“The freedom to mock one’s leaders is desperately important” : Shashi Tharoor

P Anima | Updated on September 18, 2020

Turns of phrase: It is difficult to think of an author as brilliantly creative with the use of language as Salman Rushdie, observes Tharoor   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

Author and three-time Member of Parliament on his new book Tharoorosaurus, and how words delight as well as shape ideas and thoughts

Author Chetan Bhagat was clearly elated when Shashi Tharoor, writer and Member of Parliament, commended him on Twitter for his “superb” observations in a newspaper column published last week. In the virtual parley that ensued, an overwhelmed Bhagat held that the adjective “superb” was indeed “nice”, but praise, particularly when it came from Tharoor, ideally needed a word of more syllables than two. A sportive Tharoor responded in kind: “It’s clear you are not sesquipedalian nor given to rodomontade. Your ideas are unembellished with tortuous convolutions & expressed without ostentation. I appreciate the limpid perspicacity of today’s column.” In other words, Bhagat was not long-winded, nor boastful, his words were plain and simple — and Tharoor quite liked the sharpness in that day’s column. Bhagat asked for “a big one”, he was treated to a mouthful.

Tharoorosaurus / Shashi Tharoor / Penguin/Viking /Non-fiction /₹399


Tharoor’s penchant for multisyllabic words have over the years won him a new set of followers, especially on the micro-blogging site. Indians instinctively associate “floccinaucinihilipilification” and “farrago”, words casually dropped in his tweets, with the three-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Yet his latest book Tharoorosaurus — a fusion of his name with thesaurus as well as tyrannosaurus — is not just a collection of quirky long words. Instead, the 53 terms — one for each week of the year and an extra one for the leap day — are particularly resonant of the times. Among them are “quarantine”, “pandemic” and “impeach” — words that describe varying aspects of 2020. But there are also tiny, unusual and even everyday words — “goon”, “cwtch” and “quiz” for instance — which emerge as pint-sized surprises for the stories they come with. Each word is followed up with an anecdote, a technique which enables lay readers to forge an instant connection with it and consider it afresh. Mihir Joglekar’s fun illustrations ably assist the cause. In an email interview with BLink, Tharoor speaks of the delight words give him and how Tharoorosaurus — a book for the young and the old — came together. Edited excerpts.

Shakespeare’s vocabulary, you mention in the book, is supposed to have consisted of 17,245 words. You, too, have a fairly large inventory of words at your disposal. How difficult was it to whittle down the selection to 53? What dictated the choice of these particular words?

It was rather difficult to pick 53 when there are so many fascinating and unique words out there! In terms of why I chose them — I found some to be particularly fun, others have gained notoriety in recent times. There was no particular reason for the final choice of 53 words — they were either words I’d recently used in a tweet (like “farrago” and “kakistocracy”), or words that the country was suddenly hearing a lot more often than usual (“pandemic” and “quarantine”), or words in the news (“impeachment” and “apostrophe”), or sometimes just words that I could tell interesting stories about (like “curfew” and “defenestrate”). All my selections have, in the end, been driven by what I found interesting, rather than any conscious decision to curate a particular collection of words.

Tharoorosaurus is very much a book of the times. The imprints of the year 2020 are felt all through — evident in the choice of words and the contemporary crises you’ve touched upon. At what point did it grow beyond a wacky little word book?

I never thought of myself writing just a “little word book”, simply because I am neither a linguist nor a philologist, nor have I ever particularly thought of myself as an English teacher. For me, expressing my delight in words was also about what the words could be used to convey. My father, from whom I inherited this addiction, instilled in me the conviction that words are what shape ideas and reflect thought, and the more words you know, the more precisely and effectively are you able to express your thoughts and ideas. So I did want the little essays to convey to the reader some of my own thoughts and ideas — which are not purely political or limited to the news, but also reflect some of my interests, biases and sense of humour. I hope it works!

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This work reacquaints readers with the immense possibilities of satire. You’ve cleverly employed irony and humour to make stinging observations about your political opponents and the current dispensation. What place does satire hold in a climate where a tweet or a Facebook post can land one in trouble? Why is it imperative to bring satire back into public discourse?

You mention one of the worst authoritarian impulses we have seen — clamping down on free expression. I think the freedom to satirise, to speak truth to power and, indeed, to mock one’s leaders, is desperately important. It allows us to hold our leaders to account in a subversive and entertaining way — and criticism of this nature can be even more effective than that which is provided in a “serious” manner. You might recall my first two novels, The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, were both satires, touching upon some things [politics, mythology and Bollywood] that are almost treated as sacred in our society. Friends tell me they wonder today if I could publish The Great Indian Novel in the current climate of intolerance, with so many politicians ready to take offence! It is absolutely critical that we not just allow, but encourage satire in our public discourse. It is one of the healthiest and revealing features of a democratic society to be able to laugh at ourselves and prick the pretensions of the privileged.

