Shashi Tharoor on the Delhi riots: 'This could be the crumbling of my life's work'

The politician discussed balancing politics and writing during his appearance at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi

Shashi Thuroor spoke about politics during his appearance at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Hay Festival Abu Dhabi
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Indian National Congress party MP Shashi Tharoor has decried the clashes in New Delhi between Hindus and Muslims during an appearance at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, saying it was "the crumbling of my life's work".

Three days of violent unrest between the religious groups has left at least 20 people dead including at least one police officer. Another 200 people were injured in the worst riots in the Indian capital in decades.

Tharoor, the polymath member of parliament for Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram, tried to steer clear of politics during his session at the festival at Manarat Al Saadiyat, saying he had not wanted to draw attention away from the literary event. However, when asked about his thoughts during questions, he didn't hold back.

For me this cuts to the bone, it hurts at a very visceral level. For it to be happening in my country is bad enough, but to my country is worse

"This is a dangerous trend: bigotry, prejudice and hatred aren't attractive qualities for a country to represent.

"There's a sense of horror that it has happened. Some people are saying this is an aberration ... others are saying maybe we got our own country wrong. And I don't know which it is. I obviously hope the latter."

Tharoor said it was difficult for him to be away from India while the bloodshed was taking place, but said on a personal level, it was also affecting him. Tharoor has built a career on documenting India and its history, as well as its culture, politics, society and foreign policy. He has written 18 bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction and has written for many international publications.

"For me this cuts to the bone, it hurts at a very visceral level.

"It would really be a crumbling of my life's work if I saw India reduced to an ... exclusionary state," he said.

Tharoor said one of the reasons he has written so prolifically throughout his career is because he felt such a  "deep moral urgency about things going wrong in my country".

Tharoor served as an official at the United Nations from 1978 to 2007. He made a bid for the secretary general's office in 2006, but finished second to Ban Ki-moon, and announced his retirement soon after. Tharoor returned to India and began his political career in 2009, joining the Indian National Congress and becoming an MP for his home state of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

He wrote books throughout his career, first beginning during his years at the United Nations.

Speaking to British Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam in Abu Dhabi, he admits that he only started writing his first book The Great Indian Novel, for which he is perhaps best-known, "for a lark".

"I had no plan, and no chart of how I was going to write it," he said. Published in 1989, the satirical novel takes the story of the Indian epic, Mahabharata, and recasts it in the context of the Indian Independence Movement and its aftermath. It went on to become one of the most popular works of fiction an Indian writer has ever produced, and has had 47 reprints in India and several abroad.

There's a narrowing space in my country now for freedom of speech and standing up for what's right – so at the moment the only reasonable answer is that the fight must go on

"I wrote almost without caring if I could pull it off," Tharoor said. "But the most gratifying thing is a generation of Indians who weren't even born when it was published are buying and reading it and telling me they like it."

As his writing career took off, Tharoor published several novels while juggling his work at the UN. He recalled his rise in popularity while he leading a peacekeeping operation in Europe: "I was getting calls from publishers all over America asking me to offer them my next book, but I was saying sorry I'm dealing with Bosnia and all that right now... there isn't a next book."

Feeling the pressures of his demanding job, Tharoor turned to non-fiction because it was "uninterruptible".

Of his political career, Tharoor says he was elected because of his outsider status, saying there was "no one like me" in Indian politics at the time.

However, he believes it is his hard work and willingness to "get things done" that has kept him there.

One of the achievements he was most proud of as MP, was opening the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.

When asked how much longer his political career was likely to last, Tharoor wasn't sure. He admitted his family had asked him to take a step back.

"I'm not a career politician. I came into politics because I had a set of convictions."

However, he believed he had a few more years in him yet, saying he was one of many "willing to fight" what was going on in Delhi.

"There's a narrowing space in my country now for freedom of speech and standing up for what's right – so at the moment the only reasonable answer is that the fight must go on."