Riot takes on a communal tinderbox - India Currents, October 2001

American slain in India. That is the hook, on which Shashi Tharoor has hung his latest novel, Riot. Four years in the making, the book starts with the death of Priscilla Hart, a 24-year-old idealistic young woman volunteer with a non-governmental organization in the hot and dusty town of Zalilgarh. She is stabbed to death during a Hindu-Muslim riot. That makes news in a way the death of an Indian girl would not have. American reporter Randy Diggs is sent to the godforsaken town which has no hotels-- only a few lodges for traveling salesmen and whores to do a feature story. Priscilla's divorced parents have flown in from America providing the human-interest angle. But Tharoor zooms out of this small news item into a much broader canvas about the fragile communal relations in India and the animosity between Hindus and Muslims rising to a fever pitch in small towns in Northern India.

Add to this mix Priscilla's father who once sought to bring the fizz of Coke to India's parched masses. And the urbane District Magistrate Lakshman (Lucky) trapped dutifully in an unhappy marriage, marooned in a cultural backwater, thrilled to find someone like Priscilla who can appreciate his Oscar Wilde bon mots. The personal slowly becomes the political- before long there are lengthy discourses by a Muslim scholar and a Hindutva-spouting politician. And there is Priscilla herself- coming back to life through scraps from her diaries and letters.

What emerges finally is not so much a portrait or whodunit about the murder of Priscilla Hart, but a snapshot of contemporary India struggling with the forces of com-munalism, violence and the best intentions of decent men and women gone awry.

In Riot you have tried to put together a story through the eyes of various people. How hard was it to feel that you were convincingly getting into the heads and voices of these different people?

It's never easy, but isn't that what a novelist is supposed to do? It's true that Riot is a departure for me fictionally, because unlike my earlier novels it is not a satirical work. Like the other two, though, it takes liberties with the fictional form. I have always believed that the very word "novel" implies that there must be something "new" about each one. What was new to me about the way Riot unfolded was that I told the story through newspaper clippings, diary entries, interviews, transcripts, journals, scrapbooks, even poems written by the characters- in other words, using different voices, different stylistic forms, for different fragments of the story. How convincing that is, is up to my readers to judge.

How did you keep them straight in your head? Did you write all of one person's story at once or switch back and forth?

No, I enjoyed switching from one voice to the next in my writing. Don't forget that the book was written over four years, not in one stretch; but of course there were days when I was writing more than one voice. With fiction, you need not only time- which I am always struggling to find- but you also need a space inside your head, to create an alternative universe and to inhabit it so intimately that its reality infuses your awareness of the world. 
That is all the more difficult when your daily obligations and responsibilities are so onerous that they are constantly pressing in on you, and you don't have a clear stretch of time to immerse yourself in your fictional universe.

As a writer, diplomat, and human being, l am sure you have certain feelings and 
views regarding the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. How difficult was it to view the issue through the lens of people who thought about it quite differently from you as well as those who thought similarly to you?

I thought I would give various points of view an airing, even if my own thinking was fairly well known from my nonfictional writings. The challenge I set myself in writing this book was not just to imagine a dozen different characters but to try and enter their imaginations, in other words to see the world through their eyes. In describing Zalilgarh from Mrs. Hart's perspective, for instance, I had not just to visualize the town, a town like many I have seen throughout India, but to ask myself what a middle-aged, intelligent but fairly conservative American woman would notice about it. It's no different in depicting four or five different people's views of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue; you have to try and empathize with each of them individually.