RiotRIOT: A LOVE STORY by Shashi Tharoor. Arcade Publishing:New York. September 2001. Hardcover. 272 pages. $24.95.

American slain in India. That is the hook, on which Shashi Tharoor has hung his latest novel, RiotRiot. 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 RiotRiot 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 RiotRiot 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 RiotRiot 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.

What gave you the idea of hanging the story around an American aid worker who really does not belong to any side in the riot?

I had become increasingly concerned with the communal issues bedeviling our national politics and society in the 1990s, and I wrote extensively about them in my newspaper columns and in my last book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium.This was all in the nature of commentary.

As a novelist, though, I sought an interesting way to explore the issue in fiction. Years ago, my old college friend Harsh Mander, an IAS officer, sent me an account he had written of a riot he dealt with as a district magistrate in Madhya Pradesh. I was very moved by the piece and urged him to publish it, and I am very pleased that a collection of Harsh’s essays about the “forgotten people” he has dealt with in his career has just emerged from Penguin under the title Unheard Voices. But his story also sparked me thinking of a riot as a vehicle for a novel about communal hatred. Since I have never experienced a riot myself, I asked Harsh for permission to use the story of “his” riot in my narrative, a request to which he graciously consented.

At about the same time, I read a newspaper account of a young white American girl, Amy Biehl from Palo Alto, who had been killed by a black mob in violent disturbances in South Africa. The two images merged in my mind, and RiotRiot was born. I began writing it in December 1996, immediately after completing India: From Midnight to the Millen-nium. But in view of the various demands on my time with my work at the United Nations, I could only complete it four years later, around New Year 2000. In between, whole months went by during which I was unable to touch the novel.

Indians have too much history, which they use as a weapon against each other, whereas Coke doesn’t care about the past; it’s the future they want to command.
Mr. Hart in Riot

But throughout it was clear to me that the story of RiotRiot was a story of various kinds of collisions- of people, of cultures, ideologies, loves, hatreds-and it could not be told from just one point of view.

The story of a white woman falling in love with both, India and an Indian, has a hoary tradition from Passage to India to Heat and Dust and many other books. What pitfalls were you careful to avoid, how much were you influenced by these depictions?

I know this will strain credulity, but I actually did not think much about it. Of course I was aware that Priscilla Hart might be seen as one more in the long line from Adela Quested through Daphne Manners and on, but I was writing about a different period, the colonial connection was absent and there was no rape metaphor in my novel! I’m on record as asking, with reference to those earlier novels, why, if rape had to be a literary metaphor for the colonial connection, a British woman had to be the victim of it rather than an Indian. My novel is not about a torrid East-West encounter in a colonial setting; it’s about today’s people in our increasingly globalizing world, where collision and confluence seamlessly cross national and ethnic boundaries.

It’s interesting that Priscilla’s father is depicted as the person who tried to bring Coke back to India. Why did you introduce that debate into the novel?

As I said, the novel is about a number of forms of collision and penetration, and the attempts to inject Coke into India worked as a useful metaphor in various ways. I also have him say, at one point, that Indians have too much history, which they use as a weapon against each other, whereas Coke doesn’t care about the past; it’s the future they want to command–a point that’s vital for the kinds of reflection the novel seeks to provoke in its readers.

The Great Indian Novel was a master-piece of superimposition of a known history over a known epic and somehow making them fit into each other. Do you feel that was your most ambitious work or was the process of using different voices and going back and forth in time for Riot harder?

Both are ambitious in different ways-one taking an epic sweep across the entire political history of 20th century India while reinventing the Mahabharata in the same breath, while the other seeks to examine some of the most vital issues of our day on a smaller, more intimate canvas. Who is to say whether the work of the landscape artist is more ambitious than that of the miniaturist? I’d like to think that all my books are, in their own ways, extremely ambitious-otherwise, with everything else I have to do already in my life and work, what would be the point in writing them?

