Conversations with History: Shashi Tharoor

Conversations with History: Shashi Tharoor

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from the University of California at Berkeley welcome to a conversation with history I'm Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies our distinguished guest is Shashi Tharoor who is director of communications and special projects for the secretary-general of the United Nations he was formerly his executive assistant mr. Tharoor has served in the UN since 1978 including tenure as head of the Singapore office of the UN High
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Commissioner for Refugees he is one of India's leading writers of both fiction and nonfiction his works run the gamut from history to satire and rich in the traditions and cultures of his native land his works grappled with the realities and ideals of modern India dr. Todd aura welcome to Berkeley thank you very good to be here tell us about your education education well it was all sort of rather history I suppose I raced through school in college I finished a PhD at 22 which
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looking back because if it made for some more hectic adolescence but I I went to school in Bombay initially there was a brief abortive and not very happy in a boarding school in South India High School in Calcutta College in Delhi it's in Stevens College which is a fairly elite College known for its strength and liberal arts I spent I must confess more time pursuing other activities and in the classroom but it was a interesting experience came to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts degree
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certificate say both Tufts and Harvard and it said an autonomous school at Pisa was in those days in which I did an MA and mal do you master bouts in law in diplomacy and a PhD my undergraduate degree in Delhi was in history an honours degree in history and my graduate work was an international affairs international politics my PhD thesis was more on the workings of half the way in which Indian foreign policy was made during Indira Gandhi's first administration 66 to 77 as very lucky in
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that I was doing my field research just after the government fell and everybody from the former prime minister mrs. Gandhi herself to all her foreign minister all happen to be alive I was willing to talk it was a it was a it was a thesis that became then published as a book reasons of state but in a larger sense I suppose my education still going on I'm learning as much as I can from the mere process of living what who were your influential teachers well they were a number of them I I should have mentioned that the schools I
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went to had an interesting thing in common they were all Jesuit schools mhm the Jesuits have a developed an interesting vocation for educating the privileged of the flared world and I don't mean that in a disparaging way I just mean that because they have these excellent schools in the English language in countries like India they tend to attract members of the Indian urban educated professional classes and their children and and while there were in fact some relatively well are less
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well-off children we didn't actually have a great cross-section of Indian society what we had was the urban elite but having said that this the schools are very good both of them the school in Calcutta Sands areas was unquestionably in my day the best school in the city particularly in terms of its intellectual rigor and I and a couple of my other friends and school came out with the highest possible grades in the school system in the state largely because of the quality of the teaching I
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don't want to rattle off names that will mean nothing to those who long Guinea a but a number of the priests at the yet these schools are very well trained themselves I remember a young father actually took us through an epistemological argument for the existence of God which certainly impressed my fifteen-year-old imagination again because I was just beginning to flirt with the the ideas of atheism that you know I felt somehow this you know when you do when you discover rationality religion suddenly doesn't seem so impressive anymore and when you discover the limitations of
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rationality it all comes back but in between the head is very rational structured philosophical argument when it is read priest and that was very striking College in Delhi since Stephens as an Anglican College not a Jesuit one a different culture and the teachers were largely laypeople in fact overwhelmingly laypeople and there - there were some remarkable people I remember history teacher called David Baker who was actually an Australian who had renounced Australian come and settled in India and was an authority on modern Indian history particularly in a
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central Indian state but because one man had the misfortune of being white he was obliged to teach British history which he detested when the crew says I learned a great deal from him and and there were a few other teachers too who made an indelible mark on the process of intellectual formation that that college is all about at Fletcher we had is very impressive for professors as well some of them are sadly no longer alive ranging from John Rose should be national security advisor to Lyndon
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Johnson and who had been called by the New York Times his hard-boiled egg head and he certainly was both hard-boiled and extremely rich in his intellectual range to my to talent Henriksen sort of on the finest minds and diplomatic history confined in this country and and and many others my whom I again would want to name in extent so but I think I've been privileged with am the quality of the education I've had it at all these stages and what stands out in the way your parents help shape your character well my parents were
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astonishing for for Indian parents and for fairly traditional Indian parents in other ways in the amount of freedom they left me I had the misfortune of being good at studies and I see this again without any false modesty particularly in Indian school system those are good at taking exams tend to do well and doesn't necessarily imply that they have fine minds but but you know my parents had the typical Indian middle-class ambitions for me and I kept coming first in science so they wanted me to be either a doctor or an engineer well I
