The gentle undulations of the sea beneath the blundering weight of a lachrymose elephant; the swirls of the shadows beneath the hand of the puppeteer; the harlequin colours of a rapidly flooding earth as seen from the vast blackness of space. These are the passages which give this collection of short stories their verve and beauty, whether it be the inconsolable grief of the miner who only sees the chicanery of the cameraman who in seeking to capture his degradation only ends up catching his hopelessness or the emptiness felt by the mahout as he has to let go of the elephant who has been his charge, Tharoor is able to, with great skill and pathos, the inner lives of the characters he depicts. It is in his pale pastiches of Calvino that his stories begin to suffer in quality; when Tharoor gives free reign to his imagination his stories soar, when he is engaging in deliberate homages to writers he admires they begin to sink into mediocrity, as with his Alexander The Great stories.
What is particularly impressive about this collection is the sheer range of different styles or stories Tharoor is able to depict. ‘Cultural Property’ depicts the strains of a modern relationship between individuals from vastly different cultures, the humorous vein of ‘The Phalanx’ belies is essentially tragic mediation on war, ‘The Astrolabe’ the last moments of a sailor as he is heaved over a cliff by a group of islanders or ‘United Nations in Space’ a depiction of a dystopian future where most of the world has been flooded as the United Nations witness the greatest storm in history from a dilapidated space station. The mark of many writers is no doubt imprinted in these stories, but the influence is not too obvious as Tharoor gives his imagination free reign and delight the reader with the multitude of wonderful stories which exist in his mind.