Tharoor recasts the traditional Indian epic poem Mahabharata in The Great Indian Novel, his first published work of fiction. Tharoor uses the ancient story as a framework upon which to satirize India's political history through the use of allusions. Major characters appear as thinly-veiled reincarnations of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Mohandas K. Gandhi. The author also weaves into the narrative occasionally mocking references to certain British novels that have dealt with India; for instance, there is a chapter titled "The Bungle Book," after Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, and The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott is transformed into "The Duel with the Crown." An E.M. Forster character from A Passage to India, Ronald Heaslop, reappears frequently throughout The Great Indian Novel. Contemporary Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie come under Tharoor's wit, with Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children recalled as "Midnight's Parents."
The narrator of The Great Indian Novel, Ved Vyas, is an elder statesman of the Indian nationalist movement who both describes and participates in the events of the novel, which retells the political history of twentieth-century India. Ved is "the progenitor of every grasping politician since liberty and he's the half-brother of the virgin-coddling, toilet-scrubbing, Untouchable-petting and all-star obtuse Gangaji (read M.K. Gandhi)," explained John Calvin Batchelor in the Washington Post Book World. "Gangaji," Ved remarks in the book, "was the kind of person it is more convenient to forget. The principles he stood for and the way he asserted them were always easier to admire than to follow. While he was alive, he was impossible to ignore; once he had gone, he was impossible to imitate."
Tharoor's plot details fictional events that closely resemble actual occurrences during India's struggle toward independence. Edward Hower, writing in Chicago Tribune Books, found The Great Indian Novel "ambitious and often eloquent," adding: "We need no special knowledge of India to find Tharoor's book fascinating." New York Times Book Review contributor Michael Gorra complimented the author on his wit, remarking: "I loved the complicated joke Mr. Tharoor builds out of Kipling's 'Gunga Din' and the sense of comic resignation with which he describes bureaucracy as 'simultaneously the most crippling of Indian diseases and the highest of Indian art-forms.'"
Tharoor's prose style is singled out for praise by Contemporary Novelists' essayist Ralph J. Crane. Discussing The Great Indian Novel, Crane noted the historical and political aspects of the book, but went on to say: "Perhaps of even greater importance than the history and politics in this novel is Tharoor's interest in language. Through his many linguistic and literary games--such as the novel's self-reflexivity and the frequent spot-the allusion games--Tharoor exposes the power of language as a tool of the colonial process while at the same time pointing the reader back to the literature." Crane concluded: "While Tharoor's work has so far received scant critical attention, The Great Indian Novel alone suggests that he deserves to be considered among the major Indian writers of recent decades."
In his second novel, Show Business, Tharoor writes about a fictional actor who catapults to fame in India's thriving film industry. "Year in, year out, [in India] hundreds of gaudy, fantastical, escapist, preposterous action-musical-romance-epics are churned out," explained reviewer William Boyd in the New York Times Book Review. Cast as a leading man in these matinee-style movies, Ashok Banjara becomes a box office sensation, growing rich and marrying his costar. He is also a prolific womanizer, seducing his next costar while his wife is pregnant with triplets. Described by Sybil Steinberg in Publishers Weekly as "a personable, egotistical cad," Ashok next trades on his fame to enter politics, which eventually brings about his downfall and public disgrace. Critic Jonathan Yardley, reviewing Show Business in the Washington Post Book World, considered it "a splendid novel." Yardley stated: "Eschewing the temptations of magical realism to which other Indian writers have succumbed, he has written a witty, ironic novel in which Indian film--and India itself--is seen from any number of revealing angles." Boyd praised Show Business for its stylistic flair, perceiving the novel as "a mix of first-person narration, synopses of Ashok's dreadful Hindi films and resentful and accusatory monologues by the supporting cast. The effect is to fragment and rearrange the chronology ... of Ashok Banjara in a way that replicates the razzle-dazzle of the Hindi film world, but that also permits Mr. Tharoor to comment, with telling irony and insight, on the curious parallels between India's unique film culture and the ... serenity and chaos ... of India itself."
