A newspaper column is, as demonstrated by its best practitioners, a minor but nevertheless demanding art form, the essence of which is to give memorable expression to the topical by linking it to deeper realities. Those who carry it off most successfully on the Indian scene—Ramachandra Guha, Vir Sanghvi, Girish Shahane, Santosh Desai, Mukul Kesavan, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar —delight and provoke us not only with their command of the subject, but also their flair for shrewd generalization, and the pithiness and lucidity of their expression.
The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone: Penguin Viking, 388 pages, Rs495.
Sadly, none of these qualities are visible in Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which gassy generalities, second-hand insights and witless witticisms are foisted upon the reader with breathtaking conviction. Tharoor’s unwise (but in some ways perfectly characteristic) decision to gather up his jottings only serves to render more clear his considerable shortcomings in the realm of both thought and expression.
Let us begin with the thought. India, pronounces Tharoor, is an ancient civilization of great diversity and richness, “a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities”, “a land of contrasts”. Our pluralist ethos is our greatest strength yet, because we have so many differences, we often lapse into anarchy. Our economy is booming and our middle class expanding; the cellphone is the symbol of this economic revolution. But a large chunk of our population still languishes in poverty, and if we don’t attend to this problem, then, in Tharoor’s metaphor, the elephant which is turning into a tiger may turn back into an elephant. Mark also that elected leaders are often corrupt and unprincipled and a blot on the name of democracy.
To turn now to cricket: Cricket emerged in a foreign land, but its spiritual home now is India. These are the revelations Tharoor delivers to his readers from his high perch.
Go India: Tharoor uses cricket as an index for pluralism in India.
Tharoor’s interpretation of particulars is as dismaying as his stultifying generalities. Nowhere is he more wearisome than in his elaborations on his favourite theme: The Nehruvian idea of India’s unity in diversity. Take his reflections on the rise of cricketer Irfan Pathan. That Pathan, a Gujarati Muslim and the son of a muezzin, could play for India and attain the popularity he did in the wake of Gujarat 2002 is for Tharoor “a testament to the indestructible pluralism of our country”.
This is dubious in itself, but a further advertisement of pluralism, Tharoor avers, was the Indian team itself: “including two Muslims and a Sikh, and captained by a Hindu with a wife named Donna (sic)”. Tharoor confers honorary Christianity upon Sourav Ganguly’s wife Dona to fill up a blank in his pluralist headcount.
Elsewhere, Tharoor recounts an incident, which he knows only through hearsay, of a Muslim girl whose father refused to let her play one of Krishna’s dancing gopis in a play—but he had no objection to her playing Krishna himself. This story is marked by doubt as much as assent, but for Tharoor it is “a lovely story that illustrates the cultural synthesis of Hinduism and Islam in northern India”. Tharoor sees himself as Nehruvian, but is oblivious to what a complacent and lazy Nehruvian he is.
Nor is he much wiser when talking about another of his pet subjects: “the new India”. Watching the excitable cricketer Sreesanth slog a bullying South African fast bowler over his head for six and follow it up with a frenzied war dance, Tharoor is convinced that this incident epitomizes “all that is different about the new India”—bold, fearless, confident—before continuing: “Sreesanth’s India is the land that throws out the intruders of Kargil…that wins Booker Prizes and Miss Universe contests.”
Not all of Tharoor’s book is so tedious. In one chapter, he argues persuasively that Hindutva, an ideology without any base in Hinduism even if it shares the same root word, is in effect a separatist movement, one that appeals to a majority rather than a minority. Another section offers some useful profiles of little-known or neglected figures.
But most of Tharoor’s writing is just noise. “I once jokingly observed,” he writes, attributing a truism to himself, “that ‘anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true’.” There is little chance of the same diversity of opinion about a work as lazy and feckless as The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone.
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