(August 9, 2023) Living in the company of students from all over the country at the Hindu College hostel in the University of Delhi in the mid-70s — taught Rajesh Talwar more about India than any book could have. They would be up all night having endless debates over Karl Marx, William Shakespeare, Tagore, and Chanakya.
So recently, when the institution asked Rajesh to contribute an article for a coffee table book in view of its centenary celebrations this year — Rajesh couldn’t have been happier. “I would not have been the person I am today had it not been for my time in the Hindu college. Back then, there was an air of freedom and acceptance for different kinds of thinking among the student community,” smiles renowned writer and lawyer Rajesh Talwar, speaking to Global Indian.
Rajesh worked for the United Nations (UN) across three continents in numerous countries and continues to be associated with the organization as its Legal Affairs Officer. He served as the Deputy Legal Adviser to the UN Mission in Afghanistan, as the Legal Adviser to the Police Commissioner in East Timor, and was the Executive Officer heading the Human Rights Advisory Panel that was part of UNMIK (United Nations Mission) in Kosovo.
However, that’s just one part of his introduction. Rajesh has written 37 books which include novels, children’s books, plays, self-help books and non-fiction books covering issues in social justice, culture, law, and many more.
“It was fascinating work, says Rajesh of his nine-year stint at the UN, which commenced in 2014. His tasks included checking contracts, sitting on procurement committees, and advising the organization on code of conduct issues. “There was also a political dimension to my role. I would be directly advising the Special Representative to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on various issues concerning political negotiations,” says Rajesh. There was an interface with the human rights officers as well.
“A great deal of our work with the United Nations is of a confidential nature and I would not be able to speak about it as it may risk endangering precious lives in a country that continues to remain unstable,” he says. However, he does have a memoir in progress. “They will come out book sometime next year,” says the UN staffer.
After having spent many years working in Afghanistan as part of the UN mission, he thinks of the country as a missed opportunity for the international community. “Therefore, the book’s working title is ‘In the Time of the Taliban: The Lost Decades.’
The UN, especially the peacekeeping side of it, is still a great institution and a wonderful environment to work in, says Rajesh, who visited several cities in the US on a USIS fellowship connected with human rights work relating to AIDS, which was rampant at the time.
Kosovo was Rajesh’s first UN mission. “What startled me was that a multinational force comprised of different nationalities was governing a predominantly white people because the Kosovar Albanians may be Muslim but look completely European,” he says.
It was also significant that there were many Indians employed with the multinational policing force, CIVPOL. “They did a fantastic job. For this reason, the ordinary Kosovar looks up to Indians. Kosovo showed me first-hand what Indians can accomplish in terms of teamwork once they put their mind to it,” says Rajesh, pointing at the fact that there are many Indians who are CEO’s of major multinational corporations there.
Rajesh says his stint in Afghanistan came at a time when it was a culturally rich period. I have written no less than three books on that country, all fiction,” he says. The books include, ‘An Afghan Winter,’ ‘The Sentimental Terrorist,’ and most recently ‘How I Became a Taliban Assassin.’ His fourth book, however, is a work of non-fiction.
While authorities in some countries wished to confer awards and honors on him, Rajesh says he politely declined. “In the UN, we prefer to decline honors and awards since they could potentially adversely impact on our integrity as unbiased, impartial international civil servants,” he says.
Born in Delhi in December 1958, Rajesh studied at various schools across the country. His father was in the army and would get transferred regularly. His elder brother Lt General Sanjiv Talwar retired as Engineer-in-Chief, and his younger brother Major General Sumit Talwar is in service, posted in Nagaland.
Rajesh studied at various schools including St Edmunds, Shillong, and St Columba’s School in New Delhi, and then went to La Martiniere College, Lucknow. “I was not a particularly brilliant student at school. I was neither a topper nor a backbencher, I was more middle of the class really,” says Rajesh. He did, however, perform exceptionally well in essay writing.
