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Three Who Work to Keep the Peace

October 24, 1995

The United Nations is a complex of three buildings by the East River in New York. An international organization of limited powers and unlimited talk, it is an object of scorn to some and of idealism to others. But it is also a daily home to 5,000 civil servants, 2,000 diplomats and 250 reporters. It is these people, of course, who make it work.

On the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, Times U.N. correspondent Stanley Meisler profiles three of them : an Indian bureaucrat who writes distinguished novels on the side; a Czech diplomat who counted California as home for much of his life, and an American journalist who used to chat with the legendary Dag Hammarskjold in Swedish.


'No Ministry in the World Can Match Us in Peacekeeping'


Critics delight in bashing U.N. officials as fat cat bureaucrats--wasteful, lazy and overpaid. Nothing infuriates Shashi Tharoor and his family more.

"My wife gets calls for me at 9 p.m. and gets angry that anyone would presume that I would be home at that hour," said the 39-year-old Tharoor, who serves as special assistant to the undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping.

The mouthful of a title covers double duties: Tharoor operates as chief of staff for Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan, who commands missions of almost 65,000 U.N. troops around the world. He is also the key official in New York handling the Bosnia crisis.

"I have two genuine jobs at a time of high-octane stress," he said in a recent interview over lunch at a restaurant near the U.N. Tharoor estimates that he works 14 to 16 hours a day, often seven days a week.

That leaves him almost no time for his third job--novelist. He is surely the best-known U.N. bureaucrat in the literary world, though most of his readers do not realize that he is a U.N. bureaucrat.

His first of two satirical novels (both published by Arcade) caused a sensation. "It was called things I'm embarrassed to repeat," Tharoor said. "It was enough to turn a young man's head."

"At long last," wrote the Indian historian and editor Khushwant Singh, "I have come across a novel written by an Indian which justifies its title. 'The Great Indian Novel' puts Shashi Tharoor in the front rank of contemporary Indian writers."

The second novel, "Show Business," a hilarious portrait of Indian politics and the Bombay film industry--better known as Bollywood--received an enthusiastic review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Tharoor wrote the books while working as a U.N. bureaucrat, but he was forced to shunt fiction aside when the former Yugoslavia split apart four years ago and erupted into chaos and war. "I have not written a creative word since Yugoslavia," he said.

Tharoor was born in London in 1956. His father, the London manager for an Indian periodical, the Statesman, returned to Bombay when Tharoor was 3.

"I was an asthmatic child in a city without TV," he said, and, when he ran out of books to read, he would amuse himself by writing stories. (His first short story was published when he was 11.)

After graduating from Delhi University, he completed his education in the United States, earning a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1978. He soon joined the Geneva staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, in three years, found himself assigned to Singapore to work with Vietnamese fleeing for the high seas.

"I learned what a difference the United Nations can make," Tharoor recalled. "I was able to put my head on the pillow each night and know we had made a difference in people's lives."

Tharoor, who moved to the peacekeeping office in New York in 1989, resents all the abusive accusations that the U.N. is inefficient and wasteful and a failure in Bosnia.

"Of course, the organization is not perfect," he said. "When you try to meet the needs of 185 member states, you're bound to have programs that some people don't find useful. Yet no ministry in the world can match us in peacekeeping."

Although Tharoor has not written fiction in four years, his creative hand shows up in official reports that are anonymous or even signed by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. A U.N. report on Bosnia excited diplomats and bureaucrats a year and a half ago with the depth of analysis and the craft of its words. "The tragedy that provoked [the U.N.'s] involvement remains an affront to the world's conscience," the document concluded.

The report was so elegant and philosophical and reasoned that everyone guessed at once who had written it. And they were right.


'The Non-Permanent Members Are Definitely Second Fiddle'


When Czech Ambassador Karel Kovanda joined the Security Council in January, 1994, a reporter told him, "Well, now there are two Czech ambassadors on the Security Council." This pale joke alluded to the well-known fact that American Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright was born in Prague.

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