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hated science they only came first in the subject because I knew how to take exams so the end the end of the eighth grade when you stream in India into different fields already at that age much earlier than in this country I said I would not do science I wanted to humanities and to the astonishment of many of my friends my parents would find him you should study what you want to studies I went into the manager by the end of school again I've done extremely well so they felt well if he isn't doesn't going to be is not going to be a doctor an engineer should at least be a very successful businessman so they urged me to go into economics
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and eventually a business degree and I said no I'd much rather study history and again they were kind enough to to allow me to do that and and and and so on at each stage I was given I was given the intellectual respect for my interests that allowed me to shape my own educational career and my own achievements I suppose by my own lights and that was that was remarkable the other thing and I'd say this particularly if my father was the amount of encouragement I was given for my my
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writing I was rather young child I began writing partially for good reasons I was an asthmatic child and I was also the airless son and the family which meant I was often bedridden and I didn't have elder brothers or sisters as books I could borrow and read I finished my own very fast I exhausted those are my parents books I could understand and I had the inconvenient habit of finishing library books on the car on the way home from the library so Ashley and of course there was no television on the bomb-bay of my boyhood so I wrote as much for my own amusement and my father my parents
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both took did me the great honour of taking that seriously and they got my writings typed up and they had them second ated of friends and I was suddenly made to feel at an absurdly young age that I could think of myself as a writer and by the age of 10 my first story had appeared in printed and sent off to a newspaper by my father I even had a sort of what I thought I was a novel but I suppose must be a novella serialize er was sixth installments in a magazine but the first installment appearing a week before my 11th birthday of course the fact that I was that young
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was part of the reason why this otherwise indifferent prose was published but the fact still is that that that sort of encouragement definitely shaped both my sense of confidence in myself as a writer my sense are there being an audience for my writing but paradoxically also my conviction that I couldn't do this full-time because my parents made it very clear you can write that's fine please write please publish but you do your studies because no one makes a living as a writer and you better be good at your academic academic work and so I ended up
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throughout my school days writing and publishing instead of you know going to discos I guess and and I studied very hard and eventually the same thing happened when I finished my academic work I went into a regular career at the United Nations and tried to continue writing evenings and weekends and never really felt right from my youngest days thanks to my parents convictions about this that there was a viable alternative full-time life as a writer and Here I am as a result before we talked about this balancing of these two
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worlds one one additional question about your background what what sort of looks stuck in your mind and really impressed you I gather a lot of English writers but also Indian writers that's what I read eclectically and I must say indiscriminately remember the reading was my principal activity outside school work I mean I I loved the game of cricket and I played it very badly but also I wasn't often well enough to go out and play and so that and the absence of television computer games and all the distractions of my children now enjoy
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meant that if I wasn't writing I was reading and I actually there was one particular year I think my the year of my 13th birthday that I decided to set myself the challenge of finishing 365 books in 365 days and I did and I kept a list at that point to prove it so I mean I was a voracious and rapid reader and with that kind of volume I obviously read all sorts of stuff I read in the English language but not only from the English language I read a lot of works in translation as well and of course a lot of good traditional Indian
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literature is available in English often in translations that are that leave something to be desired but nonetheless it's all available and so my tastes arranged from the humour of peih-gee Woodhouse who in many ways to remember her remains the author was given me most pleasure in my life purely shed the light of his use of language as well as of his incredibly complex and clever plotting all the way up to the the traditional tales of the Mahabharata the great Indian epic that goes back over 2,000 years and lots of things in between
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I read East European writers and translation I was reading Kundera in my teens I was had read all the Russian classics sometimes in a bridge editions I have to confess but nonetheless and of course American and British writers came to us anyway through our position of their language and the result was that I was extremely widely read and and and perhaps slightly over read young man by the time I entered entered college you have given
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us a good explanation of how you wound up as a writer and hence as to why you chose diplomacy but let's let's fill out that part before we talk about balancing and these two worlds well diplomacy was something which in some ways had appealed to me from a fairly young age I was always fascinated by the world not just by my immediate environs but by the world at large I was born in London I didn't mention that my father was actually working he'd gone there to
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study as a young man as an 18 year old and stayed on it was the locally recruited London manager of the office of an Indian newspaper called The Statesman all of his managers in India were Englishmen so I was born there but he was not planning to settle in England at any stage he was just waiting for an Englishman to retire so he could apply for a job back in India and sure enough he came back to Bombay to be the Bombay manager of The Statesman and subsequently its advertisement manager in Calcutta and so on so but but nonetheless the fact is I was conscious of having been someplace else as it were
