Priscilla Hart is stabbed 16 times by unknown assailants during a communal riot in Zalilgarh, 1989. The riot erupts with a country-bomb blast in the tension caused by the Ram Shila procession. Hart had no enemies and the cause of her murder is a mystery. Her separated parents, Rudyard and Katharine, travel to India together to see her work-place one last time.
They are accompanied from Delhi by Randy Diggs, the local newsman who wants a better story. Priscilla worked for HELP-US, an NGO which helped women gain control of their wombs through contraception. Her colleagues Kadambari, a social worker, and Das the project director are mystified. The local police officer Gurinder Singh IPS, a hard drinking, foul-mouthed, son-of-a-gold-brick has no reasons, and the IAS officer Lakshman, a South Indian, is bewildered. Or so it all appears.
The story unwinds through a double helix, one strand through records, entries, and letters, and the second strand through interviews, conversations and interrogations. Appearances blur and events reshape themselves into all too easily recognisable forms. Lakshman and Priscilla are passionately in love, notwithstanding his wife Geetha and daughter Rekha. Lakshman has never known carnal pleasure, being devoted to his family as any good Indian would presumably be. Priscilla finds his mix of warmth and alien intelligence attractive - fatally so in the circumstances.
The VHP functionary Ram Charan Gupta is too keen on his own programme of hate. The historian from JNU, Sarwar presents the picture of Indian Muslimness and its unique identity. Lakshman gives Priscilla the liberal Hindu view between the rhythmic squeaks of the charpoy, and Gurinder Singh emblematises the perspective of law and order as humane enterprise. The Muslim women Priscilla works with, love the idea of birth control but their menfolk threaten the American with dire consequences if she continues. Kadambari too is shaken. A gleeful Gupta gets wind of the trysts between Priscilla and Lakshman. He wants revenge against Lakshman, and the Kothli, an ancient feudal mansion which is the lovers' rendezvous, turns out to be a temporary crude bomb factory for those desperate Muslim youth who retaliate. The "Oh! so innocent" Geetha prays for her husband's continued success, specially on the day Priscilla dies. The story is imaginatively crafted; the prose, a fictive mix of news cuttings, tape-recordings, letters, excerpts of scrapbooks and diaries. The perspec-tive often zooms into close focus and back to a panoramic view which makes the book read like a movie. The writing grates occasionally with prejudices that beam out unknown, reminding one of Upamanyu Chatterjee.
Tharoor loves love and sex. There are several touching and graphic scenes in the strand which traces the progress of intimacy. Even readers who have no problems with eroticism in general might find it excessive in the context.
That Tharoor's alter-ego Lakshman, philosophises about carnality as he soaks in it, passes muster; but the culmination of their last tearful meeting in the posture Priscilla the child once discovered her father Rudyard and paramour in is too much! It leaves one wondering what the carnal equivalent of maudlin is.