It is a given that “farrago” [hodgepodge] and “floccinaucinihilipilification” [the act of estimating someone/something as worthless] would make it into the book. But did you learn any new word while putting this book together? If so, which one? It could also be a word about which you learned a great deal more.

Not so much the words themselves, which I knew, but the stories behind them emerged from research — where I was ably helped by a retired English professor, Sheeba Thattil [she retired from Vimala College, Thrissur], who sent me much of the material to delve into. So almost every little essay has an anecdote or story that I didn’t know before researching the book.

Emojis are touted as the fastest growing language of communication in the world. Neuroscientists are studying the impact of an increasingly visual communication on the human brain, while teachers are observing changes in the way children relate to the written word. Where does that leave words and linguaphiles?

Human communication is something that, by its very nature, has evolved constantly. The patterns of speech we use today would be odd to someone from a century ago, and perhaps unintelligible to someone living a millennium ago. Emojis may very well be another step forward in this evolutionary process — and, for that, they are to be welcomed! I do not, however, see any threat to the written word. I have my doubts that emojis, memes and GIFs will be able to fully capture the nuance and poetry that language can carry — although perhaps I will be proven wrong by some particularly creative users!

When you come across a new word, how do you acquaint yourself with it enough to use it in your writing and conversations later? I presume it goes beyond merely finding out its meaning. For instance, knowing that George Bernard Shaw considered the “apostrophe” an “uncouth bacilli” makes one see this pesky punctuation mark in an entirely new light. Is it important for you to know the story/history behind a word?

I would certainly say that it adds flavour to knowing that word. For example, I have never been one to try and expand my vocabulary merely through reading dictionaries or thesauruses. The only way I have built up the vocabulary I use today is through reading far and wide. Once you see the same word being used in multiple contexts, you start to grasp an idea of its meaning, and are able to use it yourself. So, in that sense, I suppose I do enjoy learning the “story” of a word, how it can be used, and so on. But I’d want to see it more than once before feeling comfortable using it myself.

In the book, you mention the hundreds of new words Shakespeare, Milton, Donne and Jonson could add to English since it was a young language at the time. New authorisms, you point out, had declined by the 20th century. Every language has a trajectory of growth and decline. How do you see English faring/evolving in the future?

It is almost impossible to predict the way that a language will move forward. But English has been particularly flexible and accommodative of imported words and neologisms unlike, say, French, which has the Academie Francaise ruling on which words are permissible to use in the language. As I said, I think this evolution is something to be celebrated: It reflects that language is the most human of constructs, as we humans are constantly evolving and changing ourselves. You mentioned emojis earlier — perhaps that will be a new avenue of language development! In any case, it will be fascinating to see how English will develop, particularly at the hands of the younger generations. There are already so many words that I only discovered recently — when I spoke of “emojis, memes and GIFs” in an earlier answer to you, I was using three words I didn’t know a decade ago: Perhaps a sign of the inevitability of linguistic change!

Is there a contemporary author whose use of language has fascinated you?

Salman Rushdie. With the exception of Gabriel García Márquez, whom I have only read in translation, it is difficult to think of an author as brilliantly creative with the use of language. His free-flowing prose, filled with oblique references and neologisms, transports the reader into a magnificent world that only a genius could create. I called Midnight’s Children “The Great Indian Novel” on its publication in 1981 — I think the title still holds true.

If you have to make a sentence with 7-8 words from the 53 in Tharoorosaurus, what will it be?

That’s a totally artificial exercise, but in the spirit of a game, we could try this: “In our agathokakological world, the kakistocracy, despite being ritually applauded by their claques, deserves the brickbats we satyagrahis are all flinging at them for the pandemic of bigotry they have unleashed; indeed, until we can defenestrate them, these vigilante goons and their phobias should be quarantined before they infect the general populace with their lunacy and xenophobic zealotry.” That uses 14 of the 53 words, and actually conveys a serious thought!

[Editor’s translation: In a world that is both good and evil, a society governed by its least competent citizens, despite being applauded by the bhakts, deserves the brickbats that we, followers of Gandhi, fling at them for the biases that they have unleashed — indeed, until we can throw them out of the window, these goons and their fears should be quarantined before they infect the people with their lunacy and anti-outsider fanaticism. ...Well, I asked for it!]

P Anima

Published on September 17, 2020

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