He then headed to the University of Nottingham for studying his Master’s on a British Chevening scholarship. Until then, he had been practicing as a lawyer at the courts in Delhi. While practicing law, Rajesh also taught LL B students at Jamia Millia Islamia and Delhi University. “My decision to leave the country for higher studies came as a surprise to some of my lawyer colleagues. I was however keen to go,” he recalls, and ended up writing a novel, ‘Inglistan’ which compared and contrasted Indian culture with that of Britain.
Rajesh says he wasn’t sure at all what kind of options studying at Nottingham would throw up in the future. “So I didn’t really have a career aim beyond telling a friend that I wished to work on social issues in an international multinational organization,” says the lawyer-writer, who, within three years of doing his Master, joined the United Nations.
Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge
There are many Indians who have studied at Harvard, Oxford, or Cambridge. Rajesh is among the rare few who studied at all three institutions. At the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he studied Negotiation. His primary interest was in negotiating peaceful settlements between warring communities.
At Oxford, Rajesh studied Forced Migration together with several colleagues from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The course was extremely useful as in some countries that I worked in, there were problems with refugees as well as internally displaced persons,” says Rajesh. At Cambridge, he did a course on ‘Law and Leadership’ at the Judge Business School.
Each institution was special in its own way, feels Rajesh who is already working on his forthcoming book “Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge: The Past, Present, and Future of Excellence in Education.’
He went on to obtain a postgraduate diploma in journalism from the London School of Journalism over a period of nine months when he took a break from his work with the United Nations. He even did a course in film making and audio-visual communication at the London Film Academy where he worked with colleagues on short films.
He started off the year 2022 with a self-help motivational book ‘The Mantra and Meaning of Success’ which recounts many of his life experiences, including with the UN. Next came ‘The Boy Who Wrote a Constitution’, on the childhood experiences of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution. “The book elicited an extraordinarily positive response, especially from young readers. It even featured in many general knowledge competitions,” says Rajesh. The publisher is now planning a Hindi translation of the book.
Just a month ago, Rajesh released a collection of short stories and a short play titled ‘Trading Flesh in Tokyo: Nine Short Stories and a Play.’ “What makes this collection special is that the stories are set in diverse locations such as the UK, Japan, Thailand, Nepal, and India,” Rajesh explains, adding that all the stories have an Indian connection and “speak to the universality of the human experience.”
The success of his children’s play on Ambedkar convinced Rajesh that there was a need for more such books. It paved the way for ‘The Boy who became a Mahatma’ which was released on Republic Day this year,” says Rajesh, who was nominated by the Pragati Vichar Literary Festival for best children’s author for 2022 for his children’s play on Dr Ambedkar. As part of the same series, he plans to write a play on the childhood years and life of Subhash Chandra Bose, which is likely to release in January 2024.
Rajesh was stationed in East Timor, one of the newest countries on the planet, at the time the horrific Nirbhaya case happened in 2012. “I was very disturbed and couldn’t sleep for a few nights. I was determined to write a book on the case from a legal and sociological perspective,” says Rajesh in his book ‘Courting Injustice’.
The book focused on why such crimes took place and what could be done to mitigate such crimes. “Alas, many of the recommendations I made in the book have still not been implemented and brutal crimes against women continue to take place,” says Rajesh, a sought-after speaker at various Literary Festivals.
Rajesh believes that Indians are among the most intelligent and creative people in the world. “But our system fails them. It needs reform at many levels, especially in the field of education and rule of law. Once done, India’s rise will be unstoppable,” he feels.
A passion for music
Rajesh admits he will not be content if he doesn’t spend at least an hour listening to music every day. “I listen to different kinds of music, both Western and Indian, right from the time I wake up,” he says. An avid traveler, the writer’s next book is a travelogue. “It will focus on my travels through seven Asian countries,” informs Rajesh.
Some of Rajesh’s works include ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’, Inside Gayland, The Bride Who Would Not Burn, Conquest at Noon, The Killings in November, Kaash Kashmir, Aurangzeb: The Darkness in His Heart, Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Four-Legged Scorpion, High Fidelity Transmission and A Nuclear Matricide. His books for children include The Three Greens, The Bearded Prince, The Sleepless Beauty, Fabulous Four Battle Zoozoo, and The Wizard among others.