Tharoor’s debut story collection ranges widely across geography, between centuries, among circumstances.
In the first story, a woman, the last speaker of an unnamed language, is interviewed by a handful of anthropologists. “Please speak as it comes naturally to you,” they tell her, so they can record the language before it dies out completely. She finds herself making up a story for them: a bride takes off on a rocket after realizing she’d always wanted to be an astronaut and never a bride. But because there is no word for “astronaut” in the woman’s language, she constructs one herself, from suffixes that literally mean “swimmer among the stars.” So language becomes both the setting and the means for exploration, for wonder. The idea echoes through the collection’s other stories. In “Tale of the Teahouse,” a small city prepares to be overtaken by Genghis Khan’s army: men and women sip tea and munch pastries as they speculate on the habits and customs of the marauders. In “Elephant at Sea,” an Indian diplomat assists in the laborious transportation of an elephant to Morocco, a gift for the Moroccan princess. Tharoor, who presented the popular BBC program Museum of Lost Objects, seems equally at home in the present and in the distant past. His debut work of fiction is a truly global collection: he skips as easily between continents as if he were jumping rope. Sometimes he specifies the time period and setting of a story; other times, you’re left to wonder. Either way, he takes obvious delight in the playful, the gently absurd. His prose can be elegant, ironic, deadpan. Just as often, it is sweetly melancholic.
Tharoor is clearly a monumental talent, and his debut is a pleasure, from the first page to the last.