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and I was curious about all of that and curious about the wider world that was very much there secondly a classic sort of career line for people with my sort of background no great money in the family and education and an interest in the world and a skill at taking exams the classic option was to take the Indian civil service examinations we had this very elite Mandarin Corps called the Indian Administrative Service and in those days an even more elite corps called the Indian Foreign Service I see in those days because since then the priorities of Indian young people have
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changed a bit in the Foreign Service is no longer seen as the acne but in those days you know you had 10 to 20,000 kids taking the exams every year from about 30 or 40 was selected for the Indian Administrative Service and five or ten for the Indian Foreign Service so that was what the brightest kids of the generation were aiming to do and and frankly it was a sort of natural ambition to be inclined towards however I went to the to the US for my graduate studies because I got a scholarship from the Fletcher School and it happened to
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be just the time that mrs. Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency and suspended the democratic freedoms that I had grown up taking for granted in India in fact one of the first things that happened to me with the emergency was declared was it a silly short story I'd written called the political murder was banned by the census because the very notion of a murder taking place for political reasons was a method I in the new dispensation now that period in last very long the emergency lasted 22 months and censorship ended fairly early in that period but while sitting in the US as a
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graduate student I found myself coming to terms myself of my own notion of what I valued about being Indian I was like many foreign students when they come abroad instantly thrust into the position of having to explain and defend his own country that's a very common predicament for myself that meant having to explain to people why what mrs. Gandhi had that it wasn't really all that bad because it's only victims of people like me who could publish articles or agitate politically humming speeches and statements but the real beneficiaries were the common man that
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was mrs. Gandhi's argument who have you freed of all the evils in ills of India and the fact is of course that in the course of doing these defenses of the government I found more and more information available to me in the USA I even had a roommate who was a journalist I was getting lots of wire service copy that wasn't making it the New York Times I was getting more and more information about all that was going wrong and how the real victims of a suspension of democracy were in fact the ordinary poor individual Indians who were helpless who didn't have the education to rise above
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these disabilities and who weren't doing well enough to make their compromises with the with the regime and instead were being picked up at bazaars and carted off to have their sect amis done compulsorily as part of a sterilization drive or being thrown into jail without any effect of habeas corpus because the emergency had suspended those rights and so on and that was a profoundly disillusioning period I remember one of the things that really turned me completely against any notion of government service was when an Indian student in I believe it was Chicago who had spoken out with anguish against the
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emergency back in India applied to the Indian Embassy to get his passport renewed to go back home when the government refused to renew his passport and I thought I cannot imagine in the India that I've known and grown up and cherished and valued that such I think could even be possible and though the emergency ended with a fair and free election in which mrs. Gandhi was routed and the system of suspension of democracy was repudiated once and for all we've never had anything close to it ever since I felt at that time because that was the age of which I would have had to take those exams that somehow the
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idea of serving the government that could do that but had down at once and perhaps could do it again was simply enough and led to me and so for that reason I did a PhD instead of going and taking the exams and I ended up working for the United Nations instead of my own government I must tell you that since then I think and I say this without a sincerity a lot of my friends who I would like to think of as just as principled and committed Democrats as I am have served the government with distinction and I don't believe anymore
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that that in making the choice I made I necessarily did something which which you know was right for all time but it was right for me at that time and not to to make that particular compromise or the system that had betrayed itself in our discussion I would like to cover both of your very distinguished careers as I mentioned you're one of India's leading writer having written both histories and and two novels among other things and you've risen to the top
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really at the UN and so I think that what I would like to ask you at this point is try to talk about both in a way simultaneously do the worlds of diplomacy and writing complement each other or are they in conflict well let me answer that very personally I mean I see myself as a human being with a number of concerns about the world that I see around me some of those concerns I react to through my writing and some of them are react through reactor through my work I've been
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privileged in the work I've been able to do for the UN I wouldn't have considered a classically diplomatic work earlier on I began my UN career with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and in fact as a fairly young man I was in charge of the office of UNHCR in Singapore during the peak of the Vietnamese boat people crisis whatever use picked up on the high seas were being brought in and and and and it was my job to help negotiate debtors on vacation get them into a refugee camp look after them negotiates their acceptance by other countries for
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resettlement and then get them off to new lives which meant that I was able to put my head to the pillow every night knowing that things I'd done during the day had made a concrete difference to real human beings to their lives and in fact these are people I could actually see around me they were not statistics or figures in a piece of paper and that was was amazingly enriching in all sorts of ways and and it went beyond diplomacy it was important that it was the UN I must say because what do you think of refugee work and say what church groups are doing work for refugees lots of volunteers are doing that what's so different why do you have to do through
