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Riot: A Love Story by Shashi Tharoor

By Ramlal Agarwal

Shashi Tharoor’s third novel, Riot, confirms that he strives for novelty in his fiction. The novelty was a prominent feature of his first novel, “The Great Indian Novel,” about Indira Gandhi’s usurpation of civil rights during the Emergency. Tharoor saw parallels between the emergency situation and the situation in the Indian epic Mahabharata and telescoped the two situations, transforming a great epic into a novel that one reviewer called “century-striding. ” Tharoor’s second novel, Show Business, was about the appearances and realities of the make-believe world, and it too was remarkable for its novelty of setting. The work was presented as a screenplay, and as such, the narrative encompassed the celluloid world in all its aspects: staging, set design, scripts, music, makeup-room gossip, bedroom scenes, et cetera. Jonathan Leo of London’s Sunday Times called it “a literary coup.” Tharoor’s quest for novelty continues in Riot, a love story set in recent troubled times of communal tensions in India. Here he adopts a mixed narrative mode, telling the story through newspaper clippings, diaries, letters, interviews, journals, notebooks, and scrapbooks. However, it works because it helps him introduce the character and other details without having to string them together in a continuous narrative. It is also easier for the readers to read clips rather than one long, continuous narrative.

But technical innovations aside, Tharoor presents his characters with sensitivity and understanding, deftly bringing out the complications of a multicultural society. Priscilla Hart, a doctoral candidate at New York University, comes to India to conduct field research at Zalilgarh, a nondescript town in Uttar Pradesh. She is a slim, sensitive, and empathetic twenty-four-year-old woman with blue eyes and blond hair. In India, she contributes her time to a population-control programme run by an American organization called HELP-US. She is genuinely touched by the plight of women in India and totally committed to the cause of their empowerment.

In Zalilgarh, she develops a natural bond with a handsome, educated district magistrate, Laxman. Laxman tells her about Indian customs, India’s social problems, and its historical places, which Priscilla finds very interesting. They once went to an old haunted house called Kotli. Laxman tells Priscilla the history of the house. Laxman places his hand on Pricilla’s shoulder as they make their way through the house’s dark passages with the help of a torch. Though he withdraws it soon, he takes her to a room in the upper story of the building. The room has a window opening onto a river and the setting sun. Secure in the enormous authority of the Dist. Magistrate, they watched the river and the sunset and fell in love with each other. Kotli becomes their rendezvous. Soon, Pricilla finds out that she is pregnant and starts pressing Laxman to marry her, but Laxman is unable to do so because he is already married and has a daughter. Moreover, he shudders to think of the havoc in his family and society and the repercussions of his job.

Frustrated, she prepares to return to America. In the meantime, killings and riots break out in Jalalgarh over the Ramjanmabhumi issue. Before her departure, Priscilla visits Kotli again, only to be stabbed to death by unknown assailants. Her parents arrive at Zalilgarh seeking information about her killing.

They meet with the people Priscilla knew, but all they can ascertain are different versions of the event and guesses as to the identities of the possible killers. Mrs. Hart finds a letter in which Priscilla mentioned that she loved someone. She wants to know from Laxman who this man was, but Laxman feigns innocence. Laxman’s refusal to admit the truth comes as a stab in the guts of the readers.

The search for Priscilla’s killers runs parallel with the search for clues to the deaths of two locals that sparked the riot and also with a search for the historical facts about the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri issue. All is not lost, however, for, in a multicultural and pluralist society, such things as truth are necessarily pluralistic, as the novel makes very clear. Set against self-righteousness and communal violence, Riot acquires a poignancy that is sure to move critics and readers alike.

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