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Shashi Tharoor: The Great Indian Novel

Many Indians hate this novel. Tharoor, who was actually born in London, mercilessly mocks Indian independence and Indian politicians of all stripes. Non-Indians will find it hilarious, witty and clever, at least if they know something of Indian history and politics. If they do not, they might find it tough going. It also helps to know something of the Mahabharata.

Tharoor takes – sort of – the story of the Mahabharata and transposes it to the story of India of – more or less – the twentieth century. If you know anything of Indian history you will not find it difficult to identify the barely disguised Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Chandra Bose, Lord Mountbatten (the last Viceroy) Jinnah, the Aga Khan, Indira Gandhi and many others.

The amusing conceit of this novel is that, as in the original Mahabharata, virtually all the main Indian players are related – Mahatma and Indira Gandhi (who were not related in real life), Nehru (Indira Gandhi’s father in real life), Bose, Jinnah and so on. Their names, of course, are as in the Mahabharata and not in real life. Moreover, the characters have the same characteristics as in the Mahabharata so that the Nehru character is blind, while the Indira Gandhi character remains unmarried and is assassinated by a disgruntled relative who has had a sex change operation (in reality she was assassinated by two of her Sikh guards).

The Brits certainly don’t escape unscathed. The writers that wrote about India are mocked without any disguise – Kipling, Paul Scott and, of course, E. M. Forster. The various officials are torn apart and Tharoor even exacts a sort of revenge on them. The final British viceroy – Lord Mountbatten – and his wife are, of course, pilloried, particularly for their sexual foibles. But the Brits don’t really don’t fare any worse than the Indians, particularly Indira Gandhi. Overall, if you are not too sensitive about Indian history and the Indian independence movement, you should enjoy this novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1989 by Penguin Books