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the UN and the answer is that the UN because it is an intergovernmental body has clutch with governments that church groups can't have and the result is that I could go to a government that was reluctant to let refugees onto its soil and essentially remind them of their legal obligations as a member state of the organization which had voted the High Commission of the statute of its office and had been able therefore to get things achieved to bend certain rules to even help some people on the quiet with the connivance of government
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officials in ways that no non-governmental organization would have been able to do and that frankly was a period that really convinced me of the indispensable nature of the UN for all these problems that cross borders as refugees cross borders because ultimately the intergovernmental strength that the UN has makes it truly unique and indispensable as a solution provider to these problems I then of course after 11 and a half years of working for refugees moved to peacekeeping and there yes my life became much more connected to the world
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of diplomacy and it's also true that that as I had this very direct satisfaction I described to you in the field and in Southeast Asia the satisfactions of working in peacekeeping more quite different they were not the satisfactions directly changing human beings lives because I worked 18-hour days for almost six years and I knew that the blood was still continuing to flow in the Balkans there was a different sort of satisfaction of knowing that I was working in the field of international affairs at a time when this great human Cataclysm was occurring
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that I had a key rule as a small cog in this very big machine but a role which nonetheless enabled me to leave my own smudgy thumb prints as it were on the other pages of history and that was a different sort of satisfaction now how it was connected to the worlds of literature the honest answer is there really not in my writing too I keep a kept the two apart in fact I my writing is almost so fine any case almost entirely about India both my fiction and my nonfiction and my work has been
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completely about any other part of the world but India partially as a result of the UN's very genuine preference for not having people work on their own countries of origin and partially because the the challenges that were given to me happen to be amongst as I said the great human events of our time and they happen to be the book people crisis in Southeast Asia the the refugee problems worldwide and then the peacekeeping challenges of the post Cold War era particularly you was loved and none of those happened directly to involve India so I kept those two interests quite quite distinct in my in
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my life in my work in many ways my work became the enemy of my writing because as I explained I write evenings and weekends and one of the first things that happened as my work became more intense as the evenings disappeared there was no question of getting home and finishing dinner by 8 o'clock in fact most are most often I was getting home when after 2 o'clock and during the peak of the Bosnian crisis I was getting home usually between 11:00 and midnight and my home I should tell you was a 12 minute walk from the office so it's not that I was spending my time in a long commute the the nature of the work
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demanded national commitment I had to stay that late because the cables I was sending back to the field if they weren't send that night would cost somebody a day at the other end over the time different so there was this enormous pressure and then the weekends were never mind I mean during the peak of the peacekeeping crisis you know every shell that landed in in Bosnia had to be reported to somebody and I was the one whom the situation center would call so there were these constant interruptions there was also the fact that one traveled one worked one went with work oh so writing was always a struggle to carve out time and
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space my last novel when you look back at it was published in 1992 and I'm a fairly rapid writer so it's not that I it's simply that to write fiction you need both time and a space inside your head a space inside you had to create and inhabit and alternative model universe one whose realities have to be consistent in your own mind and you can't easily write a fragment of a novel and return to it eight weeks from now and you you you simply have to find yourself reinventing the novel each time
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you do that and I found that an enormous struggle I have actually begun a couple of novels in these last seven years that have not been able to to develop precisely because of these intrusions and the book I'm currently working on I think I've had I'm not exaggerating six weekends in the last year and a half and which have not been traveling not being out or not and work on bringing work home in which I've been able to devote to now that's not quite the way in which you need but you have been able to devote time to the well do six weekends yes yeah
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as a writer I hear you I I want to make a point here that's sort of emerging from what I've read in what you're saying it as a writer you're very much an Indian expatriate really meshed in your country's culture and history of many levels as a diplomat in some ways you are very cosmopolitan basically you're not embodying the interests of your country quite obviously and so on
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so so I'm wondering is it the case that writing this compartmentalization that you just described has enabled you to to realize an Indian identity which has meaning for India as a whole well Indians are in fact fairly cosmopolitan the educated yeah only largely because of course the Indian adventure at its best is of people working together dreaming the same dreams even if they don't look like each other don't speak the same language
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don't eat the same kinds of food don't dress alike don't even have the same kinds of color of skin nor whatever we have this extraordinary City in India and paradoxically one could say that's exactly what the UN is all about - at the UN I'm working all the time with people who like how the drinking's even dress and different speak differently and so one could argue that in some ways Indians are particularly well equipped with the worlds of International Affairs and the United Nations and in that sense I find I find no great contradiction between the two worlds having said that I mean your
