by Suresh Subrahmanyan
The purpose of speaking or writing is to communicate with precision. I choose my words because they are the best ones for the idea I want to convey, not the most obscure or rodomontade ones!
~ Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor has absolutely no reason to remember me, but I was a year his senior at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta during the early ‘70s. We met, along with a hall full of other Xaverians, periodically at debates and elocution competitions. Even at that time, Shashi was a star speaker, dazzling his audiences with his wit, flair and an uncanny if a tad ostentatious, knack of slipping in words no one could understand. If you challenged him, he was likely to say something like, ‘The word I employed was the mot juste, my fine, feathered friend. Look up the Concise Oxford Dictionary, there’s a good chap’. After all those decades, it would appear that nothing much has changed. He still speaks nineteen to the dozen, and his audiences are still scurrying to pore over Merriam-Webster and Cambridge on their smart phones.
For what it is worth, and as a somewhat gratuitous aside, Shashi’s father Chandran Tharoor, was the Advertising Manager at the then venerable newspaper in Calcutta, The Statesman. He even offered me a job as his assistant, which I was constrained to decline. Had I accepted, I might have got to know Shashi better, and improved my vocabulary no end. In the event, we were just ships that passed in the night.
Several decades have passed since, and Shashi Tharoor’s career graph has soared meteorically. From being within a whisker of a serious candidacy for the position of the United Nations Secretary General to returning to his homeland and joining the Congress Party, which he has served with flair and panache. In the intervening period, he has had his share of travails, in particular with events surrounding the death of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar. He has come through all this with a degree of sangfroid, which does him great credit. To add to all this, his distinguished good looks, a rich crown of silver grey hair, coupled with his silver tongued oratorical skills, have only added to the glamour one usually associates with film stars. In addition to all this, he is also a successful author and has several books to his credit. In short, the kind of charming man much sought after amongst the jet set.
My mandate, however, is not to write a biography or recount the life and times of Shashi Tharoor. You can get all that and more, on any search engine. Rather, it is to reflect on his unique and loquacious conversational skills. Anyone who can hold his own in a television debate with the brilliantly articulate atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, is a person to be reckoned with. Tharoor is a man who will employ six words where two would suffice. For instance, the word ‘rodomontade’, quoted at the top of this piece, is a prime example of classic Tharoorism, if you’ll pardon the coinage. He could have just said pretentious or boastful, or even highfalutin’. But no, it had to be rodomontade for our Shashi. Not that I am complaining, mind you. In case you haven’t noticed, I am rather partial myself to inserting words that are not often used, and have been the butt of my friends’ barbs. But Shashi stands alone.
Rather than look for specific examples of the great man’s proclivity for the bombastic (not bad, that), I decided to imagine a situation where normal people used words or sentences in a somewhat quotidian, but easily understandable way, and how Shashi Tharoor would have gone about communicating the same sense, in his own, unique manner. Let’s see.
Common man (CM) – ‘Excuse me, but would you tell me what the exact time is, please?’
Shashi Tharoor (ST) – ‘I say old chap, awfully sorry to be a nuisance and all that, but are you by any chance, in possession of a chronometer that could accurately predict the time of day? Anti Meridiem, naturally. Frightfully obliged, and all that sort of rot, don’t you know?’
CM – (at a restaurant) – ‘I would like to order a double fried egg, with chips on the side. And a cup of coffee, no sugar, to go with it. Thank you’.
ST – (at the same restaurant) – ‘Ah bearer of gourmet delights, glad you found the leisure to attend to my gastronomical requirements. I am feeling quite peckish, and a trifle breakfasty, if you get my drift, though it’s closer to lunch. Two eggs, lightly fried, sunny side up would just about hit the spot. And if you can manage some fried tomatoes, with bacon and sausages to go with it, my cup of joy will run over. And speaking of cups, a pot of black coffee, with a cosy to cover it, will be perfect. I will eschew sugar. Mildly diabetic, you know. Doctor’s orders. And an unchipped cup and saucer, Wedgwood or Royal Doulton preferably.’
CM – ‘You want to know if I am interested in English literature. Sherlock Holmes and some of the Agatha Christie novels are as far as I have managed when it comes to reading books.’
ST – ‘A farrago of fact and fiction would be my cup of tea, when it comes to literature. They have a word for it nowadays, ‘faction’, a portmanteau coinage I particularly abhor. Like ‘sexercise’. Absolute balderdash. You can either have sex or exercise, but surely not both? It’s not like doing press ups, though some cretins might aver otherwise. But I digress. Camus, Kafka and Sartre would be my personal favourites. And Flaubert for style. Shakespeare? He’s all right, but all his characters speak in a distinctly odd manner. Get this: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. Open locks, whoever knocks,” this from one of the witches, and Macbeth responds with: “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags!’ I think I’ll turn to old Plum Wodehouse after that nonsense, through the voice of the peerless Jeeves, of course.”.
CM – ‘The Indian general elections can be confusing but once you understand it, it’s quite simple’.
ST – ‘I find the general elections in the land of my forefathers a trifle discombobulating. So many states, candidates and the media going berserk. Frankly, I was quite lost at the hustings during the campaigning, and having to speak in Malayalam with a British accent was no joke, though everyone found it risible. We are, of course only too accustomed to Malayalis speaking English with a pronounced Kerala accent, a ripe subject for so many jocular exchanges. Incidentally, did you know the word Malayalam is a palindrome – a word that spells the same both ways? Like “Able was I ere I saw Elba”, to quote Napoleon Bonaparte.’
At this point the chronicler throws his hands up in resignation. Or indeed, in awe. Mr. Tharoor’s discursive, circumlocutory verbiage is virtually impossible to keep pace with. In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote Matthew Arnold’s paean of praise to Shakespeare:-
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask – Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty.
Picture from http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/