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Author Kanishk Tharoor On Language And Short Stories

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Author Kanishk Tharoor On Language And Short Stories

Author Interviews

Author Kanishk Tharoor On Language And Short Stories

Author Kanishk Tharoor On Language And Short Stories

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Author Kanishk Tharoor's first book, Swimmer Among the Stars, is a compilation of short stories. He tells Scott Simon the format requires intensity and offers an opportunity to be playful.


Kanishk Tharoor's first book of short stories has a lot of comings and goings. The last speaker of a language that's about to be lost sings a song. An elephant travels from Kerala to Morocco in the hold of a ship then slurps water from the pond of a golf course on his way to the gardens of a princess. And ice breakers of several different nationalities get frozen in the same Arctic ice, run low on food and Indian movies. And so the stories spin around the world.

"Swimmer Among The Stars" is the title, and Kanishk Tharoor, who's written for The Guardian, The Hindu, Foreign Policy and is presenter of the "Museum Of Lost Objects" series on BBC Radio 4, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

KANISHK THAROOR: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The title story - it occurred to me when I was three or four stories beyond that you've written a story about the last speaker of a language without really letting us in on the language.

THAROOR: The question of language extinction - I was drawn to this subject for a number of reasons. You know, we live an unprecedented period of language loss, so I didn't necessarily want to localize the issue to a particular region, a particular place. I think it's incumbent upon us, all of us who read, live and think and dream in the English language, to be aware of the losses incurred by this great linguistic empire that we live in running roughshod over the Earth. So this story, which yes, it came out of a specific place that I've been to and spent time in, but I didn't want to name it because I wanted to give it a slightly more universal quality since it is a universal problem.

SIMON: Yeah. You make plain in the course of the story that once the language is lost, certain bridges of thinking will be lost too.

THAROOR: I'm also ambivalent about that idea. The main figure of this story is a woman who is thought to be the last speaker of her language. And the sort of drama of the story takes place in an interview she has with a team of anthropologists who, of course, are concerned about the loss of this language and want to do their best to record it in a rigorous, scientific way. But at the same time, I wanted to sort of test this idea that we can know a people, a culture, by just knowing their language in such a scientific way. And as the story unfolds, you see that the interviewee, the supposed last speaker, pushes back at these ethnographers and, you know, plays with what constitutes a language, what constitutes a culture. And there's something more dynamic there that even in the very important task of recording and cataloging can be lost.

SIMON: She sings a wedding song to the researchers.

THAROOR: (Laughter).

SIMON: And in her language, the wedding song doesn't have what I'll delicately refer to as the traditional payoff.

THAROOR: (Laughter) That's right.

SIMON: Which makes you think these guys are headed the same way of the Shakers.

THAROOR: (Laughter) Well, she's - she begins the story by dutifully singing the kind of song she expects her interviewers to want to hear. That is, a traditional folk song, and in this case, it's about a wedding. But then when she thinks about what she's doing, she revises that task and decides to invent a story about something else altogether. And she thinks about how she doesn't want this language that she is now the sole possessor of to be a repository of the past. And she tries to create something new, and in so doing, I think is really pushing towards what language is.

SIMON: Don't mind saying my favorite story, and I enjoyed them all, but my favorite was "Elephant At Sea."

THAROOR: (Laughter).

SIMON: A Moroccan princess wants an elephant for her garden. The Indian government wants to comply. The small but hilarious bureaucratic touches and details you have in here I couldn't help but thinking, in some measure, do they trace back to the experience of a young man who grew up going to the United Nations School?

THAROOR: Well, you know, this story is actually based on a perfectly true story that was told to us by a family friend who was in the Indian Foreign Service. I grew up in a U.N. family. We had a slightly peripatetic upbringing across a few continents but grew up mostly in New York City once my father was with the U.N. secretariat.

SIMON: Shashi Tharoor was - we should explain for those who don't know it - was undersecretary general of the United Nations for many years.

THAROOR: He was. And anyway, this story about a Moroccan princess asking an Indian ambassador in the 1950s for an elephant is actually true. And it was related to us by a family friend, and it stuck with me from a young age. It seemed sort of comic - a comic example of this pace of Indian bureaucracy that, you know, once this request is made by the Moroccan princess, it passes through the normal sclerotic bureaucratic channels. And finally, many years later - six, seven years later - the elephant is finally sent to Morocco. At which point, this princess, who made the request in the first place, has completely forgotten, grown up and is no longer interested in this elephant.

But let me - if I may tell you a little story about this - so I had this story in my head and about a decade ago, I went to Morocco and traveled around and this story sort of revived itself in me. And eventually, I wrote this short story. Like many writers, I followed my imagination and didn't try necessarily to dig into the facts of this story. But what was remarkable - when I launched this book in India, at my book launch in Delhi in the audience was a lovely woman who turned out to be the daughter of the Indian ambassador to Morocco at the time.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

THAROOR: And she had read this story of mine and was so moved by it because apparently, A, I had gotten certain details right, including the way her father looked and the way he acted.

SIMON: And this was totally - total luck, happenstance.

THAROOR: Complete - I mean, complete fortune, yes. And she brought a picture of herself sitting next to the Moroccan princess, and she claims to have seen this elephant when it actually arrived to Morocco. So it was quite a wonderful moment when, you know, as a writer of fiction to produce something full of whimsy and even a touch of fantasy and to put it out into the world and then to see it come back to you in real life was quite a remarkable thing.

SIMON: Yeah. Can a short story leave a mark that a novel might miss?

THAROOR: I do think that short stories require - both in the reading and in the writing - require a kind of intensity that the novel doesn't. And so I think the short story does have the potential to leave quite a strong mark on its readers, to take them places. The power of the novel is that it makes you, as a reader, live in a world for a sustained period of time. And the short story I think, while it can do that, it's really more I think - I think a short story opens doors to a world outside sometimes, whereas a novel brings you into a home.

SIMON: Kanishk Tharoor - his first book of stories - "Swimmer Among The Stars." Thanks so much for being with us.

THAROOR: Thank you, Scott.


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