Fictional Representation of the Past - The Book Review, Delhi (October 2001)

Novelist, political analyst and commentator, Shashi Tharoor lives in New York where he works as a diplomat for the UNO. Though geographically displaced he has always written about India because he feels he has something to say; and when a writer has something to say he must write, especially when it concerns the common historical experience of shared cultural codes and the retelling of the past. A writer in the situation of Tharoor is always positioned by and positions himself within the narrative consisting of a continuous play of history, culture and power. Myth, memory, fantasy all constitute the raw material on which he depends for a construction of fictionalized history or historical 'fiction. Different perspectives create new histories in terms of one's ideological dispositions and in accordance with race, gender and class. Permanent insatiability, and the politics of difference as well as recognition manoeuvre the form of the novel: Positioned between alternative homelands as well as ethnic communities, the perspective of different characters alter continuously and clash thereby contributing to the tension so much needed in a work of art as well as in the Young Hegelian outlook on politics and religion.

Filled with subtlety, grace and beauty, the just released novel Riot takes on a range of topics fusing life, art, history, class and culture into a vibrant novel about communalism in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. Tharoor has always been keenly involved in his writings on the issue of the growing communalization of Indian politics.

The lingo is the same. The often repeated jokes are the same. Both the language and the humour reminded me of my undergraduate days. Does Shashi Tharoor write like an undergraduate? Is he good only with short pieces more of the journalistic kind and not with a full length novel? And is this not the reason he uses this new experiment in the novel, a structural fragmentation which allows the reader to open the book anywhere? Lakshman, the protagonist, exclaims, 'Down with the omniscient narrator! It's time for the omniscient reader. Let the reader construct her own novel each time she reads it'. Is not Tharoor trying to do just this?

The mode of address, with its multiple positioning, avoids a strong interpellation. This is clear not just from the technique of using different voices to speak to us, but also from the very structure of the work. The device of a mystery which is never unveiled first involves us, and then moves us into Priscilla's love affair and her personal drama of awakening. The result is a more open text; the reader is also left in a dialectic of ideological positioning, adopting a series of positions that conflict with each other. The various documents that make up the novel assume different audiences like the heterogeneity of voices. The manifold vectors of ideology, individuality, originality and intertextuality intertwine in so many ways enabling the novel to emerge from an ideological context including the structures of class, gender and nationality.

The plot takes off from an account of a riot in Khargone, Madhaya Pradesh, sent to Tharoor by an IAS friend, Harsh Mander, especially since it introduced him to the Intricacies of controlling a riot. Another incident that lies at the origin of this novel is the death of an American girl in South Africa who is killed in the racial disturbances. The two images, he says, 'fused in [my] mind. A lot of what I am trying to explore involves collisions of various sorts.'

The novel traces the fate, through various voices, of the 24-year old American student Priscilla Hart, killed in the sectarian violence in 1989 to bring out the communal tensions and cultural divide facing the country. The gory, grim but always compelling panorama evokes the almost unimaginable horrors and atrocities of communal and cultural difference. A phantasmagoria of estranged man-woman relationships and the indisciplined apparatus of the state machinery, combining with the shadow terrors of this small 'dirty' town and the disturbed life of its opposing communities, the novel turns out to be popular history in the best sense with its attention to human situations and its commanding prose.

Riot is a well researched book with a compelling hard-driving narrative. Love, cultural collision, xenophobia, man's social and political independence are some of its concerns that endeavour to wea