Kanishk Tharoor

Kanishk Tharoor, author of Swimmer Among Stars

People around me was looking for him. So was I. It was evident that everybody was waiting to see someone with at least traces of silky hair that flops just right, large honey-coloured eyes and a flamboyant and charismatic personality – just like his father. When the lady in front of me leant over to fetch her glass of Sprite, I saw him. So did the others.

Clad in a dark blazer with too big a gold-coloured pocket square. His dark coarse hair stuck to a smallish skull. Unshaven. And of height, that was never going to impress. There was a collective sigh of disappointment even before he could say “hello”. Cruel world.

He looked scruffy. He just landed from Delhi a few hours ago said the host. And the whisper, again – so what, his father would’ve still trumped him. He looked a little lost. His father’s air of confidence was sorely missed. Yes, I too was close to being disappointed.

Child of a famous parent. It is a terrible cross to bear. A legacy that weighs heavily wherever you go. Ask MF Hussain’s talented painter son. Or Rohan Gavaskar. Their shadow is not theirs. It has the name of the famous parent scrawled on it. In bold. And it is big enough to swallow you whole. It’s like a grey mist that won’t clear. Difficult to wade through. Some get lost trying. Some learn to live with the heirloom of fame, losing themselves in their father’s looming spectre. But there are few, very few, whose shadow has their own name on it. He’s one of them. But it takes time for people in the room to see it. Their eyes are clouded by habit.

He was there to talk about his book, Swimmer among stars – a collection of short stories written over a period. The first one, he had penned when he was only 18. Renowned author Amitav Ghosh called him a “visionary”. His prose is striking. He had earlier published an award-winning short fiction. He studied at Yale and graduated magna cum laude and phi beta kappa with BAs in History and Literature.

But when he sat down to chat that evening. Nothing mattered. People in the room were trying to see his father in him. The shadow loomed large – for others. Not for him. He was nervous. Not overtly. But surely. He seemed uncomfortable even, at least till he warmed up to the crowd and the evening. His father would’ve had the room eating out of his palms by now, somebody said. The comparison was the giant elephant in the room. Me too Brutus!

Surprisingly, around ten minutes into the conversation, the father’s shadow begins to fade. The mist clears and the outline of the son emerges. Clearer and sharper. There’s something about this young man. He is his own. He might not be an orator. But he would make an engaging one-to-one conversationalist. He has stories to tell. And he tells them well, with passion. Of lost languages and more. His words are not hollow.

He talks about history and football. His greatest passions. He is a die-hard Arsenal fan. He speaks candidly. “Nations haven’t shaped me,” he says. He lives in New York; his mother is in Calcutta, and his father resides in Kerala. “Instead,” he says, “cities have shaped me.” Home is here and there and where he is. But there are contradictions too. “Though I am from New York,” he says, “I am not influenced by American writings.” His inspirations come from the writings of European and South American writers. Especially the translated works. “My Bengali is superior to my Malayalam,” he responds to a faceless query.

About the book, he says, there’s a shape to it. “There’s an arc. And there is a destination. But there is no resolution. The world is filled with unresolved situations. I like the endings to be open, so the reader can feel the closeness and also the estrangement.”

He talks about how his new wife, a poet, has influenced his writing. “She reads all my works first, and I read hers first. We work in the same space. In that sense, we create together. And it is beautiful,” he says. You believe. And cross your fingers for a happily ever after. His father is still searching for his.

He talks about his stories again. He does not use quotation marks to denote dialogues. Many contemporary writers don’t. But I liked his explanation better. He says, “I don’t want to separate the dialogue from the story. I don’t want a demarcation. A break in the telling.” He wants it to be like those folktales that he loves much. Contiguous storytelling. Personal and intimate.

The mist has cleared completely. Now you see him and him alone. In the room, his father is not even an illusion anymore. And then the penny drops: It was he who was there from the beginning. We just refused to see. It is but unfair to cloak a son with his famous father’s vestments.

Kanishk Tharoor and his father Shashi Tharoor will always be two distinct individuals. And this son is his own man. And his new book is a compelling read 🙂

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When I Met Them is a series on some of the interesting people who have crossed my path — Sudha Pillai