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question of course needs a more direct response and that is that in some ways the the writing has helped me to reclaim and to reinvent a sense of my Indian Asst which I believe has spoken to Indians in ways that I found very gratifying I have had so many people come up to me saying you know what you said with things that we instinctively knew all along but we've ever heard them said quite that way my last book in there from midnight to the millennium is tries too many things at many levels but one of the things that's all about is an evocation of a sense of Indian as' I
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make no bones about the fact that India matters to me that I would like to matter to India but in the process I'm also articulating a vision of India as this home of a rich diversity of a rich pluralism that's manifested both in its social institutions and its balanced political democracy and that this diversity in the Splore or ism is something we should cherish in be proud of and I speak to it and from it quite often to audiences both in this country and in India and I'm very happy to do that because to me that articulates a
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vision that perhaps sometimes sitting within India that people don't always see quite that clearly for themselves because you know they might sometimes see the the wood and not the trees a big apartment they might sometimes see the trees but among the wood I was distracted briefly and saying that because I was thinking of how been done far better than by me by the first prime minister of independent India halal there you asked me about books out of influence may want that lingers in my memory it has booked the discovery of India and Nehru studied
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abroad as well like me he returned to India worked in the National Movement and he wrote many was early books in jail and there's something about being in jail which rather like being at the United Nations gives you that distance that's that that that objectivity to see the larger picture and the discovery of India is a nerve root is is an avocation of the Indian spirit the Indian identity Indian history and culture in terms that still mean a great deal to me today are as a writer or you do you like to work most with nonfiction or with fictional
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materials it's a difficult one to answer because I've done both I think in some ways I would say that nonfiction is slightly easier in the circumstances of my life and fiction is therefore probably what I would prefer I see nonfiction is easy in the sense that when this last book India from midnight to the Millenium was written it was possible to write it put it aside for six weeks because work supervened and then come back and resume it you can do that with nonfiction with fiction as I said you do have the the commitments to engage at a greater level of
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emotional profundity with with what you're trying to do I like fiction of course because it also gives me greater freedom as a UN official there are some things in nonfiction that I cannot say because I'm obliged by the the traditions and conventions of international politics not to cause offence to member states of the UN and fiction III take far more liberties though it still means that I'm the only writer I believe in the face of this earth whose copyright page carries the disclaimer notice that says though the author is an official of the United Nations
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none of the opinions expressed by the characters in the book should be construed as those of the writer at his official capacity and I assume that especially applies to your book about the movies showbusiness let's talk about without getting into the detail because your books or so your novels are so rich just why a MOOC book about the movies on the one hand and why a book that is modeled after the great Indian class Mahabharata on the other well they
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actually have more in common than you might imagine they're both political satires of course but what's more interesting is that they are both in different ways about the kinds of stories a society tells about itself in my first novel the great Indian novel I took both the the stories of the great epic which was written sometime even 800 BC and 800 AD and which is surely permeated the national consciousness of India and I reinvented these stories as a story and account of the political history of independent
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India from the British days to the present and I reinvented in that process therefore the history of that period as well as the legends of the epic because both are stories that are different levels are told and retold in Indian culture the tears of the mob hadith I learned by practically every child that his grandmother's knee and the tales of the nationalist struggle the freedom movement as we call it are part of the stuff of what we have brought up on in India and India and by intermixing the two I was able to cast perhaps a cynical
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modern sensibility upon the great legends and lessons of the past but equally I was able to cast some of the values in the light of that past onto the experiences of the more recent present and in the process I tried to illuminate some aspects of of the Indian condition of of the stories we tell in the second novel I've also looked at stories except I always as the showbusiness I look to the stories of the popular film industry why because our country is still 50% illiterate and
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films still represent the principal vehicle for the transmission of the fictional experience other than your grandmother telling your stories in your knee you go off and get your fiction by watching a movie and so I asked the question what do these stories tell to Indians what do they tell about Indians what can we know about the stories of the world from which these stories come that is the world of the filmmakers and the actors and who make these films and in turn what is always reveal about India as a society today so in looking
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for one more meta further explore the Indian condition I took cinema as a very natural one for these reasons and once again showbusiness which as you know is a novel that intercuts extensively the stories the formulaic films of Bollywood in which the hero and other protagonists of the novel are involved each stage of a book the story is about stories and at the same time it's about India and therefore both the novels have this elements in common they are about the kinds of stories that India is telling about itself today one of the
