- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

By Shashi Tharoor
Arcade, $24.95, 272 pages

Not long ago, while being interviewed on television about the United States' recently strengthened ties with Pakistan, the Indian foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, took his questioner to task for identifying his nation as "predominantly Hindu." Such a characterization is entirely unfair, Mr. Singh complained; India is, after all, a democratic, secular country, not one defined, as is Pakistan, by its majority religion. Moreover, he said, as if he were an annoyed schoolteacher scolding a child, India has a larger Muslim population than does Pakistan, and in this sense could be considered the second largest Islamic country in the world, second only to Indonesia.
Of course, as anyone who has paid even the slightest attention toward the subcontinent during the last half-century knows, communal violence, that is, violence between Hindus and Muslims, has been, and continues to be, a destructive force in Indian life. The bloodiest series of incidents since the partition of India, having resulted in deaths numbering in the thousands, is the inspiration behind Shashi Tharoor's new novel: the rioting that spread through India in the aftermath of the 1992 demolition, by Hindu extremists, of the mosque known as the Babri Masjid a mosque believed by some to have been built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple centuries ago.
Mr. Tharoor's "Riot: A Love Story" is set three years before the Babri Masjid's destruction, in a town called Zalilgarh in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A mob of fired-up Hindu extremists sparks a riot that eventually kills eight people. Among the dead is Priscilla Hart, a young American woman working in Zalilgarh to educate local women about population control. Understanding exactly how Priscilla died and what her life in India had been like leading up to her death is the novel's project.
To reach some semblance of truth, the book pieces together multiple narrative accounts, including extracts from the journals of both Priscilla and Lakshman, the married district administrator with whom Priscilla begins a heated love affair. Mr. Tharoor also includes transcripts of interviews with the superintendent of police, Gurinder Singh; with Ram Charan Gupta, the leader of Zalilgarh's Hindu extremists; with a historian named Mohammed Sarwar; with Rudyard Hart, Priscilla's father, who had settled the family in India for a time many years before, as he sought to bring Coca Cola to more of the Indian masses. No one voice can be seen as authoritative, as this mosaic-like approach suggests. Each narrator is, to some degree, unreliable.
As Lakshman says to Priscilla: "The singular thing about truth, my dear, is that you can only speak of it in the plural. Doesn't your understanding of the truth depend on how you approach it? On how much you know?" Indeed, multiplicity is central to the novel: multiplicity of viewpoint, of meaning, and perhaps most important, identity. Lakshman, Westernized, witty, obsessed with Oscar Wilde, must balance so many personas. He is a husband, a father, a civil servant, a man duty-bound to his family and his country's traditions; but he is also Priscilla's lover, experiencing with her his first true taste of passionate love, and he proves ultimately incapable of juggling these various roles.
Mr. Tharoor also explores the multiplicity of identity that any Indian citizen must wrestle with: How does one remain loyal at once to religion, region, and nation? For as Lakshman says in this novel, the great challenge of pluralist Indian democracy is to ensure that "you can be a good Muslim and a good Bihari and a good Indian all at once." How difficult it is indeed, how trying on one's conscience, to reconcile these often-divisive roles.
As a primer into the modern history of the Hindu-Muslim conflict, as an exploration of its impulses, "Riot" is simply brilliant. One comes away from Mr. Tharoor's novel aware of the many subtleties of rural Indian life, of how easily Indian passions can become inflamed. It is as penetrating a look at fanaticism as any I have read. But as a work of fiction, "Riot" does not quite succeed, I think.
A book constructed the way this one is depends on the individuality of its voices, but here the characters sound awfully alike they all sound, to a great degree, like Lakshman. And when Mr. Tharoor tries to imbue his characters' voices with idiosyncrasy or even cadence, the result can be tiresome and unintentionally comical. I am thinking now of Priscilla's stereotypical supervisor, Shankar Das, and the police superintendent Singh, with his never-ending tough-guy speak.
So much also depends on Priscilla, but she comes off as a fairly implausible character. Her mission is to "empower" women, teach them about their rights as women, but she herself is little more than a mere schoolgirl. She has begun an affair with Lakshman, but cannot understand why he will not leave his family for her. Lakshman confesses his own situation thus: "My role as a husband and father is central to who I am; it concerns my rootedness in the world; it is inextricably bound up with my sense of my place in the cosmos. I have been brought up to believe that such things marriage, family are beyond individual will, that they transcend an individual's freedom of action."
But for someone who spent her youth in India, mixing not with the "Americanized rich kids she met in her school" but with "real Indians" (as her father, Rudyard, puts it), for someone apparently in tune with the dissonances of Indian society, she is totally unable to come to terms with Lakshman's Indianness. "I guess it's part of the price you've got to pay for being a foreigner in India," she confesses in a letter to a friend about Lakshman's refusal to run off with her. "But why must I, of all people, have to pay that price? I'm not some tourist in a five-star hotel I'm me!"
This is a woman who hands out a package of contraceptives to a local Muslim woman and is then somehow amazed to find an irate husband beating down her door for a confrontation. The thing is, Priscilla is not some innocent Adela Quested lost in E.M. Forster's foreign India, but someone supposedly sympathetic to India's complexities. Her naivete is baffling.
Then there's the matter of sex. I suppose that when the subtitle of a novel is "A Love Story," one expects some tenderness and passion in the book's love scenes, but those in "Riot" are quite bad, sappy, overwritten, rife with cliche. The limits on what can be printed in a daily newspaper prevent me from quoting at any length one of these passages, but let me just say that the London magazine "Literary Review" would be remiss if it didn't consider this novel for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction award.
All that ocean and flood imagery it's been done so many times before, and with far more skill. In the hands of a D.H. Lawrence, for example, such imagery becomes mythical, archetypal, prophetic. Here, it's downright embarrassing. A little restraint and originality would have made the crucial relationship between Priscilla and Lakshman far worthier of the grand historical breadth and design of Mr. Tharoor's novel.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.

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