Back to the Future - First City (September 2001)

"I have been increasingly concerned about the communal divisions which have been growing in this country. I have been expressing this concern in my non-fiction writing like my last book India - From Midnight to the Millennium and various newspaper columns," Shashi Tharoor states. "I felt that I must explore the issue through the medium of fiction, because fiction illuminates issues in a unique way. Two things worked as the immediate source of inspiration behind this book. A friend of mine who is an IAS officer sent me a report about a riot in Madhya Pradesh. At that time, I had also read a newspaper report about an American woman who was killed in a racial riot in South Africa. In a riot, a lot of issues come to a head. Riot tries to examine them in a fictional format." The narrative structure of Riot is an innovative one comprised of newspaper reports, poems and personal narratives like diary excerpts. "The structure is a departure from my earlier books. As a writer I believe in experimenting with structure - in The Great Indian Novel I had adopted a mock mythological tone, Show Business had three intercutting monologues. In Riot the important thing was to showcase a multiplicity of perspectives, since people are disputing the ownership of history and trying to uncover the truth behind a certain event. This particular narrative structure was ideal for the purpose. It enabled each character to have his/her own voice, whatever their biases, prejudices and levels of incomprehension. I think the author must inhabit the imagination of the characters. He/ she must be able to see things as they would."

The writer started his career as a diplomat by working at the UN High Commission for Refugees. He then moved on to the UN's Department of Peacekeeping and is currently the Head of the Department of Public Information. "I left India in 1975 for the United States as a student. But I used to read Indian newspapers and magazines regularly. Later when I Joined the UN, my house in Geneva was like a saraifor visitors from India. People from India would visit me and we would share news and views about India constantly. Mine has been a long absence, but I have been engaged with this country on an intellectual level. Through my writing I try to delve into issues like - what forces have influenced Indian society and politics, what influences have made and unmade India. There are certain recurring themes in both my fiction and non-fiction works, particularly my faith in pluralism as a leitmotif of Indian reality, the multiplicity of languages and religions from which we have forged a unique identity and unity, and the forces which attack and diminish this unity.

When I was growing up in the 60s, there was a certain idealism in the air. Of course, there was also growing cynicism about the hypocrisy of politicians, but communal thinking was simply not possible. It was inadmissible to express the sort of partisan views which people feel free to express in public these days. Those days have left a lasting impression on me. They shaped my sense of what I value and cherish about India and l feel an obligation to speak up for them when I write." For Tharoor, writing is ultimately a process of self-discovery.

"If you are not aware of what happened in the past it makes you blind to the future."

"I don't write for the sake of obtaining a fee or for fitting into some kind of formulaic structure. I write both fiction and non-fiction but fiction has a special place in my heart. I started writing fiction as an asthmatic child at the age of six. When you write fiction you are inventing a world you can escape to, it's about inhabiting a space inside your head where an alternative reality exists. So when you write you are trying to be true to another reality. Since I have a very demanding job I really have to carve out time for my writing. Sometimes the lack of time can be very frustrating, like in the case of Riot. It took me four years to complete it." Does this mean that his job stands in the way of his writing and places restraints on his imagination? "I sometimes joke that I am the only novelist in the world whose copyright page contains the disclaimer, 'though the writer works for the UN, none of the views expressed by the characters are to be construed as being that of the author in his official capacity. As a civil servant, there are certain guidelines that I must stick to when I write. For example, I don't wri