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elements in your two novels is your devastating and effective use of satire just one of the elements what has to mention what it is it about satire that that enables a writer to reveal truth well I've often found that you know when you're dealing seriously with serious subjects you're on the same terms as everybody else it's difficult unless you're having crassly provocative to find something terribly different as a way of looking at these things if you're
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treating issues that are sacrilegious in one sense of the other there's a lot of hagiography about the indian nationalist heroes for instance justice has a great deal of reverence for the ancient epics satire on the other hand enables you to recast and to reinvent both the epics the both the great ideas and the great stories and the great men are women for that matter of your of these times in a light that is so unfamiliar that it immediately provokes a fresh way of looking at them and that is something that's very useful a second element is is I mean if I can borrow a wonderful
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statement of Molly Ayers who said that there were the la comédie in the keynesian ism on a diversity saw the if you like if I can paraphrase it if you want to edify you have to entertain and so your duty as a writer is to amuse people enough that they want to read the serious points you want to make and they'll get that instruction they'll get that education if you like through the process I haven't been entertained both novels I hope are fairly easy and light reads even for people who don't know India because they're written to
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amuse to distract but both are infused with fairly serious concerns and we'll always be grateful to the British novelist to reviewed show business in the Sunday Times and said that term said that you know this is an that is hysterically funny in very many places but which manages to be funny without for a moment being frivolous and that is the distinction that I try in my satire try and make having said all of this I've got to confess the no one I'm working on now is probably not going to be a cetera mm-hmm and what what do you
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see as the goal or goals of your writing to reveal to India itself or what wants to reveal to myself mine dear and to reveal India to myself but also to reveal India to Indians and other readers around the world I found I don't quite know how to explain my conscious desire to to reinvent and come to terms with India beyond a certain point it is
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beyond explanation but I have felt so caught up in the nature of the Indian experiment it is an extraordinary country in so many levels I mean there is no other country on earth that embraces quite this wide mixture of you know geographical diversity topographical diversity human diversity linguistic diversity and so on and so forth one can goes like the United Nations absolutely and yet at the same time it has rich millennial history and culture it has an extraordinarily wide-ranging tolerant religious tradition and
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Hinduism and it has to grapple with many of the problems many of the great problems of our day to day in the Indian famine out of the Millennium Eye I talk about the classic dilemmas facing the world at the end of the 20th century no bread versus freedom which the emergency such an example pluralism versus fundamentalism it's really exactly had an India with a new brand of of religious chauvinism coming to light cooker colonization the whole issue of globalization versus economic self-sufficiency and even for a country
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India sighs decentralization versus federalism and all of this centralization versus decentralization all of this mix India such an astonishingly interesting crucible for the things that matter to me intellectually that I I find myself constantly going back looking at the way in which India and Indians are coping with these challenges but equally the richness of that heritage is something that I want to explore myself you know when I go back in to the themes of the great Indian novel I am in a sensing these are the things that have shaped me
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and Indians likely these are the experiences that have created those people in show business I'm talking about these entertainments these distractions reveal this about myself and people like me and go to these phones and and I hope that in the process therefore I am trying constantly in a sense but without anxiety there's been some critic who's who's written some one critically of the anxiety of Indian amongst writers like myself I'm not anxious but I'm curious I would love
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to go on experimenting with my understanding of this this phenomenon of Indian Aswini is a phenomenon of our times and of our planet that that bears repeated investigation and inquiry as a writer pursuing universalistic themes in an India context you're you're trying to find truth in a way and truths and I'm curious going back to your role as a man of international diplomacy what you see
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as the relationship between intellectuals and political figures can can control and writers might come up with informed power and if so easily or not well truth is is is it is a particularly difficult issue in fact I I mentioned that it's actually part of India's national motto which is something which is a truth alone triumphs but the question is whose truth there are perhaps as many truths and
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India's there are Indians and in integration did novel I find myself you know inspired very much by some of the philosophical dispositions in the ancient epics asking the question is truth a noun that can be modified by a possessive pronoun is there my truth and your truth and his truth and the truth of the nationalist movement in India it seems so very differently from the other side of the border in Pakistan that you can well ask yourself you know what is truth so in my writing I've actually tried to ask more questions than to provide
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answers because I've essentially implicitly made the argument that the reader will find his or her truth for himself or herself from the writing and the writing will probe the nature of truth in history in fiction in reality in the contemporary world but we'll do so in a way that allows the readers to draw their own conclusions of what is true and what is not true in that sense ultimately diplomacy isn't that very different a lot of the work of the world diplomats and International Affairs
