Secret Diary 2019

Shashi Tharoor opens up about his childhood — family, school and growing up

Secret Diary of Shashi Tharoor — Part 1

Vishal Koul

He was my hero. Of late, I wake up conscious to the feeling that my dad never saw his 64th birthday. I turn 64 next year. He was only 26 when I was born, and his demise, when I was 37, was sudden. I lost not just a father, but also a close friend, somebody whom I could share everything in my life with, and who made me the person I am. A lot of my self-confidence is rooted in my father’s faith — his enormous respect for my writing and my intellectual ability. Though a strict disciplinarian who was liberal with his use of hands, he did confess to me later in life that he didn’t know any better, because that’s the way he was brought up.

I was a precocious child who raced through school, college and got his PhD by 22. In some sense, it was a hectic adolescence. I was born in London, where my father was a manager of ‘The Statesman’, at a time (1956) when all the managers in India were Englishmen. He had been to the UK as a student and stayed on to work for a couple of publications as their representative, selling space to British companies operating in India. He always wanted to come back, and luckily, got the opportunity when an Englishman retired in Bombay.

I was two-and-a-half years old when we shifted to the city. But my initial schooling was an abortive stint at a boarding school, Montfort, near Salem in Tamil Nadu. I had developed severe bronchitis and was spending a lot of time with the infirmary at the school. Even though I missed some exams, I still came third that year and was due to move a grade higher. But the school management wrote to my father, “This boy should be with his parents as he’s too young to do deal with life on his own”. Campion, the school in Bombay that I was being admitted to, refused to take a six-year-old into class IV. So, I still have the stigma of having repeated a year despite faring well!


I had a great time at Campion though, as the school was very strong in extra-curriculars with a good theatre tradition. There’s one incident from my theatre days that’s etched in my memory — when I was forced to know about my caste, thanks to a boy named Rishi Kapoor, the youngest son of Raj Kapoor.

I had acted, recited a humorous poem and MC’ed my class’ efforts to generous applause, which could have got the younger Kapoor either intrigued or disconcerted, for he sought me out the next morning. “Tharoor,” the burly Rishi asked me at the head of the steps near the toilet, “what caste are you?” “I…I don’t know,” I stammered. My father, who never mentioned anyone’s religion, let alone caste, had not bothered to enlighten me on such matters. “You don’t know?” he said in astonishment. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Everybody knows their own caste.” I confessed I didn’t. “You mean you’re not a Brahmin?” He never spoke to me again in school. That evening, I went home and asked my parents, whose liberality had left me in such ignorance. My father had dropped his caste name during his days at Victoria College (Palakkad, Kerala) and since then never ever mentioned his caste or religion.

It’s only later did I realise that I had Parsi, Christian, Muslim and Sikh friends. There was this boy, probably among the very privileged few in Bombay to have a cassette tape recorder in his Fiat car; that’s how I thought of people, and not by their religion. As it turned out, he was a Muslim. So, it is to Kapoor that I owe my first lesson about my genealogical past of being a Nair!

Incidentally, my discovery of caste is a thinly fictionalised account of what I saw growing up in life, in my book ‘India: From Midnight to The Millennium’. My parents were very devout, and their idea of a good holiday was either taking me and my two sisters to a pilgrimage or to their ancestral homes!

I still remember vividly, when we used to play cricket and football, a kid would sit on the wall watching us. On asking my uncle why we don’t invite him to play, he would say, “you don’t understand anything.” Only later was I told that he was from a caste known as Ezhava, largely comprising people from the farming community, and were considered as untouchables. One day, the boy caught the ball and returned it to us. My friends shouted at him for doing so; they would rather have gone over the wall to pick it up, than play with the ball he had ‘contaminated’! On one occasion, when our ball fell into a well, the boy’s offer to help was rudely turned down. A few years later, the kid began playing with us, but he was still not invited into the house. A year later, he was invited into the house, but was not invited to eat with us, or in the kitchen. Over the next couple of years, the boy was offered food, but he still couldn’t sit alongside us on a table but had to sit on the floor and eat on a plantain leaf. And then, a few years later, the same kid began walking in and out of our house with complete freedom, going into the kitchen, talking in familiar terms to others. I took this story as a metaphor for Kerala’s changing social evolution and how the progressive movement managed to rid people of their prejudices against other castes. 


