It is a rain-soaked Thursday evening in Delhi. The special session of Parliament is over, and MP Shashi Tharoor is nursing a cold in his library. There is a pot of tea on his desk, along with a pen stand, some books and a giant laptop. Behind him, books stand ramrod straight, carefully separated into sections. Lord Ganesh, the original mythical journalist, sits in different shapes and sizes on a table, keeping an eye on Tharoor—a voracious reader, prolific writer and frequent commentator on X. His voice is just slightly hoarse. “[The cold] comes twice a year almost without fail,’’ he says, as he sips his tea.
His latest book, The Less You Preach, The More You Learn, written together with long-time friend Joseph Zacharias, is a book of aphorisms. “Aphorisms must be short since they are intended to convey a profound or insightful idea with brevity, clarity and wit,’’ he writes in the introduction. These one-liners that tell the proverbial, pared-down truth with wit and flair are perfect for wisdom in the age of distraction. And Tharoor, with his reputation of being an almost human thesaurus, is the perfect poster-boy for these pithy facts of life. Especially as these are bite-sized observations with the potential to go viral. Sample this: ‘It is the fate of the wise to understand the process of history and yet never to shape it.’ Or this: ‘The man who thinks he knows everything needs to marry a woman who actually does.’ “The old cliche about every successful man having a woman behind him and so on,’’ says Tharoor. “I remember once cracking a joke at university saying, ‘Yes, every successful man has a woman behind them, because men tend to put their mistakes behind them.’ That was just being mischievous as undergraduates would be. But you can imagine the reaction I got from some of my women friends. And at the same time, the other variant is: ‘Every successful man has a woman behind him, telling him that he’s wrong’.”
Here’s another Tharoorism for life today: ‘The pessimist complains about the weather. The optimist declares it will change. The pragmatist goes out anyway with an umbrella.’ There is advice on marriage, on success, on love and on friendship. Tharoor’s personal maxim is that ‘sometimes it is better to lose an argument than a friend’. In these polarised times, this might be worth holding on to. “This is getting more and more around the world,” he says. “I have seen it in India and in our Parliament, which used to be much more collegial and comradely. There are much fewer examples of people socialising across party lines, other than maybe a coffee in the central hall, and the central hall has now ceased to exist.” The new one—“a large, cavernous convention centre”—needs friendships to possibly find its soul.
For success at work, the book advises you to never drink with the boss. Do not carry his bags either. ‘Don’t get too familiar and don’t become too subservient,’ it says. But how does this work for diplomats where familiarity is essential for negotiations? That one was written by Zacharias and not by him, says Tharoor. He himself might not subscribe to this. When he was a diplomat in the UN, for example, Tharoor certainly chose to befriend his boss, then Secretary General Kofi Annan. He not only drank with him, but also shared a meal cooked by Annan at his Long Island home. “That did not strike a jarring note with me, because in the UN that’s the kind of relationship [one shares] with one’s bosses,” says Tharoor. “We often call them by their first names. So, until he became secretary general, Kofi was Kofi and that was simply the way it was. At the same time, there is a collegial as well as a comradely relationship. We all know who the boss is, but the ‘sir’ culture that we have in India does not exist.”
In fact, aphorism no 52 came from Annan himself : ‘Never hit a man on his head if you have your fingers between his teeth’. He said it at the Security Council during a diplomatic crisis involving one of the more powerful members. “I said, ‘Why don’t we take a tough stand?’,” says Tharoor. “To which his answer was, ‘Well, as my father used to say, never hit a man on the head if you have your fingers between his teeth.’ In other words, when you have certain vulnerabilities with a person, you can’t afford to be too tough on that person. And that’s really true. For example, a secretary general needs the bigger powers to be help [deal with] a whole number of issues. If he chooses to pick a fight with that country on one issue, he may lose out on 10 other issues. It is like putting your fingers between somebody’s teeth—you hit him on the head, he bites your fingers automatically, and you lose the fingers.’’
Much like the message of coalition politics? “Yes, absolutely,’’ he says. Offering delightful, heart-in-the-right-place advice, these aphorisms range from the philosophical to the political. Some of them—like ‘The true leader does not hesitate to distribute credit and shoulder blame’—is true and open to interpretation. “I think it applies in the world of Indian politics,” says Tharoor. “The brave speak up for what they believe in. Cowards believe what they’re told to speak up for.” And of course, he has the last word as always.
The Less You Preach, The More You Learn: Aphorisms for Our Age
By Shashi Tharoor and Joseph Zacharias
Published by Aleph Book Company
Price Rs499; pages 182