A review in India Today said that your depiction of Muslim scholar Mohammad Sarwar is of a liberal Iqbal quoting historian. On the other hand Hindu leader Ram Charan Gupta is a more extremist firebrand chauvinist who feels even the Taj Mahal is actually a Hindu temple. Do you feel these two characters that represent two sides of the debate balance each other out?

Actually, some readers have said they have never found a fairer, more articulate depiction of the views of the Hindutva movement than in the voice of Ram Charan Gupta. He makes many points that have been made by others of his stripe, but I honestly believe he makes them more compellingly than one example might suggest. More important, though, I was not trying to balance two stock characters in a debate; this is a novel, for God’s sake! Sarwar is a Muslim believer in India’s pluralism but he is by no means typical of, or meant to be “representative” of, majority Muslim opinion. He’s an ex-communist, a historian, with a newly rediscovered faith in his own religion. The mistake is in seeing him as a sort of mirror image of Gupta, who’s a straightforward Hindutva politician of whose personal life we hear little. I am exploring different issues with these two characters. Merely because one is Hindu and the other is Muslim doesn’t mean we must juxtapose and compare them that way.

The District Magistrate Lakshman aka Lucky says, “I’m Indian, I enjoy the Beatles and Bharatanatyam. I act in Oscar Wilde plays and eat with my fingers.” What do you think about these urbane men like Lucky produced by elite institutions like St. Stephens College in Delhi populating the Indian administrative service ranks in small towns like Zalilgarh?

What I think should be fairly apparent from their portrayal in the novel. I think the role of IAS and IPS officials like this, bringing their English education and values to the task of governing rural and small-town India, is endlessly fascinating and worthy of literary exploration.

As someone who has lived outside India for over 25 years, how did you go about writing and researching a novel based on events that are very fresh in Indian minds and evokes strong reactions either way? What kind of reaction have you got from Indians in India who have read the book?

Well, I keep going back, I follow events, I read extensively, and yes, I research. In any case, I think a writer really lives inside his head and on the page, and geography is merely a circumstance. As for me, my expatriation is linked to my work for the United Nations, which at different times has placed me in Europe, in South-East Asia, and now in the United States. I have carried my Indian identity and passport with me to each of these places, and I have not made that leap of the imagination that emigration entails. Of course, staying abroad entails the risk of losing touch with the reality one is writing about, so it cannot be said to “help” in writing about India, but none of those who criticize expatriate writers can point to any egregious errors in my books that derive from my expatriation, so I guess it hasn’t hurt either!

As for Indian reactions, the recent launch of the novel in Delhi was accompanied by pretty widespread media coverage-overwhelmingly, I am glad to say, positive. The reviews are coming in and I’ve had a few raves in places like the Indian Express and the Asian Age; Khushwant Singh has written a very generous syndicated column which I’ll refrain from quoting myself but which I’m sure you can find. Of course there are bound to be some who don’t like the book-it would be odd for any work to receive unanimous praise-but I’m very happy with the way Indian readers and reviewers have reacted to the book.

How do you find the discipline to write alongside your demanding job at the U.N.? Do you not find it mentally draining to be dealing with massive humanitarian tragedies?

I write, as George Bernard Shaw said, for the same reason a cow gives milk: it’s inside me, it’s got to come out, and in a real sense I would die if I couldn’t. It’s the way I express my reaction to the world I live in. Sometimes the words come more easily than at other times, but writing is my lifeblood. How tired or drained I am doesn’t really enter into it. I see myself as a human being with a number of responses to the world, some of which I manifest in my writing, some in my U.N. work. I think both writing and the U.N. are essential for my sanity: if I had given up either one, a part of my psyche would have with-ered on the vine.

As a U.N. official you have been at the heart of many tumultuous political events in Yugoslavia, and with Vietnamese boat people. Yet in your fiction you have gone back again and again to India. Why is that?

Because, quite simply, my formative years, from the ages of 3 to 19, were spent growing up in India. India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. India matters immensely to me, and in all my work, I would like to matter to India.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.