Growing up with two accomplished writers for parents, Kanishk, son of Shashi Tharoor and Tilottama Mukherji, says writing became "an obvious thing to do"
Kanishk Tharoor is in India with a busy social diary. He and his poet wife Amanda, were the toast of Lutyens’ Delhi at a reception hosted by his father, former UN diplomat-turned Congress politician and bestselling author Shashi Tharoor, and attended by political and diplomatic heavyweights. Kanishk will now be seen in a different avatar, as he takes his book of short stories Swimmer Among The Stars to Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Jaipur.
Kanishk, who grew up in New York City and went to Yale and Columbia, has been featuring regularly on several ‘to-watch out for’ lists for his award-winning prose. In a conversation with sunday mid-day, the writer spoke about his early influences and how the collection has been put together. Excerpts:
Q. The stories in Swimmer Among The Stars are set in different cultures and time. The obvious assumption would
be that your father’s work exposed you to these influences. Is that correct?
A. I grew up in NYC from the age of six, when my father was with the UN. My brother (Ishaan) and I went to an international school. My mother (Tilottama Mukherji) is a professor as well. We grew up with different languages and cultures. We almost lived in a bubble, with a helplessly international view of the world. This shaped my intellectual interests and imagination. Which is the why the stories are set here, there, everywhere.
Q. Given that both your parents are intellectuals and accomplished writers, what kind of reading were you exposed to as a child?
A. Oh, we read everything. We grew up in a house of books. And a house of ancient books that had been around for generations. We had some very old copies of English books — old Enid Blytons and other books my dad must have read as a child. We read a lot of Russian folk tales and epics... all sorts of literature. When we were four or five, my mom used to read out a lot of folk tales and mythology to us. Our favourite book was a big illustrated one on Greek mythology. I read my first Marquez when I was 12 or 13. I did have to read it again later to understand it. But it was that kind of atmosphere.
Q. When did you realise that you want to be a writer?
A. When you grow up with parents who are deeply engaged with literature and are such accomplished writers, it sort of becomes an obvious thing to do. I began writing when I was six or seven years old. My first serious work was published when I was 18. It helped that I won a fellowship in my youth, though I was not sure of my ambition to be a writer as I tried the academic path for a while. It was over the last four years that I have devoted myself completely to writing.
Q. How was Swimmer Among The Stars put together?
A. The first story in the collection (Elephant at Sea) was written when I was 18 years old. The stories were written over a period of 19 years. But the bulk of them were written over a period of three to four years. I did not set out to write a collection. It was only when I realised that I had accumulated enough stories that the idea came to my mind. The title of the book comes from a story that David Davidar (Aleph) thought captures the spirit of many of the stories. The tone of the stories is adventurous, playful, with a bit of magic realism and heavily influenced by folk tales.
Q. Tale of the Teahouse (about a city razed by a marauding army) is one of the darker stories in the collection. Tell us a bit about it.
A. It was written when I was 22 or 23 years old. I think when I was younger my brother showed me a Soviet film called the The Fall of Otrar about a Central Asian city that is under siege. It had nothing about a tea house though. But something about the film stuck with me very strongly and sprung up later as Tale of the Teahouse. The story was nominated for an award by the Virginia Quarterly Review and was also awarded the prize for the best work of fiction published by the magazine. The writer who picked the story said that it reminded the reader of the seige of Baghdad. I can see how it can happen, though it was not my intent. It was a fine example of how the writer’s intent is bettered by the reader’s interpretation.
Q. Your father has been going through some very trying times...
I would not like to comment on it. We are a close family and we support each other. It has not been easy for him but we support each other and love each other.