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consists of reconciling different forms of truth different perceptions are being able to see every international conflict from the point of view of both or all the protagonists not necessarily to sympathize with them were to understand that there are more than there's more than one answer to every question and more than one way of looking at every particular problem so in that sense those are in common there's one inform the other from me I think that certainly they both inform my view of the world I'm very slow to judge people harshly
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I'm quicker to observe them I might be able to describe them and comment on them and very slow to judge them because I tend to see that they have their own validity for what they are and for what they believe in how they act accepting that both worlds have multiple truths I'm curious of your your views of the use of words in literature versus their use in politics especially in our own political system talking now about the United States you know there is this
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malaise the sense that words are used to disorder distort conceal to hide if you contrast that with what a writer is trying to do he's trying to use words to shape realities you know that reveal one truth or several truths or whatever talk a little about that is conflict yeah that's true I mean in the sense that writers obviously want exquisite precision in their descriptions I want to convey very clearly the
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sense of place of feeling that they're experiencing and wishing to communicate to their readers though having said that I'll qualify that in just a minute in diplomacy there is a sense sometimes a procession can do harm that it is better to find the former words that is agreeable to everybody Security Council resolutions of presidential statements are classic examples of drafting by committee where each phrase has usually had 15 hands in it and ultimately the lowest common denominator denominator is
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arrived at rather than the most euphonious or the most explicit sort of phrase in diplomatic language you learn to read between the lines you learn to to read behind the words you try to think of what has been left out and why and what the omission implies about the substance of the diplomatic statement there is always code and there's this wonderful expression of frank and cordial talks which means it is agreed completely and this sort of thing so that of course has its own logic internal subtext but i said i would qualify what I said about literature and that is of course this wonderful field
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of post-modernism which does suggest that texts should also be read in literature for what they leave out what they didn't say for how they say for what's between the lines and so on so maybe from a postmodern sensibility the two fields are not that different in the use of words after all let's talk a little about your recent work at the UN you've been very much involved in in in peacekeeping in shaping norms and and institutions to deal with the problems
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that are merged in the post-cold war world what has been most challenging in that endeavor what has been most difficult and and how is this whole area of words and meanings come to play in that endeavor peacekeeping has been an extraordinary experience I came to it in fact in October 1989 when I was the 6th civilian in the peacekeeping departments there were three military people as well so it was a very small office we had five largely stable peacekeeping
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operations excuse me please which employed fewer than 10,000 soldiers and which had not changed a great deal in the preceding decades and then I found myself in this part of the UN at the end of the Cold War when the dramatic changes in the in the world the New World Disorder provided so many opportunities for peacekeeping to get involved and to grow
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and we shot up from those figures I mentioned to 80,000 troops with 17 major peacekeeping operations by October 94 with Yugoslavia Somalia and Cambodia competing with each other for being the largest single operation in the UN's history and I myself led the team in the Department of peacekeeping the handle peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia which meant that I was working with and on that what has what remains the largest single peacekeeping operation in the history of the United Nations so all of that was exhilarating in a certain
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way exhausting in others tremendously demanding we were making up things as we went along in many ways the norms of peacekeeping that you describe are being shaped very much through the action process of coping with these challenges it was in some ways like trying to to ride a train at breakneck speed while fixing the engine at the same time and this entire process was was was remarkable and difficult we've also seen when you said what were the greatest problems the opposite problem which is the way in which peacekeeping became discredited by its application to crises
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for which peacekeeping as a concept was not ripe for application particularly in situations where there was no peace to keep and peacekeepers found themselves being blamed for failing to do things that they were simply not mandated or equipped or financed to do and with the result of that the pendulum now in peacekeeping a-sun swung so far away from it that the UN's peacekeeping credibility is very much on the line and the Security Council seems quite unwilling to push the UN on the front lines of the the great peace and security challenges of our day to day
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these have been the greatest problems I've shortened drastically my explanation of all of this but I would say that in responding to directly there have been the problems you ask the question of and how words come into this but I can give you one example I talked about Security Council resolutions there's the famous example of the resolutions proclaiming safe areas in Bosnia a phrase itself that can Jones up all sorts of notions of safety and security and yet what's unusual is they said safe areas are not safe havens which are a
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real concept in international law the resolutions never actually use the words protect or defend they simply expect to the UN to deter attacks on these areas by merely deploying a peacekeeping presence and then the words of the resolution went on to say that if that presence wasn't enough and the peacekeepers were attacked they would have the right to use air power of NATO in self-defense now this resolution was what put the UN soldiers in the impossible positions they were in where they were actually in these safe areas unable to go in or out
