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Rukun Advani, Shashi Tharoor and the Necessity to Impress Others

'I suspect most readers will know Shashi Tharoor’s public profile. To show how Rukun Advani is, as it were, his absolute Other...'

It is not often that an author and his editor strike up a relationship that survives 40 years of epistolary exchanges and intellectual sparring. The enduring and occasionally fractious friendship that developed between the historian Ramachandra Guha and his editor Rukun Advani is the subject of the literary memoir, The Cooking of Books: A Literary Memoir.

An excerpt is below.

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A Stephanian he was distinctly ambivalent about was their exact contemporary, Shashi Tharoor. Both ranked first in their class – Tharoor in History, Advani in English – but there the resemblance ended. Shashi was, even in college, very much a public man, debating, acting, becoming president of the Wodehouse Society and of the Quiz Club before being elected president of the College Union. He was charming and outgoing, but, from the start, ferociously ambitious. Shashi wanted to make a mark in the world, quicker and more dramatically than any Stephanian (or perhaps any Indian) before him. Whereas Rukun had no ambition to become well known. In college, all he wanted to do was read, listen to music, and have one-on-one conversations with friends. In the OUP, all he wanted to do was edit books; while he gloried in the success of his authors, he never remotely wanted to take any credit for this. As we have seen, this inwardness and reclusiveness deepened even further when he retreated to Ranikhet and ran Permanent Black from there.

‘The Cooking of Books,’ Ramachandra Guha, Juggernaut, 2024.

Rukun had a mixed opinion of Shashi Tharoor as a writer, and as a public figure. Of Tharoor‘s The Great Indian Novel he once wrote:

[T]he deliberately provocative immodesty of the title actually has less to with the author’s nearly incredible self-esteem than with the irreverent, daring and heady atmosphere of the St. Stephen’s to which this over-spun allegory seems completely traceable. The proper place for this novel to have been serialized was Kooler Talk, the Stephanian rag made up of wit, puns, good humour, satire and irreverence.

In that same essay, Rukun compared Tharoor unfavourably to other novelists from St. Stephen’s. Whereas the language of Upamanyu Chatterjee, was, he thought, ‘a very much more refined and reflective version’ of Kooler Talk, both ‘Allan Sealy and Amitav Ghosh are traceable to St. Stephen’s much less easily and much more obscurely than Tharoor and Chatterjee’. While taking something from their old college, these more gifted writers had outgrown its milieu, tackling complex historical and moral questions beyond the grasp of the common or garden variety of Stephanian novelist.

As is well known, after St. Stephen’s, Shashi Tharoor went on to a long and distinguished career at the United Nations, before returning to India to enter politics and joining the Congress Party. He became a member of Parliament, then a Union minister, before being sacked in part because of a jokey tweet, and in part because he seemed keener in involving himself in India’s foremost cricket tournament, the IPL (Indian Premier League), than in discharging his responsibilities as a minister.

When Tharoor was asked to resign by the prime minister, Rukun wrote me a mail combining compassion with sarcasm, which must – only slightly redacted – now be made public:

I feel a bit sorry for him. So much ambition, and successful all the way till the failed attempt to become UN chief. And now the first big political victim of something as silly as a Tweet. Poetic justice I guess for former editor of that expanded version of tweeting, Kooler Talk. He’s completely secular and personally decent, a good man fallen among thieves. Since he has literary ambition as well, a good analogy seems Tharoor as Macbeth with vaulting ambition . . . trying to dethrone King Lalit Duncan Modi and coming a cropper. But I fear something worse is going to befall us now: he will inflict his third-rate narcissistic journalism on us once again. We should plead with Nirmala Lakshman [editor of the Hindu Sunday Magazine, where Tharoor had a column before he joined politics] to run for her life before he starts badgering her.

Shashi Tharoor and Rukun Advani were exact contemporaries at St. Stephen’s. Superficially, they were alike; both brilliant, both very widely read, each far removed in his interests from the ‘sports type’ that I myself was in college. Even some of their literary tastes overlapped; both admired Wodehouse and Orwell, for example. Yet in terms of character and personality no two Stephanians could be so radically dissimilar. I suspect most readers of this book will know Shashi Tharoor’s public profile. To show how Rukun Advani is, as it were, his absolute Other, I must take recourse to the words of the most gifted of all Stephanian prose stylists, Mukul Kesavan:

[Rukun] has no interest in impressing others. This sounds impressive but it isn’t because this freedom from human neediness isn’t down to modesty or reticence or some karmic insight into the general maya-ness of things. It’s simpler than that, so simple that he can’t take any credit for it: Rukun doesn’t like People.

It explains everything about him. This is why he lives in the hills. This is why he loved [his dog] Biscoot without reservation: he wasn’t human. He loves Beethoven because he’s dead and his genius can be electronically reproduced without the agency of other people. It’s why he deals in books: books are forms of disembodied intelligence, they hold out the promise of profundity or pleasure without people attached.

Ramachandra Guha is an eminent historian and writer.