The Great Indian Novelist returns with a Riot - The Pioneer (18 August 2001)

You can take him out of India but you can't take India out of him. His job keeps him in New York but his imagination keeps him glued to India. Terming his expatriation "circumstantial", celebrated" writer and senior United Nations official Shashi Tharoor says, "I write for Indians like me. India matters to me and I want to matter to Indians. I am writing for myself and people like me." Tharoor was in the Capital this week for the release of his latest book Riot, a novel that took him four years to write, a process interrupted by two year-long intervals during which his schedule at the UN kept him away from the writer's desk. Like his two previous novels, The Great Indian Novel (1989), and Show Business (1992), Riot holds up yet another mirror to India's contemporary social and political history, the frame a specific town in a particular year and a context that continues to make the secular heart bleed.

Apart from four published works of fiction - three novels and a collection of short stories Five Dollar Smile and Other Stories (1990), Tharoor has an enviable list of non-fictlon books and articles to his credit, the more celebrated one being India: From Midnight to Millennium which coincided with the celebration of the 50th year of Indian Independence. However, when asked what he takes naturally to, fiction or non-fiction, "fiction" is the instant response. "Non-fiction is about ordering your responses to the outside world. Fiction is felt. Fiction needs space. in the mind; the writer has to create an alternative universe and then inhabit it till that becomes real far him. I took to fiction instinctively from the age of six," says the prolific writer.

Shashi Tharoor is widely acknowledged as the eternally experimenting novelist. Riot too employ, an innovative narrative technique. In keeping with the abiding mystery of the novel, the entire novel travels through the eyes and voices of various characters, flitting between news clippings, personal letters, notebooks and journals, scrapbook notings, private conversations, and transcripted interviews, no omniscient narrator holding the reader's hand through the novel. As Lakshman, one of the main characters in the novel, says about the novel he wishes to write: "The beginning foretells the end. Down with the omniscient narrator! It's time for the omniscient reader. Let the reader construct her own novel each time she reads it."

A man who says he has a number of responses to the world around him, evokes precisely that in his latest novel - a number of responses to one troublesome question: Who killed Priscilla Hart? The novel, says Tharoor, is about the "knowability of truth." Each character in Riot attempts to reach for the truth behind the killing of an idealistic 24-year-old American student who is consumed by the contradictions of a violent moment in India's contemporary history - the Ram Sila Poojan and the supervening Hindu-Muslim riots of 1989.

The novel attempts to piece together events which could have possibly led to Priscilla's murder. From the local civic and police authorities to the quintessential foreign correspondent from the New York Journal, from local politicians to the man on the streets, no character in the novel, including Priscilla's parents, succeeds in pin-pointing the guilty. In the process however the novel unfolds complex questions about the personal. social, and communal politics of a quintessential small UP town - Zalilgarh - that devours Priscilla. "Priscilla Hart," says her creator, "was killed by circumstances she did not understand." The manner in which Tharoor has arranged his novel, however the author must understand those circumstances rather well.

As a writer, Tharoor intends to connect with his fellow Indians but he does not do so in the most gentle of ways this time. Riot jolts the reader back t