate wordplay is evident even in the early stories.

The title of Tharoor's first full-length work of fiction, The Great Indian Novel, immediately signposts his interest in language games. The title is at once a play on the elusive "great American novel" and a reference to the work which provides the framework of Tharoor's novel, India's greatest epic the Mahabharata (which roughly translated means "great India"). In his retelling of modern Indian history and politics, Tharoor explores ground similar to that covered by Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children. Yet though Tharoor's voice is evidently of the post-Rushdie generation of Indian writing in English, it remains distinct. In the novel, figures from the Mahabharata are recreated as characters who in turn represent figures from recent Indian history. Thus Bhishma from the Mahabharata becomes Ganga Datta (who is also a fictional representation of Mahatma Gandhi) in Tharoor's version of the epic. Similarly, Karna becomes Muhammad Ali Karna in the novel, and a figure who parallels Jinnah from modern history. And just as all the major figures from recent Indian history are included in Tharoor's novel, so all the major events are recorded too, though at times two or three historical events are condensed into a single fictional one.

But perhaps of even greater importance than the history and politics in this novel is Tharoor's interest in language. Through his many linguistic and literary games—such as the novel's self-reflexivity and the frequent spot-the-allusion games—Tharoor exposes the power of language as a tool of the colonial process while at the same time pointing the reader back to literature. History and politics, the novel seems to suggest, are best understood via literature (the Mahabharata, for example). This is a neat conceit which also privileges Tharoor's own text.

In Show Business, his second novel, Tharoor casts his satirical eye over Bollywood, India's popular, Bombay-based cinema industry. The novel closely follows the career of Ashok Banjara, an Indian film hero (who despite the mandatory disclaimers is clearly based on India's superstar of the screen, Amitabh Bacchan)—his rise to fame, his marriage to an up-and-coming young heroine, his many affairs, his vast wealth, his flirtation with politics, and so on. Interspersed with Ashok Banjara's own story and ultimately indistinguishable from it are the plots of the various films in which he stars. The novel is at once a comic tale about the Indian film industry, a homily on greed and ambition, and a highly entertaining look at the boundaries between fiction and reality (which in the celluloid world of Bollywood is surely all illusion anyway).

Tharoor's early stories—some of which he wrote as a teenager for Indian mass-circulation periodicals—and a two-act play have been published in The Five-Dollar Smile. The stories, which treat such issues as racism ("The Boutique"), hypocrisy ("The Temple Thief"), and gender stereotyping ("City Girl, Village Girl"), show signs of the language skills which Tharoor exploits to such great effect in The Great Indian Novel. "Twenty-Two Months in the Life of a Dog" is a short play about abuses of power during Indira Gandhi's Emergency which lacks the satirical and political bite of a novel like Nayantara Sahgal's Rich Like Us, which covers the same territory. Tharoor has also written a work of non-fiction, Reasons of State: Political Development and India's Foreign Policy Under Indira Gandi, 1966-1977, which examines the making of Indian foreign policy.

—Ralph J. Crane

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