In India, the name Shashi Tharoor is often affiliated to the subject of politics and controversies relating thereto. Most of the Indians are not aware of what coexists with Tharoor- a writer, a creator of literary fiction, a script-writer, and a fervent book reader. With his debut hitting the shelves of masterpieces alone, the best way to look at Tharoor is through his book, ‘The Five Dollar Smile’, which will introduce the reader to the alter-ego of Tharoor we are yet to see- humorous yet empirical, critical yet coherent in its voice.
Delivering a piece with a perfect voice is what makes a book a masterpiece. ‘The Five Dollar Smile’ is the perfect oeuvre that portrays the Tharoor style of writing. There are diverse reasons for which the readers should pick this book up, but, the aforementioned are a few important ones out of them. The one who wishes to delve into the literary territory of Shashi Tharoor, this is the perfect title to read. The book has a clever voice and every story has a pinch of humour which has, over the years, become a rare supply to Indian literature. This collection of stories brings together sixteen works by the author which have long since gone out of print. Some were published by the Young Statesman when he was in his late youth, some by The Illustrated Weekly of India, and others by numerous magazines and newspapers. The stories maintain a good flair and will keep the readers held till the end. Most of the stories drive around a character, and the author renders a dynamic and vivid elucidation for them. The stories that have appeared between the covers of this marvelous book, will proffer a great deal of knowledge and will help people come off the Panglossian idea that some Indians are more Indian than others. The tales, being written when the author was just starting to decipher literature and writing, are a foretaste of the exceptional works that Tharoor would be producing in the later period of his career. Simple tales, this is a befitting work that will, perhaps, stand the test of time and will remain fresh as always.
I am particularly a fan of these stories probably because I have always enjoyed short stories which proffer a great deal of knowledge, wit, and wisdom. The book carries stories, short and clear, and I have enjoyed the pace at which the words drive-through. The stories, though perfectly yearned and carved out, finish in a moment and you’ll find yourself at the end of the book not too late. Truly like everyone else who would dip into the world of Tharoor for the first time, I have been on a constant hunt to find the hard and voguish authorisms that the author is sought after for, but in vain! Of course, as I said, this makes the book effortless and enjoyable.
Among the sixteen short stories, the remarkable ones are The Boutique, The Temple Thief, and The Solitude of A Short Story Writer. The Boutique, based on Calcutta where the author has spent around four years of his life, will certainly melt your heart and by the end of the story, you will find yourself in tears. The story is infused with innocence- not of a child, but of a man with his mother unable to match with the sophistication and social status enjoyed by the society. I take the privilege of quoting some words from this story here: “Suddenly even I felt out of my class. I started wishing I had paid more attention to my appearance. I looked into one of the mirrored columns and hastily, furtively, smoothed back my hair….. (towards the end of the story) no one noticed our exit; it was as if an insect had been removed from a cup of tea, something which ought to not have been there in the first place had been ejected. I evaded the eyes of a passing bearer”.
The Temple Thief is another such story in the book which shoots an influential message in a wonderful and lucid play of words. As the author writes in the introduction to the story, the story was written after a family pilgrimage to the temples of South India. The story follows the encounter of a fifteen-year-old young thief with a Brahmin priest. The author has a deep love for Mahabharata and this story follows the trail of mythology.
A slightly distinct and unique story in this book, ‘The Solitude of a Short Story Writer’, entails the story of a writer who could only write about the people, friends, and relatives around him. As I wrote at the beginning of the article, humour seems to be lost in Indian literature these days. Other than R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku or Ruskin Bond’s schooldays stories, humour is a rare production nowadays. This is such a story. In these dark, gloomy times, I hope this free scoop of laughter is really needed in our lives!
Rehan Sheikh writes short stories, memoirs, and articles. His work, The Roaring Himalayas won him the Elan Middle School Writing Contest 2020 and since then his works have appeared in various leading magazines and newspapers. He currently resides in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.