The death of an American woman in India serves as the pretext for a thoughtful, sociologically precise novel about the religious tensions racking the subcontinent. On September 30, 1989, in a riot that erupts in the town of Zalilgarh, east of New Delhi, 24-year-old Priscilla Hart, a volunteer with a population control organization, is stabbed to death. A few weeks later, Priscilla's divorced parents, Katharine and Rudyard Hart, travel to Zalilgarh to pick up her effects and to find out what happened.
Tharoor divides the book into accounts devoted to the various actors, American and Indian, who played parts in Priscilla's fatal stay in Zalilgarh. From Priscilla's letters and diaries, we get a sense of the classic American sensibility, a la Daisy Miller that mix of naivete and sexual experience so puzzling to the rest of the world. Priscilla has a difficult affair with the married district magistrate, V. Lakshman, meeting him for trysts at a ruin outside town. Lakshman, the graduate of a highly selective Indian college, St. Stephens, has a penchant for Wilde, but he is bound to Indian tradition, and listens when his friend, police chief and fellow St. Stephens alumnus Gurinder Singh, emphasizes that, in Indian eyes, Priscilla is incurably promiscuous.
Framing this love affair is the mounting tension between Muslims and the followers of Ram Charan Gupta, who want to destroy a local mosque and put up a Hindu temple on its site. Katharine and Rudyard Hart, accompanied by reporter Randy Diggs, never find all the clues to Priscilla's death Gurinder has quietly given Lakshman Priscilla's scrapbook.
Tharoor's story is about a larger topic than the undoing of one innocent American it is about the potential fragmentation of the secular Indian republic, a tragedy in the making.