Big Stories, Little Lives - Express Magazine (26 August 2001)

THERE are, understandably, so many novels essaying the Great National Narrative (and Shashi Tharoor's actually written the Mahabharata-inspired Great Indian Novel), that any reader may be pardonably incensed at the prospect of yet another protracted session on the analyst's lumpy divan. You begin Shashi Tharoor's new novel Riot then, guilty of the reviewer's first deadly sin, prejudice.

Written as a compilation of letters, journals, newspaper reports and transcripts of conversations, the plot, very simply, is: Who killed Priscilla Hart? Priscilla is an idealistic young American (blonde) who works in the unlovely Uttar Pradesh district capital of Zalilgarh. During a riot between local shilanyas celebrants and Muslims, Priscilla is found dead of stab wounds in a romantic old ruin. Her divorced parents return to India, which they left in 1977 when her father, a Coca Cola executive, had necessarily to wind up operations in the market he'd planned to sweep. Her lover, the local DM, is a South Indian IAS officer from St Stephens College.

The Hindu-Muslim protagonists are par for the course. We all know them, we've lived with their clamour for more than a decade. The story moves through disclosure after disclosure on the situation, motives and personal histories of the main characters. In the end, nobody is sure who really did Priscilla in.

Thin pickings? Not at all. The reedy piping that begins, of unattractive voices saying uninteresting things (because we know the voices, we know them all), slowly sweeps, rather in the manner of Ravel's Bolero, into a grand crescendo. It gathers might and measure as voice after voice joins in, to endorse, to contradict, to subvert, repel, fascinate and touch, but always carrying the tale forward.

The first virtue of this book, then, is its format. In a world of soundbytes and infotoids, the book sketches an ironic salute to the sounds of our times. Except, our diminished attention span is gripped despite itself by the compulsions of a Shakespearian truth: There is no sweeter fat than sticks to our own bones. What gourmandaise, then, for an Indian reader, to be treated to 272 pages of self-examination. If this contradicts the opening premise that national analysis has become commonplace in fiction, well then, it's thanks to Tharoor's craft. It's the reason why Krishna's butter-stealing is boring when danced by an indifferent nayika and utterly moving when someone with sense and feeling depicts it. A story discussed threadbare acquires new lustre when told well again.

The second virtue of Tharoor's novel is that, in hard copy, there's a record of both how Indians talk amongst themselves and a good many national shams, the kind of opinions that cannot be said in print without violating every norm of political correctness. But in a novel, it is legitimised as fiction (though real-life historian Shahid Amin pops up in a double bluff as both a real and fictional person). So you have a UP bhaiyya voicing Hindutva angst about taxpayers' money funding Indian Hajjis. The agony of educated India (especially Stephanian) trying to deal with the districts, like neo-colonials in their own land, is handled with Upamanyu-like honesty. The pretensions of the Left are pricked with economy and effect, the irreconcilables (of colour) between North and South India are strummed in low key with pleasurable malice. Tharoor arranges a long, luxurious itch for all these national scabs.

The third virtue of this book is that, like a piece of good writing is meant to, takes you over. Like the "triangle" in academic western painting, the hallmark of compositional competence in a national narrative is its juxtaposition (do you know a more unmusical word?) with individual love and loss. Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind redux. There is no escape from juxtaposition in the novel that wants to tell big stories through little lives. Tharoor uses this very well. Nor can you catch him on matters of style (except a dissonance here or there in the American voices) since he writes in so many accents.

In all, a necessary read for the necessary process of looking into the upheld mirror.