Thursday, November 08, 2001

behind the facts

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2001).

Riot, By Shashi Tharoor, Penguin India. 295 rupees ($16)

Shashi Tharoor's new novel, Riot, opens with the killing of an American social worker, Priscilla Hart, in northern India in 1989, when Hindus and Muslims clashed in bloody riots. The object of controversy is a 400-year-old mosque, the Babri Masjid, that Hindu militants eventually destroyed in 1992.

The official verdict suggests Priscilla was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Tharoor is more interested in unofficial versions. He presents his story as a series of newspaper clippings, journal entries written by the characters and transcripts of conversations, revealing much more than the official version.

The married District Magistrate V. Lakshman, with whom Priscilla had been having an affair, agonizes in his journal about the state of his affair and affairs of state. Randy Diggs, a journalist from the New York Journal, has transcripts of several boozy interviews with the magistrate's old college mate who heads the town's constabulary. A secular Muslim academic and a militant Hindu bigot also espouse their causes to the journalist.

Riot weaves a whodunnit with contemporary history. But, most of all, it is a polemic for reason and peace. Tharoor's conflicting and colluding sub-texts suggest that Hindus and Muslims have generally coexisted peacefully in India, that history is manufactured in the service of ulterior motives and that economic deprivation leads to sectarianism.

In his day job in the United Nations Department of Public Information, Tharoor probably knows reality is more multi-layered, but this is literature. Tharoor's earlier two novels showed he is a master at fiction grounded in history. Priscilla's father, a former Coca-Cola executive in India, says, "I'll tell you what your problem is in India. You have too much history. Far more than you can use peacefully. So you end up wielding history like a battle-axe, against each other. Whereas we at Coke . . . don't worry too much about the past. It's your future we want to be part of."

For Tharoor, understanding the past is the way to the future.