"Riot" by Shashi Tharoor: A Book Review by Jui Navare

Inspiration for "Riot"

In 1989 a major political party in India, declared as a campaign issue, to reclaim the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya for the Hindus to build a Ram temple. The ongoing debate that the site of the 16th century mosque was actually Ram Janmabhoomi – the birthplace of Ram caused communal riots to flare all over India. Tharoor paints a vivid picture of a passionate love story set against the backdrop of a riot. Audiences of all ages, nationalities, cultures will be able to identify with this story. Tharoor got the idea of writing this book when he received an account of a riot from his friend Harsh Mander, an IAS officer, who witnessed the riot firsthand when he was posted as the district magistrate in Khargaon district. Around the same time Tharoor read in the news about the disturbing killing of Amy Biehl in South Africa by a violent black mob. Biehl was an idealistic Fulbright scholar had gone to South Africa to help the locals but met a tragic end. Tharoor modeled the killing of Priscilla Hart in RIOT based on that episode.

The story of RIOT unfolds through different voices. One can read the book in any sequence, open any chapter and as you delve deeper into the book albeit in a non orderly fashion the reading experience is enriched by the multi-voiced, multi-faceted story. Tharoor has done a remarkable job of getting into the skin of each character in the book. As these characters tell their story – it is conveyed to the reader through different mediums and each medium has a unique font as well – the journals of the main protagonists, the interviews of the main characters by a media person, news clippings, letters and even poems composed by the main characters.

  • Front Covers

The front cover of the novel is different for the Indian and American audiences to cater to their separate visualizations of the novel. 

In the US it says on the title page – RIOT a love story and depicts a mogul monument and a beautiful sky with a pleasant setting sun.

For the Indian audience the cover shows an upturned bullock cart set ablaze. The Indian audience will be able to empathize with the communal undercurrents that flow through the veins of the locals in the fictitious district Zalilgarh.

  • The riot

Tharoor paints a heart rending picture of the Riot and how the police work to suppress it to their best capacity. He writes about the point of view of the communities involved and their ordeal – without justifying anything or anyone. It is up to the reader to make one’s own judgment.  RIOT creates awareness in the reader about the role of the police and administrative service and how important it is to have the right people in these key positions. The politicians thwart the honest officers from performing their job well; nevertheless they plod on with sheer grit and determination. The brave officers forget themselves and immerse themselves in their duty which is their first and only calling. Tharoor has done an exceptional job of bringing to life the portrait of such highly motivated officers. This description instills faith in the system – rather than show that the system is corrupt and without hope – RIOT is refreshing in its highlight of the better elements in the system and how they can be welcome harbingers of change. What is striking is that they are shown as human beings as susceptible to foes and foibles as the lay person and not super heroes; but in their professional capacity they are above reproach.  The reader is engulfed headlong into the riot-  as the curfew is imposed, places of worship are desecrated and the officers in charge ensure that they are built overnight to avoid further communal flare-ups the next morning, bodies are cremated with only the close family present to avoid public outcry and add more fuel to the riot, at the same time food provisions are made available for the women and children and curfew is lifted for them for some time to give them opportunity to stock up their homes. 

  • The Love S