Spring is in full bloom in Delhi. Shashi Tharoor’s residence at Lodhi Estate looks at its best. There is a riot of colours in the courtyard and lawn. But, for Tharoor, life has been a harsh winter for quite some time, bleak and dark.
The criminal investigations following his wife Sunanda Pushkar’s death are still going on and Tharoor has already been questioned thrice in connection with it. Delhi Police Commissioner Bhim Sain Bassi has indicated that Tharoor may be called for questioning again.
“I have had to listen to a lot in the last one year that has been unfounded, unjustifiable and deeply hurtful,’’ says Tharoor. “All the stuff surrounding the tragic passing of Sunanda and the aftermath has not allowed me to find any peace of mind.’’
His writings, speeches, tweets and TV interviews give a clear picture of the kind of person that Tharoor is. “I’m somebody who is very open and transparent,” he says. Putting on a mask and fooling people day after day is impossible. “I’m what I appear to be. It is easier to be the same person outside and inside than pretending to be something you are not,’’ he says.
Tharoor says he won't stop anybody from talking to his staff as part of the investigations. “They spoke to my staff. They met people who like me and don’t like me. I don’t think they found any side to me other than what everyone can see and has seen all these years,’’ he says.
Terming the allegations as “hurtful”, Tharoor says it is beneath his dignity to comment on them. “As the official investigation is going on, I don’t feel free to comment on [it],” he says. “I think I should let the police come to their own conclusion. When they have done so, that will be the time to speak. I will speak then.’’
Amid the gloom, Tharoor seeks solace in writing. His latest book, India Shastra, hit stands in January and right now he is mulling over writing a book on Hinduism. Tharoor has never faced the writer’s block. He doesn't understand why writers face it. “People in other professions don’t have such block. The electrician or the plumber never has a block. In fact, the plumber is there to undo the block,’’ he says.
In an exclusive conversation with THE WEEK, which according to Tharoor is “one of the most intimate and deeply personal interviews” he has ever given, he speaks about the physical and mental trauma he has been going through since his wife's death and how he feels sorry for Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar, though he is the “last person to give her any consolation’’ at this time.
Tharoor has no qualms in admitting that his freethinking became a constraint for him while he was the Congress spokesperson. He also talks about his twin sons, what he dislikes about the BJP, and what Hinduism and spirituality mean to him.
“At the time I lost Sunanda, the very same night, I broke down.... I was in a state of shock.”
The first few weeks following Sunanda's death were extremely hard for Tharoor. “For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t go to work. There was no routine,’’ he recalls.
Soon he fell ill. “The first few months, I had seven different kinds of respiratory infections, which required antibiotics. I lost my voice. My entire system got affected. I guess the mental shock had a physical effect,’’ he says. “Many people say I aged dramatically in the last one year.’’
Tharoor doesn’t have any relatives in Delhi. So, when he fell sick, a number of his relatives came and stayed with him. “My sons were with me for a week. My sisters, each took ten days off and came. Between my staff, many are like family to me,’’ he says. By and large, Tharoor is a self-reliant person. If somebody gives him his medicines, a blanket and something hot to drink, he will look after himself, however sick he is. In January, Tharoor was in Kerala for a two-week ayurveda treatment.
Though he sometimes feels low, Tharoor doesn’t feel lonely anymore. “I’m somebody who values solitude,” he says. “I really enjoy an opportunity to be by myself to read, write or whatever. My life all along hasn’t given me enough opportunities for solitude. So, I haven’t particularly suffered from the kind of suffering I have seen in people who lost their spouse.’’
Soon after Sunanda's death, Tharoor faced re-election from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala from where he was first elected in 2009. The election took an enormous amount of his time, attention and energy. Then there was Parliament and the committee on foreign affairs to attend and in between he had to put together his book. So, his mind was never idle.
Life has never been smooth sailing for Tharoor. He has had to work hard for every mark he got, every position he accomplished. And, there have been setbacks along the way. “I try not to let myself down. That is the cardinal principle for my children also. I tell them to do the best they can,’’ he says.
The adversities have made Tharoor realise that he is stronger than he thinks. “Given what I went through last year, a lot of people say that anybody else would have reacted differently or cracked under the strain or had a nervous breakdown or hit somebody. But I have so far not done any of those things. I have discovered strength in me, which I didn’t know I had but I needed to have,’’ says Tharoor.
Everybody has his/her own way of mourning. Tharoor’s parents were married for 38 years. The day his father died, his mother was inconsolable. Twenty years later, she tells him that she still feels lonely.
“I miss Sunanda.... The first few months, the hardest thing was switching off the lights at night. That is when you realise how alone you are.’’
What Tharoor had was an intense relationship with Sunanda. But it was a short-lived one. “Between our marriage and her passing away was just over three years and a few months. During that time, literally everything was affected by her, from what I wore to the things we did to what I ate. She was a very full presence in my life from morning to night. Therefore, her absence has been very fundamental,’’ says Tharoor.
Before Sunanda's death, Tharoor considered his father's death to be one of the most painful experiences in his life. “But he used to be in a different place. In Sunanda's case, she was a daily presence from morning to night,” he says. “That is something which takes a long time to adjust to.’’
“I feel sorry for Mehr. She was a very unfortunate target of all sorts of accusations.’’
