Shashi Tharoor gets things done in white heat.
"At an early age, I found an enormous capacity for hard work which never left me," the undersecretary-general of the United Nations said.
That may be an understatement. At 50, Mr. Tharoor has not only established a reputation as a diplomat with knowledge of diverse subjects - ranging from humanitarianism to conflict resolution - he has also carved out a name as an author and essayist.
He has produced nine books, including best-selling novels - one of which, "Show Business," was made into a film. He has written for such publications as Foreign Affairs; a recent essay, "Why the U.S. Needs the U.N.," became one of the journal's most extensively requested reprints.
He appears in such newspapers as the Hindu in India and newsmagazines such as Newsweek. His journalism was included in a recent anthology, "Bookless in Baghdad." His next novel resides in his imagination. It is awaiting, well, time for him to work on it.
Mr. Tharoor is sought after at podiums across the international-affairs circuit. Radio and television programs seek him out - not only because he represents the 191-member United Nations, but the telegenic Mr. Tharoor invariably makes their shows sparkle with erudition and good humor.
In recent months, one question has repeatedly arisen - reform of the sprawling U.N. system.
"The U.N. is not the ossified, stultified bureaucracy of caricature," Mr. Tharoor said. "We must reform the U.N. not because it has failed but because it has succeeded enough to be worth investing in. I've tried to convey the U.N.'s great potential and possibilities - with which the world as a whole should concern itself."
As head of the United Nation's Department of Public Information, Mr. Tharoor has streamlined what was an unwieldy bureaucracy. "It was a confused mess of different mandates," Mr. Tharoor said of his unit, known generally as DPI. "I took on the job with an explicit mandate to reform DPI. We redesigned the place from top to bottom."
The redesign involved shutting down eight offices abroad. It involved cutting operational expenditures by 10%. It involved trimming the budget in real terms so that the worldwide yearly figure is now about $80 million (in depreciating American currency). It involved downsizing personnel to 754, 300 of whom are in the field.
The reinvention of DPI showed a side of Mr. Tharoor that hadn't previously received wide attention. His diplomatic skills had been evident during his long years as Secretary-General Annan's special assistant, and during his earlier stint at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, where he was part of a staff that won the Nobel Peace Prize (Mr. Tharoor wrote the organization's acceptance statement). What hadn't been sufficiently recognized until his DPI stewardship came along was Mr. Tharoor's ability as an administrator.
When asked about his service, Mr. Tharoor said: "I see the U.N. poised at a very crucial moment of history."
Such a perspective would seem natural for a man who joined the United Nations straight out of graduate school. "I always had a very strong faith in the possibilities of international cooperation," Mr. Tharoor said.
Mr.Tharoor wasn't simply just another qualified young adult when he opted for a career in diplomacy. He was only 22, the youngest person in the history of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to be awarded a doctorate. Mr. Tharoor acquired three degrees in three years - a Ph.D. and two master's degrees. His doctoral thesis, "Reasons of State," is still required reading in courses on Indian foreign-policy making.
Just how did he accomplish all this at such a young age?
"I wouldn't recommend it to my own twin sons, Ishaan and Kanishk," Mr. Tharoor said, adding, "I never enjoyed a normal adolescence."
At the U.N., Mr. Tharoor pursued his work with the same vigor that he showed in academe.
Mr. Tharoor took unprecedented steps to raise the United Nation's standing in the Muslim world while leading the first-ever U.N. seminar on anti-Semitism and guiding this year's moving Holocaust commemoration at the General Assembly.
"I'm proud of both my cosmopolitanism and my rootedness," Mr. Tharoor said.
He speaks warmly of his first-hand knowledge of rural India from annual sojourns in a Kerala village. He proclaims his hope that a reformed United Nations will work better for developing countries, where more than two thirds of the world's population of 6.3 billion lives, and where his country, India, is widely seen as a positive force for progress.
"U.N. reform need not be a north-south issue - reform should be about a more effective U.N. in the south," Mr. Tharoor said. With such views and credentials, will he be a candidate for secretary-general of the United Nations? He declines to be drawn into the topic. But Mr. Tharoor must surely know that in the months ahead, the global community is going to be looking for a qualified Asian. Then he'll surely have to come to terms with that topic.