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unable to bring humanitarian aid in unable to to to to perform the functions over there to perform without the active cooperation of the Serbs besieging these areas who at the same time their critics expected them to attack and bomb as an American professor who were very memorably said that the scores for bombing are particularly seductive former military power because they're like modern courtship they offer the possibility of gratification without commitment then one set of people are willing to drop bombs from a great height and fly away when another set of
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people the UN peacekeepers on the ground have to wake up the morning after and live with the consequences so this situation showed how words applied for diplomatic purposes can be operationally unimplemented on the ground but interestingly as the political will of the international community and particularly the Western world changed those same words found themselves susceptible to different interpretations so that one after the other the same resolution which had given us this this was mended for impotence in this very difficult situation became interpreted
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to justify the exclusion zones around Sarajevo after the market-place massacre of 94 eventually became the basis for justifying the deployment of Rapid Reaction Force and finally justified the massive bombing campaigns all over Bosnia even though the words themselves had not changed and so one of the lessons it teaches me as a writer is how much words can conceal but also how easily words themselves can lend themselves to different political purposes when those purposes change so in a way that reality
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when you're when you're a man of action a man of diplomacy words are given flesh over time by by changing circumstances absolutely no words can kill words can save words have an extraordinary power to lay out the possibilities for people in the world of action let me ask you this what what lessons might students draw from your career you you managed in
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in one persona living two lives I guess to to to be a man of letters and to be a man of action who's involved in some of the most tragic but challenging of world events what would you tell a student who would want to prepare for either or both career I would certainly not encourage anyone to try and do it my way because if nothing else it's completely exhausting and that the the
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opportunities what a famous lawyer words worth you know if you've got the point of this life full of care if you have no time to stand and stare believe me I have no time to stand and stare and the fact is that the fact is that that there is such a thing as feeling from time to time that you really have bitten on more than bitten off more than you can chew because every human being has certain responsibilities he must fulfill as a human being professional responsibilities personal responsibilities and you do wonder sometimes whether in taking on so much
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you are failing to do justice to all of them do as much as you could have done if I'd perhaps only been a writer would I have would I have been a wolf while right hydron if I had only been a UN official what I have been able to devote more time to my family in the time that now I try to jealously guard for my writing and for talking about my writing and so on looking back later on in life perhaps I'll find greater clarity right now I'm too caught up in doing it all but I would say one thing I mean if anyone is motivated enough to to be crazy enough
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to try and do all of this I would say do what comes to you naturally do what you want to do not because you feel obliged to do it when I write because I'm as George Bernard Shaw puts it far better than I can he said I I read for the same reason a cow gives milk now it's in you it's it's got it's got to come out and I I knew that at this point in my life I know that if I give up one or the other aspect of my life a half of my psyche would wither on the vine but at the same time the circumstances that led me both to train as it were for a for I mean
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academically for a life in international affairs and at the same time to develop my skill such as they are in my interests and talents as a writer through circumstances they need not necessarily obtain elsewhere for other people and I think it might well be possible for someone else to be able to to do justice to one thing more than to another while while focusing a little bit of what they want to do I once asked a famous writer Mario Vargas yourself how he'd coped with with writing when he
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needed a job because he mentioned to me in this conversation that he couldn't afford to support himself while writing initially and he said oh I just did I just did a couple of jobs that didn't require the sort of emotional and time commitment that would have made it impossible to write as I know what jobs are though and he's a teaching and journalism and I thought my god those are two professions that to my mind require an enormous investment of both commitment time and emotional energy and I realized what he was really saying to me was it doesn't matter what the job is that you do it depends on how you do it
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it's certainly possible I'm sure for another international civil servant or diplomat to find himself working in a nine-to-five job and have plenty of time to write unfortunately or otherwise there has not been my experience I've never known what it's like to go home much before 8 o'clock in the course of my working life having begun quite early in the morning and and so for me I realize the way in which I do my work at the UN is a reflection of the fact that that that's
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the way in which I apply myself and those are the kinds of assignments that I've been fortunate enough to have been given that they've demanded that's all the time that sort of commitment so ultimately as long as I do my work in the way in which I feel I should do it writing will always have to find its space outside it but no doubt a time will come I don't know when when I'll be able to to either reverse those priorities or finally tell myself I've done what I can in my professional field now let me see what I can leave behind on the bookshelves my grandchildren is
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it to us thank you very much for taking time for being with us today and talking about your fascinating lives thank you and thank you very much for joining us for this conversation with history you Oh

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