Tharoor offered "an engaging reflection on the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence" with India: From Midnight to the Millennium, according to Foreign Affairs reviewer Donald Zagoria. Outstanding photographs and sparkling commentary combine in a volume that "blends academic analysis and personal observation on a whole range of topics and problems that India confronts--caste, religion, and economics." Booklist writer Donna Seaman found India to be "an ideal introduction to India's diversity and mesh of past and present," and a "captivating survey." Donald Johnson, a contributor to the Library Journal, wrote that Tharoor's India, "like his earlier work ... is an insightful and provocative analysis of the accomplishments and failures of the past fifty years. ... Superbly written, this work will be useful to anyone interested in modern India." John F. Burns, in the New York Times Book Review, noted that Tharoor shows "an encyclopedic command of what has gone wrong with Indian democracy over the past half-century." Burns further related his opinion that "Tharoor is a fluid and powerful writer, one of the best in a generation of Indian writers."
Tharoor's third novel, Riot: A Love Story, concerns the mysterious death of a young American woman in India. Set in 1989, the work follows the efforts of Katharine and Rudyard Hart to discover the truth behind the murder of their daughter Priscilla, a graduate student doing field research in Zalilgarh. The Harts learn that Priscilla was stabbed during a Hindu-Muslim riot; in truth, wrote Booklist critic Elsa Gaztambide, her "death is a paradox of love and hatred, and there is more to her demise than anyone will ever reveal." Told through interviews, letters, scrapbooks, diary entries, and newspaper clippings, Riot traces Priscilla's doomed romance with V. Lakshman, a married Indian district magistrate. "Simultaneously, another story unfolds: a tale of the fierce loves and fierce hatreds that both bind together modern India and periodically threaten to tear it apart," noted Adam Goodheart in the New York Times Book Review. According to a critic in Publishers Weekly: "Tharoor's story is about a larger topic than the undoing of one innocent American--it is about the potential fragmentation of the secular Indian republic, a tragedy in the making."
In Nehru: The Invention of India, Tharoor examines the life of Jawaharlal Nehru, the legendary freedom fighter and statesman who served as India's first prime minister. In the biography, the author charts the key points in Nehru's transformation from British-educated lawyer to nationalist hero, "a shrewd practical politician and editorialist who entered into powerful alliances, notably with Mohandas Gandhi, but who charted his own course," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic. According to Nisid Hajari, writing in Newsweek International, Tharoor also draws a portrait "of a man with as many flaws as extraordinary qualities, one buffeted by his times even as he shaped them." In Nehru, wrote Time International contributor Aravind Adiga, Tharoor shows how "the architect of modern India turned his country into a democracy and an industrial giant but also shackled it to a heavily regulated socialist economy. If Nehru managed to fuse a disparate jumble of regions and principalities into a united nation, he also bequeathed India its most serious political problem, the insurgency in Kashmir." Calling the work a "balanced interpretation" of Nehru's life, Library Journal reviewer John F. Riddick praised Tharoor's "gracefully written" account.
In Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers, a volume of essays, speeches, and newspaper columns, Tharoor reflects on such wide-ranging subjects as Aesop's fables, a trip to Spain, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and a book market in the capital of war-torn Iraq. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman complimented the "far-ranging, piquant, and enlivening collection." A critic in Kirkus Reviews found that the volume contained "intriguing thoughts by an author of worldly range and depth."
Through his efforts as a United Nations official and an author, Tharoor has become a staunch advocate for diversity and universal human rights. "As a writer, I believe it is vital that literature help express national identity, however varied, fragmented, or evolving it may be in each country," he commented to Huebner. "At the same time, literature should cross national boundaries so that through this process of interaction and exchange, the freedom of expression of all cultures, and not just any one dominant culture, you can really preserve diversity and universality at the same time."
