Review of ‘India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time’

An extensive collection of 100 essays, India Shastra makes for discerning reading, and offers much food for thought on contemporary India and events from its recent history that have contributed to its present state of affairs in the political, social, economic, cultural and communal arenas, writes Monica Arora.


  • Hardcover: 492 pages
  • Publisher: Aleph Book Company; First edition (29 January 2015)
  • Language: English

As a public figure and an eminent politician, Dr Shashi Tharoor has carved a unique niche for himself in public perception and media, owing to his several “trysts with destiny”–of both favourable and unfavourable hues–on social media platforms as well as in real life. Truth, it is said, is sometimes stranger than fiction; and who could be a better example of having lead such a chequered life amidst harsh scrutiny and comments–some warranted and some unwarranted– from all quarters of socio-political arenas and platforms?

What can be said undeniably of this extremely charming, suave and articulate writer-politician with a large body of experience–he was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, which he served for 29 years, he was a former Minister of State for External Affairs in the Government of India; currently he has been re-elected as a Member of Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency, and chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs–is that he is a very insightful writer and an author par excellence. His astute sense of perception, and his understanding of both the micro-level of Indian politics at the grassroots as well as the holistic picture at the macro-level, is evident from his latest book India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time. An extensive collection of 100 essays, it makes for discerning reading, and offers much food for thought on contemporary India and events from its recent history that have contributed to its present state of affairs in the political, social, economic, cultural and communal arenas.

Divided into eight neatly segregated sections, India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time talks about the events that have shaped India until May of 2014. Section I, “India Modi-fied,” scrutinizes the first six months of the BJP government’s performance chart. Interestingly, despite himself being a Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor has displayed a remarkable sense of appreciation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s genuine accomplishments such as the Cleanliness Initiative, but is equally critical of Modi’s purported “silence” on communal voices rearing their ugly heads from time to time in myriad nooks and crannies of the country.

Section II, “Modi’s India and the World,” dwells on the foreign policy actions and decisions of the new government, the problems afflicting the country’s foreign policy, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s successful diplomatic breakthrough during her Afghanistan visit, the infamous Khobragade scandal, and other such incidents that have been colouring recent news.

Shashi_TharoorThe section which I found the most endearing and alluring was undoubtedly the third one on “The Legacy,” which speaks, among other topics, on the forgotten Indian soldiers who participated in the First World War, the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, the ideals of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the aura of the inimitable Rabindranath Tagore and about many such great personalities, and the heritage that is a part and parcel of India’s rich cultural past. About Tagore, Dr Shashi Tharoor writes: “And yet this magnificent wielder of words spoke modestly of the value of poetry. ‘Words are barren, dismal and uninspiring by themselves,’ he said in a 1922 lecture, ‘but when they are bound together by some bond of rhythm they attain their significance as a reality which can be described as creative.'” The fact that India has inherited such great legacies in terms of thinkers, philosophers, visionaries, political leaders, authors, poets, et al is a matter of national pride, and the author has done a remarkable job in clustering these under this evocative third section of essays.

The fourth section entitled “Ideas of India” deals with the changes in age-old ideas of Indian democracy and talks about fresh perspectives sweeping the hearts of Indians, be it the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party after toppling established legacies, or the new-fangled definitions of development, which, for a modern evolved Indian represents a better quality of life and not just a figure denoting a plumped-up GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figure or some infrastructural achievements. For instance, Tharoor explains that one of his “most favourite images of India is from the last Kumbh Mela of a naked Sadhu, with matted hair, ash-smeared forehead, rudraksh mala and scraggly beard, for all the world a picture of timeless other-wordliness, chatting away on a cell-phone.”  In his inimitable style, Tharoor decodes these interesting paradoxes visible in today’s India.

“The Pursuit of Excellence,” which comprises Section V deals with the nation’s quest to excel in various key areas of development, be it industry and manufacturing or a better quality of education, particularly higher education for the blossoming of–by far the most crucial resource of any nation–its youth. Moreover, this section speaks about India’s lunar mission Chandrayaan and its hugely successful Martian mission Mangalyaan, catapulting the country to the top echelons, among the many developed nations with a progressive space and research infrastructure in place. India’s Twitter revolutions, the futuristic e-governance and the role of the web in shaping the future of any nation’s socio-political space are also discussed here.

Section VI picks up “Issues of Contention,” offering much cause for debate and dilemma for India, such as the Ayodhya fiasco of 1992, the role of responsible journalism, the slow and time-consuming visa procurement process, India’s stance as an asylum provider to international refugees, rampant corruption in governing bodies, the controversial ‘bringing back of black money’ slogan of the new government and then its sluggish implementation, and so on.

The seventh section examines A Society in Flux” which mirrors the changing times and their impact on Indian society such as issues of how dogmas pertaining to astrology, numerology, astronomy, etc. still continue to rule our decisions despite modern developments; how colonial dress codes need to be outworn and shed; how the caste system continues to plague most mofussil towns, districts, villages and hutments of rural India; how the FYUP fiasco disrupted the graduation system; how women continue to be violated and destroyed physically, mentally and sexually despite claims of better laws and security measures being put into place; how terrorism failed to dampen the spirits of a nation continuously ravaged by its despicable torments in different parts such as Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Bombay, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar and so on and yet India continues to tackle the menace with a mixed feeling of being overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time.

The final section, Section VIII, offers a vision into “India Beyond India” and explores topics and themes which are of global interest and hence relevant to India. Shashi Tharoor looks back at his years with the UN and explains how “the UN isn’t just a way of bureaucratizing our consciences; it makes a real difference to real human beings, a difference that only the UN can make.” He speaks of how the ISIS crisis and the Arab Spring affect India and its peace and its neighbourhood, particularly communist China. The invasive dilemmas of cyber security, the age and times of near-absolute dependence on the World Wide Web in all spheres of contemporary life right from grocery shopping to controlling an inter-space satellite and the author’s random musings on issues close to his heart make this section a delightful and rich tapestry of thoughts and ruminations that have been influencing Dr Tharoor’s life and times in his different avatars in India and abroad.

In his own words, Dr Shashi Tharoor describes India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time as a portrait of contemporary India, as according to him: “India is a land of extraordinary pluralism and diversity, where political democracy is indispensable to national survival; a country of great economic potential held back by some of its own policies and practices, many of which are in the process of being re-examined and re-invented; and a lively, contentious and exciting society which is far removed from the timeless and unchanging land of well-worn cliché. A Rip Kumar Winkle who had fallen asleep at the end of the Second World War seventy years ago would be unable to recognize the India of 2015. Everything has either changed dramatically or is in the process of changing: the nation’s politics, its economic preferences, its social assumptions, the relations amongst castes, the material and professional choices available in the country, the patterns and habits of daily life, and the intangible attitudes of Indians towards everything from religion to profit-making.”

Translated literally into Sanskrit, the term shastra implies a rule or treatise written to explain in detail a thought or an idea, particularly in the context of religion or philosophy in erstwhile India. Dr Shashi Tharoor has professed no such rules or guidelines in this book but has instead raised pertinent questions and analyzed relevant topics in a simple conversational tone that is easy to read, and conjures up many subjects/issues to ponder and analyze for any Indian in today’s age and time. And this is what makes this body of work all the more important and relevant to anyone, be it in India or anywhere on the planet, to understand and scrutinize the changes sweeping through modern India and their impact on the present and the future.

Monica Arora is Kitaab’s Reviews Editor.