My rendezvous with books began, thanks to my ailment. Since I was an asthmatic and would often be bed-ridden, I turned into a voracious reader. My taste ranged from the humour of PG Wodehouse — who was a sheer delight for his use of language, incredibly complex and clever plotting — including eastern European and Russian classics, all the way up to traditional tales such as the “Mahabharata.”

At the age of six, I wrote my first story — very much inspired by western books I was reading, such as Enid Blyton and Biggles. My parents did me a great favour by taking that seriously and got my writings typed up and circulated them among friends. At an absurdly young age, I began thinking of myself as a writer. Thanks to dad, when I was 10, my first short story appeared in print, in a Sunday paper in Bombay, called ‘Bharat Jyoti’, owned by ‘The Free Press Journal (FPJ)’. The story was inspired by the American Civil War that divided the country into two, and I wrote two versions of that story. The version published in the FPJ was about a father, a Union general, who kills his son, a confederate soldier. I, subsequently, rewrote the story around the time that the Tamil language riots broke out, wherein an IPS officer takes action against his son, who is one of the protestors.

The thrill of seeing your name in print is like the first bite of chocolate. You want to do it again. And that’s really what happened with my writing; the bug bit me very early.


My father got transferred to Calcutta to head advertising for the entire group. It was a big promotion, and again, a happy change for me, because of the three years of high school in St Xavier’s, Calcutta. It was unquestionably egalitarian and, in my day, the best school in the city, particularly in terms of its intellectual rigour.

They had something called extempore speech — you get a topic, often drawn out of a hat or a bowl, get locked up in a room for five minutes and then you had to speak extempore without any preparation. The school had a Good Conduct Medal, the only occasion when students could get to vote, and I was proud to win the citation in class IX. My other achievement from the school is when the Father, or the school principal, asked me to draft his speech for the school equivalent of a convocation. I still remember the day: it was in class X and I took the text I had given him to see how much of it had been retained. Realising that 90% of what he spoke was what I had written made me feel terribly confident, because here I was, a 14-year-old, writing a speech for a man in his 50s!

Another interesting experience was when I was made the editor of the school magazine, and I went through the spasm of discovering rationality in atheism, which lasted for a few months. So, I wrote an essay on why God does not exist. A senior Father did not allow it to be published, but he must have talked about it. That’s because in our moral science class, there was a very brilliant young priest in his mid-20s, Cyril Desbruslais, who in reaction to my argument delivered one of the most clever, well-argued and cogent lectures, and of course, it went above the heads of most of the rest of class. But I knew it was intended for me, giving epistemological argument for the existence of God. I’ve never forgotten that, it kind of shook my faith in absolute rationalism and atheism. To some degree, I ended up in the position where Pascal had been as well. Pascal’s wager essentially argues that, between the options of believing and not believing in God, you’re better off believing. I’m increasingly convinced that the world has more mysteries than science. I gave up on my scepticism, and I think, it’s a part of normal evolution that I’m sure others have gone through. 

Around the same time, 1969, Calcutta was going through a major upheaval, when the political establishment was reverberating with communist slogans. I became rather right of Centre in terms of my political philosophy. But my writing continued. Just before my 11th birthday, my first collection of a six series article was published in ‘The Statesman’. The article was completely imitative of the Biggles. I’ve always believed that no one can teach you to write. You teach yourself by reading extensively, seeing what works in terms of style, and what naturally comes to you.

Growing up in Kolkata had infused my interest in history as a subject and I wanted to study at Presidency College, but unfortunately, the vice chancellor of Jadavpur University was murdered. The turn of events marred by student protests, demonstrations and student fights disrupted the schedule of exams. Suddenly, this famous university precipitously declined amid all the violence, forcing me to move to Delhi.



This is Part 1 of Shashi Tharoor's three-part Secret Diary. You can read Part 2 and Part 3 here.


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