In India: From Midnight to the Millennium, Shashi Tharoor praises his country for its endless variety: "The only possible idea of India is that it is a nation greater than the sum of its parts." Tharoor himself contains multitudes; besides serving as the head of public information for the secretary-general of the United Nations, he is also one of the finest novelists in a crop of recently harvested Indian writers. In both his fiction and nonfiction, Tharoor grapples with the pluralism (1 billion people, 17 major languages, countless religious sects) he has called India's "greatest strength." His latest novel, Riot: A Love Story, also bears his signature playfulness with plot structure and traditional, linear narration.
Riot has many narrators. (Tharoor described it in an interview with the Indian newspaper Express Newsline as "a book you can read in any order.") The novel is a compendium of newspaper clippings, diary entries, personal letters, and transcripts of interviews that collectively tell the story of Priscilla Hart, a 24-year-old American student killed in a clash between Hindus and Muslims in a small Indian village. The opening entry is a newspaper article, reporting that Hart had been working on a population-control project meant to empower Indian women with knowledge of their birth-control rights and options. After a riot sweeps through the village, officials find Hart's stabbed body. The entries in the novel supply clues to the mystery until a final bit of evidence reveals the truth of her murder--a truth that has many faces.
The most significant revelation involves an affair between Hart and the district magistrate V. Lakshman, which yields some of the most magical descriptions of cross-cultural love in any fictional work to date, and earns Riot its subtitle as a love story, albeit a tragic one. A man who quotes Oscar Wilde at every opportunity, Lakshman describes himself as "overworked, overweight, and married"--though Hart, in a letter to a friend, paints a verbal picture of a government official with dark skin, "sort of a Jesse Jackson shade," and a face like Omar Sharif. Stuck in a loveless marriage but deeply attached to his young daughter, Lakshman vacillates between sacrificing his career and family for Hart and giving up the only woman who has ever truly made him happy.
The decision is especially difficult because Hart has become a creative muse for Lakshman--who, like his creator, is a bureaucrat by day and a writer by night. Lakshman yearns to write "a novel that doesn't read like a novel. Why can't I write a novel that reads like--like an encyclopedia?" This self-referential aside is Tharoor's playfulness in action: "The beginning foretells the end. Down with the omniscient narrator! It's time for the omniscient reader." (Lakshman also refers to a "chap who's just reinvented the Mahabharata as a twentieth-century story"--an allusion to Tharoor's earlier work The Great Indian Novel.)
Much like the myriad voices shouting in a riot, the novel offers perspectives of many characters, from Hart's mother to Lakshman's wife and daughter. However, quite unlike the chaos of a riot, these voices coalesce to solve the mystery of Hart's murder--and, in Tharoorian fashion, there's a stunning twist at the end.
Tharoor's 1992 novel Show Business, which publisher Arcade is reissuing this month, also invokes the decline of the omniscient narrator with a plot structure that imitates a Hollywood-style Bombay film--song, dance, monologues, and all. Show Business "stars" Ashok Banjara, a Hindi actor whose personal life is not nearly as heroic as the lives of the characters he plays. Tharoor tracks Banjara's rise and fall in a series of first-person narratives by the star himself, summaries of his movies that parallel real life, and monologues by his "co-stars" (his frustrated wife, an angry colleague, his good-hearted politician father and would-be politician brother, and his self-absorbed mistress), each of whom bears a valid grudge against the actor.
The genius of Show Business is not Tharoor's satirical look at Banjara's tragic shallowness but his multilayered comparison of the fantasy land Bollywood to the hardships and social crises of real-life India. "In my India poverty means distended bellies and eyes without hope," Banjara's father says, "whereas in your films the poor change costumes for each verse of their songs and always have enough strength to beat up the villains." The father is especially angry because after achieving fame Banjara turned politician for the fun of it, in the process stealing the parliamentary seat his modest younger brother had struggled his entire life to earn. As the brother says, "I have not met another human being as completely unconscious of the effect he has on people than you." Though the gripes of the characters seem personal, Tharoor makes them political, using their voices to offer a sweeping sociological survey of India's social issues and crises. Tharoor's prose is passionate and clever, and his narrative experiments evoke the pluralism that he insists is India's essence.