The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-century Power is a collection of essays in which Tharoor celebrates Indian tradition and studies the progress that is modernizing his beloved country, including his home state of Kerala, which he praises for raising literacy rates among women. Educating girls, he writes, should be India's number one priority. He also expresses his love of the beautiful sari, now seldom seen, and celebrates India's place in the global economy. He comments on the call centers that have provided so many jobs, and cell-phone usage, as the title indicates, and provides a number of biographies.
Tharoor, a Hindu, discusses the various religious groups that coexist in India. The final section is his glossary titled "The A to Z of Being Indian," which Seaman found to be "hilarious yet indispensable." In the Washington Post Book World, Alex von Tunzelmann wrote that "it is a chaotic, joyous, occasionally exhausting and often uplifting collage. As such, it could hardly be a more fitting reflection of its subject. If Tharoor's India really is the future, the rest of us had better hold on tight."
Tharoor once told CA: "Ever since my birth--to Indian parents in London--I was marked by the casting of two mutually-irreconcilable horoscopes, I have led a 'double life,' only one part of which has been devoted to writing. But it has been an important, even vital part. I wrote fiction from a very young age, my first story emerging when I was six. I was an asthmatic child, often bedridden with severe attacks, who rapidly exhausted the diversions available to me. Like every first child, I found few books on the family's shelves that appealed to me, and those I read inconveniently fast. Purchases were expensive and libraries limited; many let you borrow only one book at a time, and I had an awkward tendency to finish that in the car on the way home. Perhaps the ultimate clincher was that there was no television in the Bombay of my boyhood. So I wrote.
"I often had to sit up in bed to do so, but my imagination overcame my wheezing. My first stories were imitative school mysteries in the Enid Blyton tradition, but without the Enid Blyton flair. By the time I was nine I was attempting to churn out heroic tales of wartime derring-do. Here I was more than derivative; I abandoned any patriotic pretensions and wrote about an RAF fighter pilot called Reginald Bellows. When the first installment of 'Operation Bellows' appeared, in a Calcutta teen magazine, I was a month short of my eleventh birthday. I had found my metier.
"As I became a teenager, I started trying to depict the world I knew in India. Improbable fantasies about distant lands and times seemed suddenly less interesting than writing about people like myself. The audience was ready made--Indians who read Indian mass-circulation magazines. I was writing to be published and to be read, not to pursue an obscure literary aesthetic. This in turn helped define the nature, and limitations, of my early work. My stories (subsequently collected in The Five-dollar Smile) largely reflect an adolescent sensibility; with one or two exceptions the stories' concerns, assumptions, and language all emerge from the consciousness of an urban Indian male in his late teens.
"India is, of course, a vast and complex country; in Walt Whitman's phrase, it contains multitudes. If the world depicted in my short stories is a very narrow slice of it, the scope of my first novel may have taken my writing to the other extreme. In The Great Indian Novel I attempted to reinvent the political history of twentieth-century India through a recasting of characters, events and themes from the two-thousand-year-old Indian epic Mahabharata. I hoped in the process to cast a satirical light on the myths and legends of India's traditional culture as well as of its contemporary history. My second novel, Show Business, is, like its predecessor, also concerned with the kinds of stories a society tells about itself--in this case, the stories of India's popular cinema. In retelling, reinterpreting, and remaking national myths both ancient and modern, the two novels attempt an irreverent treatment of some fairly serious questions--the nature of India as society and nation, as well as the issues of destiny and predestination, reality and illusion, public morality and human values, even karma and dharma. But the irreverence was essential, both because of its capacity to provoke and because I unashamedly want people to enjoy my books.
"The other feature of my writing that I hope readers will appreciate is the liberties I take with conventional narrative technique. The interpolation of verse (mock epic doggerel in The Great Indian Novel, parodied film lyrics in Show Business) is a stylistic device that I hope proves as pleasurable to readers as it did to me, and it also serves a literary purpose within the context of the novel."
From: "Shashi Tharoor." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2010.