The often alarming proximity of love, hate and history is richly drawn out in Shashi Tharoor’s latest novel Riot. Set amidst the vicious sectarian clashes in north India in 1989, it tells the story of an American student’s commitment to help local women, her passionate affair with the local district magistrate, and her untimely death, days before she was due to return to the US.
The book opens with a (fictitous) newspaper article informing us of the death of a postgraduate student named Priscilla Hart. She was working for the NGO, HELP-US, encouraging female birth control in the small town of Zalilgarh in Uttar Pradesh. From there, Tharoor takes us backwards. He uses myriad styles to create a whodunnit jigsaw puzzle, except that here the reader is the detective. Through transcripts, cables, newspaper articles, poems, hastily scribbled notes and secret diaries, the reader is invited to piece together the events surrounding her death.
We meet her divorced parents who struggle to comprehend why anyone would want to kill the daughter they never quite understood. We are offered transcripts of conversations with a historian – who seeks to explain the roots of sectarian hatred – and the Hindu community leader who stokes the flames of that same hatred. We meet the Sikh police chief who attempts to control the riots and Lakshman, the district magistrate who finds himself caught between his emotional ties to Priscilla and his professional commitment to the police force.
Finally, there is Priscilla Hart herself. Here Tharoor’s characterisation is particularly vivid. An intelligent student from an affluent, middle-class background, she is drawn back to India after spending several years there as a child. When she returns with the NGO, HELP-US, she embarks on her mission to ‘emancipate’ the women of Zalilgarh with a naive, almost missionary, fervour.
Quite rightly, Tharoor avoids any simplistic moral judgements. Priscilla’s cause is worthy but fraught with difficulties. In some cases where she wishes to help, she succeeds only in making things worse. The implication is clearly that, while the west often wants to help, it must tread carefully and seek to understand the host culture before it barges in with its own ideas.
The quest to understand India is another important aspect of this book. India’s multiple identities are a cause of much of the hatred between communities, and nowhere has this been made plainer than in the controversy over the Babri Masjid. Though the novel is set in 1989, before its destruction in 1992 by Hindu fundamentalists, the Ram Sila Poojan programme to rebuild the mosque forms the backdrop to the novel.
From the Hindu leader’s rants against “those secularists in Delhi” to the historian’s plea that he wishes his son to grow up in an India “...neither Hindu nor Muslim, but both,” we are constantly reminded that little takes place in India that is devoid of ‘historical’ meaning. The book’s most potent message seems to be one of unity. The only way forward is for India’s distinct communities to remember that, ultimately, they are Indian above all else.
If the politics provides the book’s message, the love affair between the district magistrate, Lakshman, and Priscilla gives the book its forward momentum. Though the ‘love-in-adversity’ theme is a time-worn one, it is augmented in this case by the clash between Lakshman’s upper-middle class Indian upbringing and that of a modern western girl. Endearing details like Lakshman’s obsession with Wilde help to give the characters depth though there is still a feeling that some of the secondary characters could have been described in more detail.