BOOKLESS IN BAGHDAD by Shashi Tharoor. Arcade, 2005. 277 pages. $25.00.
Have you ever visited a distant friend or extended family member and been rewarded with a shoebox shuffle? You know, the chai comes first, and then the “Remember when …” comment, followed by the shuffling through an old shoebox of photographs that contains that remembered moment plus other images from the past. Reading Shashi Tharoor’s collection of essays in Bookless in Baghdad is a bit like doing the shoebox shuffle—a pleasant enough trip down memory lane for those who may have read Tharoor’s previous fiction and nonfiction and are interested in the author’s “reflections on writing and writers.”
Tharoor serves as a genial host. A gifted (though at times glib and redundant) storyteller, he takes the reader on a journey that is not unlike his literary childhood—eclectic. After introducing this childhood, Tharoor structures the first chapter around a simple organizing principle: his books, ranging from The Great Indian Novel to God’s Own Country. For someone who (like this reviewer, who praised The Great Indian Novel in these pages in 1991) has read most of these books, this chapter is quite accessible; but for others it might be a bit tiring, not unlike seeing a stranger’s family album.
In the second chapter, our genial host transforms into a literary critic, throwing bouquets and brickbats at an odd mix of writers: P. G. Wodehouse (nostalgic bouquet), Malcolm Muggeridge (eccentric bouquet), Winston Churchill (cantankerous brickbat), John Le Carre (dyspeptic brickbat), Alexander Pushkin (irrelevant bouquet), Pablo Neruda (self-referential bouquet), Nirad Chaudhuri (contemptuous brickbat), R.K. Narayan (sullen brickbat), V.S. Naipaul (sympathetic bouquet), and Salman Rushdie (effusive bouquet).
Tharoor is at his best when he is generous about a writer and focused on the ideas that inform the writing. The finest (and longest) essay in the book is “Salman Rushdie: The Ground Beneath His Feet.” Ostensibly the essay is about the eponymous writer, although only six of the 24 pages are about Rushdie. After praising Rushdie as “one of the best and most important novelists of our time,” Tharoor puts him into soft focus and zooms out to India’s diversity, pluralism, and secularism.
Secularism in India does not mean irreligiousness. Rather, it means, in the Indian tradition, multi-religiousness. In the Calcutta neighborhood where I lived during my high-school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer blended with the tinkling bells and chanted mantras at the Shiva temple nearby and the crackling loudspeakers outside the Sikh gurudwara reciting verses from the Granth Sahib. (And St. Paul’s Cathedral was only minutes away.)
This fine memoir serves as a sociological girder supporting Tharoor’s (and Rushdie’s) thesis that the “singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.” Unfortunately, it also highlights the glaring weakness of this under-edited book: repetition. Tharoor repeats his more memorable phrases, performing a kind of self-plagiarism that feels like sloppy writing from a prolific writer.
Perhaps it’s the curse of a collection of previously published essays (which, with one exception, the author and editor do not identify by date or original source). Or perhaps it’s simply a case of Tharoor’s shoebox-of-a-book haphazardly holding the same phrases in different essays, like copies of photos dispersed here and there for lazy viewing after a cup of chai.
By Rajesh c Ojha