Though Tharoor sympathises with Mehr Tarar, he is not in a position to resume contact with her. “It ended well before Sunanda’s death. I have ended that sort of contact, which was for the most part a long-distance one and I don’t think it is appropriate to resume it now, especially when all this is going on,” he says. “And, there is a perception that there was something inappropriate or conspiratorial about the relationship. So it will be best not to.’’
When asked if something was really brewing between the two, Tharoor says, “I don’t discuss anything private.’’
“I have always been somebody who believed in prayer, but did not formally believe in many of the other things.”
Tharoor has never attempted to define spirituality. But the idea of a supreme being, of forces that cannot be understood or described, has always fascinated him. “That being is unknowable, unreachable, untouchable and unimaginable. We imagine it in human form. Some people imagine divinity as a spark of light. Some others as an old man with a white beard and flowing hair or as a man on the cross. I feel these are all ways to the truth that we cannot know in real life,” says Tharoor. “The very fact that we try to reach out beyond ourselves and the immediate tangible world makes us different from animals.”
Being connected to God gives him a lot of comfort, says Tharoor. His favourite God is Ganesha “who embodies in many ways the human imperfections’’. So does he ask Lord Ganesha to remove the obstacles in his life? “I’m Hindu enough to be reciting the mantras. I also ask for blessings and protection and above all to be worthy of whatever qualities destiny may give me,” says Tharoor.
Does he complain to God in times of trouble? “Not particularly. One has to accept a lot of things in life,” he says. “I have always temperamentally found it necessary to accept that which you cannot change. Therefore, pointing to God or fate doesn’t really help. What has happened has happened. The question is how to deal with it.’’
And, does he go to temples? “Of late, partly because of the people around me and partly because I feel vulnerable, I have found myself going to temples more often,” he says.
“Ishaan and Kanishk, my twin sons, have every way proved worthy of my trust and love.”
Tharoor's sons from previous marriage to Tilottama Mukherji, Ishaan and Kanishk have made their father proud. Tharoor thinks Kanishk, whose first book of short stories will be out this year, is a better writer than he is. “He is extraordinarily talented and gifted. I think he has a tremendous future,’’ says Tharoor.
Kanishk has already been hailed by some of the critics as one of the finest writers of his generation and Tharoor is looking forward to some very good fiction from him. Ishaan, on the other hand, is working for The Washington Post and covers foreign affairs. “He is a respected commentator on foreign affairs,’’ says Tharoor. He was with Time magazine earlier.
So, how did he mentor his sons? “That is for them to answer,’’ says Tharoor. “I have certainly given them encouragement and support. I have never pressed them to be doctors or engineers or do this and that. I have told them to do what interests them and also to keep trying and work hard, to find motivation within themselves and to be self-disciplined. These are the principles I live by and these are the best things I can impart to them. And I have tried to give them the best possible education.’’
Ishaan and Kanishk, both 30, share a strong bond with Tharoor. They are also very close to each other. “One of them is getting married this year. The other one seems to be enjoying bachelorhood too much,’’ says Tharoor.
Shiv, Sunanda’s son from a previous marriage, is in touch with Tharoor. “He obviously had a very tough time because Sunanda was the only parent he had from age three,” says Tharoor. “It has been particularly hard for him and I try to be as supportive as I can.’’
“Let me make it clear that I have never reached out to the BJP nor do I have any inclination to do so.”
There is a general perception that Tharoor is moving closer to the BJP. But he is astonished by such reports. “I’m a staunch articulator of a certain vision of India. I value India as a land of pluralism and diversity. How could then I move closer to a party that is riding a political vehicle of bigotry, sectarianism and of attacks on minority?” he asks.
Tharoor is worried about the way India is being perceived particularly at a time when the government is trying to attract foreign investment. “Why would foreign investors be willing to come to a country where they feel unsafe or unwelcome? Why would the Arab investors come to a place where Muslims live in fear? Why would the European investors come in where churches are attacked? I hope the police will take firm action to prevent these things,’’ he says.
What we need is a credible India, says Tharoor. “We need to live up to that image that we are trying to project to the world.’’
“If you ask me whether the Congress was right in removing me from the post of party spokesperson, I would say ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”
Being the party spokesperson meant that he could speak only in its favour, something, Tharoor says, he could not do because he is a free-thinker. “I tend to express views and opinions which may not be exactly what the party wants. But, I don’t believe that I’m out of step with the broad inclinations of the party,’’ he says.
Tharoor paid the price for praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee submitted a complaint against him for endorsing Modi and accepting the invitation to be the brand ambassador of Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. He was sacked from the post of party spokesperson. Tharoor maintains that he never broke away from the party while taking part in the campaign. “When I cleaned up the beach in my constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, the local party unit was directly involved in it,’’ he says.
He doesn't consider himself a threat to the party. “I think the party will have to learn that I’m not a threat to it nor am I in any way disloyal to its values. I will occasionally say things in a way they never used to be said. That is why, perhaps, I shouldn’t have an official post of a spokesperson. But I can speak for myself. And, I think 99 out of 100 times, people in my party will agree with me,’’ says Tharoor, who drew ire of party workers for criticising Rahul Gandhi on missing the budget session. But that doesn't mean Tharoor doubts Rahul's capabilities. “I know Rahul reasonably as a party leader,” he says. “I have tremendous faith in his capacity and talent, his instincts, and his vision to lead the party.”