Review in The Asian Wall Street Journal, (14 December 2001)

In his 1994 novel, "Beethoven Among the Cows," Rukun Advani told the story of two Indian brothers, anglicized and urbane, who decide to take the train to Agra on a whim. Their fictional journey was in the weeks after Hindu nationalists had razed a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, believing that it was built at the precise spot where the mythical Hindu god Rama was born. In the riots that followed, hundreds died. The brothers decided to see the Taj Mahal one last time, just in case the nationalists turned their wrath on the Taj next.

That fear isn't fanciful. A Hindu conspiracy theorist called P.N. Oak has claimed that the Taj Mahal was originally a Hindu monument, called Tejo Mahalaya, which the invading Muslims appropriated. Nobody took such conspiracy theorists seriously until the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Indian politics, which masterminded the assault on the Ayodhya mosque in 1992, and now, as the leading party of India's governing coalition, is busy rewriting textbooks. Two months ago, student activists of the BJP defaced the exterior of the Taj.

Only a few of India's gifted writers have tackled the rise of Hindu militancy in their fiction. Advani dealt with it in "Beethoven Among the Cows." The Bombay-based novelist Kiran Nagarkar wrote a brilliant satire, "Ravan and Eddie" in 1995. And Salman Rushdie lampooned the militants in "The Moor's Last Sigh"(1995). Those novels were written within two years of the riots that followed the destruction of the mosque, when the Congress Party still ruled in Delhi. The liberal, secular ethos, although wounded, still held sway in India.

Much of that changed in 1996 when the Congress lost elections. After that, one coalition after another has ruled India, and now, with the BJP relatively firmly in saddle, Hindu swagger is respectable among the chattering classes. At such a time, Shashi Tharoor's new novel, "Riot" (Arcade, 272 pages, $24.95), is particularly welcome. This is Mr. Tharoor's third novel, and it comes after his acclaimed 1997 essay, "India: From Midnight to the Millennium," published on the 50th anniversary of India's independence from British rule.

Mr. Tharoor is a United Nations diplomat, and has spent the better part of his adult life abroad. But he shows a keen grasp of the reality of administering Indian districts. The picture that emerges -- of the district collector, the police officer, the party hacks, the academics, who form the elite circle in dusty, forgotten and boring towns in India which have no tourist site to boast of and which you rarely visit, unless you are driving along and need to rest at a roadside dhaba for some bottled water -- is stunningly accurate.

Such towns gain notoriety because many of them are communal tinderboxes. They erupt in flames, being particularly susceptible to riots when two communities turn against one another, usually at the instigation of outsiders. "Riot" is set in one such town, Zalilgarh, in the months leading upto the Ayodhya mosque's eventual destruction. Priscilla Hart, a 24-year-old American aid worker is killed for no apparent reason, and as her grieving parents return to India to find out why, and an American reporter follows them to do a feature story, they piece together her life, trying to understand the forces of hatred unleashed in the town.

Priscilla was having a discreet affair with V. Lakshman, the Indian district magistrate who is 33 and settled in a dull arranged marriage. Priscilla is a volunteer at a project for women's health, and Lakshman enjoys her company; he is at last able to meet someone literate and interesting in the colorless town. The lovers seem destined to part, and their unfulfilled lives as well as the incomplete lives of the rioters drive the novel. Lakshman is amused by Priscilla's naivete -- she wants to offer population control options to Muslim women in a conservative part of India -- and mildly troubled by her past promiscuity -- she has had lovers before. Priscilla believes their shared love would be strong enough to pull Lakshman out of his placid marriage and fails to understand the sustenance he derives from that stable arrangement of a traditional society.

"Riot" is somewhat like "Rashomon," the epic Kurosawa film in which different protagonists viewed an event differently. The narrator's voice is ostensibly absent (although, arguably, the district collector voices many views of the kind expressed by the liberal Indian elite that Mr. Tharoor is part of). But fragments of evidence form the backbone, consisting of the r