There’s no shortage of literary talent in writer Kanishk Tharoor’s family. His father Shashi, an Indian politician and former diplomat, has published over a dozen of books. His mother, Tilottama, is a professor of literature at New York University. His twin brother, Ishaan, is a foreign affairs writer with the Washington Post.
This is not simply a passion passed from father to son like a baton in a relay — it is a shared state of being. The family is bound together by their literary ambition, their linguistic confidence and their mastery of the art of storytelling.
“Engaging with the wider world through writing always seemed a rather natural thing to do since both my parents do just that,” says the New York-based writer whose first book Swimmer Among The Stars, a collection of short stories, was recently published.
Born in Singapore, Tharoor was raised in Geneva until age five, when the family moved to New York City. It was here that his love for the written word began, growing up in a compact apartment teeming with books.
Tharoor recalls having “pretty boyish tastes” in adventure and fantasy tales but that was, he says, something of a gateway act that led swiftly to reading, or trying to read, more serious literature when he was 12.
“My father would read to us every night when we were very small, even leaving recordings of stories while he was away travelling for work,” Tharoor says. “My mother would read to us as well. Through them we were exposed from a young age to stories as diverse as Enid Blyton’s Noddy series and Russian mythology.”
Tharoor considers himself very fortunate to have been raised in a home that valued literature and learning. “It encouraged Ishaan and my omnivorous interest in art, history, and politics,” he says. He later went on to major in history and literature at Yale University.
History and culture pervade almost all of Tharoor’s writing and radio work. He presents the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects (a show about antiquity destroyed in Iraq and Syria in recent years), is the writer of the Lost Cities series for The Guardian, and a number of the stories in his debut collection, Swimmer Among the Stars, take up explicitly historical subjects or play with historical material.
“The past often feels as urgent to me as the present,” he says, talking about his interest, although he is slightly cautious to call the novel he’s currently working on historical. “That is such a loaded and limiting term”, he says. “[The book] is set in the fairly distant past.”
It’s all the author divulges about his upcoming novel, adding that, if there was one thing he would like to have, is would be the time to establish a “proper routine” to help him finish it.
Right now, he’s basking in the success of his debut book, which was released by celebrated British-Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri at an event in India last year. In attendence was Tharoor’s mother and his 85-year-old maternal grandmother, Saroj Mukherjee, who is also a writer. The event took place in Kolkata — the city Tharoor describes as his home in India (his summer holidays during his childhood were spent there).
The book received generous praise from fellow writers. Chaudhuri likened Tharoor’s literary style to Walter Benjamin’s work on Franz Kafka, and Indian–American writer Amitav Ghosh hailed the young writer’s “extraordinary talent, original and probing mind.” In his blog, Ghosh wrote: “What caught my interest is the manner in which Tharoor breaks with the fictional conventions of this era. It is as though he were conjuring up possibilities that are better suited for times to come.”
His debut fiction, a collection of deftly wrought short stories, was drawn over the course of a decade, according to the 31-year-old writer. Although the belief persists that short stories are a poor relative of the novel, Tharoor says the brevity of the form is delightful, and certainly harder to write. It goes without saying that he is perfectly at home with the form.
“Short stories are a much more intense form of fiction than the novel, which is a bit more diffuse and attenuated. But because of their relative brevity, you can play with more adventurous conceits.” Succinctly driving the point home, Tharoor continues, “I can write a story like ‘A United Nations in Space’ in 25 pages, about diplomats trapped in near earth orbit, that might strain the reader’s credulity if it lasted 250 pages.” ‘A United Nations in Space’ is one of the stories in Swimmer Among The Stars.
Happy that his debut book was well received in India, Tharoor says he’s now looking forward to its release around the world this spring. Last month, he promoted it at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. He was accompanied by his wife, poet Amanda Calderon.
“I have never spent much time in Dubai or the UAE, so my wife and I are keen to get to know the city and get a taste of its cosmopolitanism,” Tharoor told me before his trip.
Calderon was also one of the speakers at the festival. The couple, who married in 2015, met at New York University where both had fellowships in the creative writing programme. “My wife and I are each other’s first readers, strongest critics, and biggest supports,” he says.
Tharoor was only 23 when he published his short story, ‘Tale of the Teahouse’, which chronicles the final days of a nameless town awaiting its impending doom as an invading army approaches. “I wrote Tale of the Teahouse years after the calamitous Iraq war. I’d also seen an old Soviet film called The Fall of Otrar, about a Central Asian city destroyed by the Mongols. I tried to explore the fear of the ‘other’ and the devastation of war through this story, which imagines the conversations in a teashop in a city on the eve of its destruction.”
One of the biggest delights of writing, according to Tharoor, is winning recognition. While ‘Tale of the Teahouse’ earned him the Emily Balch prize, Swimmer Among The Stars won the Tata First Book Prize for fiction in India. “As a young writer, awards help not only build reputation but also encourage self-belief. I’m grateful for the appreciation my work has won so far.”
Not limiting himself, Tharoor keeps himself busy with very different sorts of writing. He writes for many publications around the world, including The Guardian and The Independent. He even had a stint in London as the associate editor of openDemocracy. Like his father, he takes an interest in Indian politics, and writes columns for two Indian dailies.
“India is the most interesting place in the world,” he says. “That said, for most of the year I’m outside of India, and not really well positioned to write about current events there.”
Essentially, he insists, he’s the person who’s not keen to play the clichéd role of being an “interpreter” of India for a western audience. “I want anything I write about India to be as meaningful to Indians as it would be edifying for others.”
It is his work — in radio, journalism, and other “nonfiction” preoccupations — that currently takes up most of Tharoor’s time. In his downtime, he loves exploring the nooks and crannies of cities, and cooking. He is also a football fan. “Soccer. Not American football,” he clarifies. “I also write about it from time to time.”
Even after having established literary credentials and emerging as one of the most important new voices in the literary world, Tharoor still feels he is yet to prove himself. Ask him why he feels that way, and he replies with characteristic honesty.
“I’m at an early stage of my career and have a lot to prove to myself and to others. I’ve always believed in my ability but, of course, I’ve been occasionally plagued by doubts or stung by criticism. The only thing you can do in those circumstances is keep on writing.”
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.
What would I be if I hadn’t been a writer... Probably an academic historian; in another life, an urban planner
A book I wish I’d written... Eduardo Galeano’s “Football in Sun and Shadow”
The first novel I read... Persian epic The Shahnameh. I read an abridged version as a child.
A recent book I will remember in 10 years’ time... Sjon’s “From the Mouth of the Whale”
A book I’d take to a desert Island ... Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”