Swimmer Among The Stars: Shashi Tharoor’s Son Tells Stories Too
Kanishk Tharoor with his mother Tilottama Tharoor and maternal grandmother Saroj Mukherjee (Photo: Payal Mohanka)
Kanishk Tharoor with his mother Tilottama Tharoor and maternal grandmother Saroj Mukherjee (Photo: Payal Mohanka)

Swimmer Among The Stars: Shashi Tharoor’s Son Tells Stories Too

It was a surreal experience for 31-year-old New York-based Kanishk Tharoor. This time he was not part of the audience. The lights were on him. His debut collection of short stories, Swimmer among the stars was released by celebrated author Amit Chaudhuri in Kolkata, the city which Kanishk describes as his home in India.

It was great to be among familiar faces, a meaningful space.

Kanishk Tharoor

Three Generations of Writers in the Family

What made the book release event even more special was the presence of three generations of writers in the family - Kanishk’s mother, Dr Tilottama Tharoor, a New York-based academic who has scholarly books to her credit, and his 84-year-old maternal grandmother, Saroj Mukherjee, who has written four books in Hindi, two of which have been translated into English and one made into a film.

Kanishk Tharoor launches his debut collection of short stories, Swimmer among the stars in Kolkata (Photo: Payal Mohanka)
Kanishk Tharoor launches his debut collection of short stories, Swimmer among the stars in Kolkata (Photo: Payal Mohanka)

It was a ‘happy coincidence’ for Kanishk. Kolkata, saw the launch of his book two days after he went through the rituals of a Bengali wedding with his Puerto Rican poet wife, Amanda. “We had a church wedding in New York but both of us wanted a Bengali ceremony in Kolkata. We are happy to have as many blessings as we can,” says Kanishk, who has just returned from his father Shashi Tharoor’s ancestral home in Palakkad, Kerala.

Kanishk and his twin Ishaan, who now works for The Washington Post, were raised on a diet of historical fiction.

Our generation did not have social media. Our parents read to us regularly. Books ranging from Enid Blyton to the Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings, the story of Rostam, the great Persian hero. We may have been separated by traditions of language but reading set us on a journey of exploration.

“We may have been separated by traditions of language but reading set us on a journey of exploration,” says Kanishk Tharoor. (Photo: Payal Mohanka)
“We may have been separated by traditions of language but reading set us on a journey of exploration,” says Kanishk Tharoor. (Photo: Payal Mohanka)

When he was 5 years old, his maternal uncle CS Mukherjee, began narrating the story of the Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. This instilled in Kanishk a love for stories and the telling of stories. Fantasy fiction was a gateway to reading more serious literature.

The purpose of fiction is to create wonder. For me it goes back to be read to from the Hobbit.

His imagination had been truly ignited. As a 7-year-old, he wrote a story about a naval captain in the Mauryan empire! ‘Incongruous’ is how Kanishk now describes that effort.

Experiences Inspire the Younger Tharoor

After graduating from Yale, Kanishk worked for three years with Open Democracy an online magazine. He then did a two-year fellowship at Columbia University and a two-year Masters in creative writing at New York University. Written in the last five years, his short stories are inspired by things he has read, seen or studied.

There are stories of travel, estrangement, displacement and loneliness but I don’t want to draw links between these experiences and my own life.

The story ‘Elephant at Sea’ is based on a conversation he heard as a child about an elephant being sent from India to Morocco for a princess. By the time the elephant reached Morocco, the Princess grew up and left for college. The bureaucratic wrangles and the eventual journey to Morocco fired his creativity. Years later, on a visit to Morocco, he followed the route he imagined the elephant had taken.

In fact recently, a lady from Delhi got in touch with him as her father was the then Ambassador in Morocco and she had seen the elephant and was a friend of the Princess’. Kanishk is hoping to meet her at the launch of his book at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi on January 19.

“There are stories of travel, estrangement, displacement and loneliness,” Kanishk Tharoor (Photo: Payal Mohanka)
“There are stories of travel, estrangement, displacement and loneliness,” Kanishk Tharoor (Photo: Payal Mohanka)

The Plight of Endangered Languages

The plight of endangered languages has been an important issue for Kanishk, “Not so much as a crusader but out of a concern for linguistic diversity being lost.” This passion lead to the beautifully crafted story, Swimmer among the stars.

I am very moved by ideas. I don’t see anything irreconcilable between intellectually charged fiction and emotionally charged fiction.

Kanishk has no problems juggling journalism and fiction: a monthly column for the Hindu Businessline, articles for the Guardian, a radio series for the BBC called The Museum of Lost Objects about antiquity or sites, destroyed or stolen in Iraq and Syria in recent years. All this alongside writing his next novel.

Both these kinds of work keep me energized and thinking about the other.

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