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Passport to a Dream

RIOT: A Love Story, By Shashi Tharoor, Arcade: 304 pp., $24.95

November 04, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Shashi Tharoor is a man with two brains. By night he writes novels--most notably his 1989 modern recasting of the Mahabharata in "The Great Indian Novel"--and by day he works as head of the Department of Public Information at the United Nations. There are those--and not all cynics--who might dispute the distinction between the two activities. Tharoor, in fact, may be among them.

Even before he begins his latest novel, "Riot: A Love Story," Tharoor quotes "Don Quixote": "History is a sacred kind of writing, because truth is essential to it, and where truth is, there God himself is, so far as truth is concerned." History, truth and holiness roll around with Cervantes' tongue in Tharoor's cheek. It is a clear signal that the job ahead--to tell a story of love and riot--may be more than language, the language of either the poet or the information officer, can bear.

In any case, let the reader beware: The love story of the novel is rudimentary at best. The young Priscilla Hart returns to the India where she spent her teenage years as the daughter of the American representative of Coca-Cola. Working in the small Uttar Pradesh town of Zalilgarh for a nongovernmental organization dedicated to educating local women on how to navigate the minefield of reproductive rights, Priscilla meets the deputy magistrate, Lakshman, educated, middle-aged, dissatisfied and inconveniently married.

Lakshman is a civil servant, caught divided between East and West. "I'm Indian," he declares to Priscilla. "I enjoy the Beatles and Bharata Natyam. I act in Oscar Wilde plays and I eat with my fingers. I read Marx, and I let my parents arrange my marriage." A poet at heart, Lakshman dreams of writing a novel that reads like an encyclopedia.

"He is dark, my Mr. Lakshman," Priscilla writes to a friend back home, "sort of a Jesse Jackson shade. Fine features, an especially perfect nose, a silken mustache. I was reminded of Omar Sharif in 'Lawrence of Arabia."' Between his love for the west and her Orientalism, what choice do they have? Priscilla and Lakshman fall in love, encounter cultural differences, struggle with the impossibility of their love. And then Priscilla is killed.

It is the search for the cause of Priscilla's death that pulls her estranged parents back to India. Each conducts an investigation, as does an American stringer dispatched by his New York paper, who, like his ancestral comrade in "Citizen Kane," catalyzes the hunt for this particular Rosebud. Yet, "Riot" is no police procedural. There are psychological, emotional and political reasons for her death. Priscilla, it seems, died at the height of a sectarian riot between militant Hindus and local Muslims.

And at times "Riot" reads like a political novel, or even the kind of encyclopedic novel that Lakshman yearns to write, full of historical and political explanations of the Hindu-Muslim tensions, the Anglo-Indian tensions and the religious-governmental tensions of India. "It's worked, Priscilla," Lakshman insists during one of their amatory afternoons, talking of the Indian experiment with democracy. "We have given passports to a dream, a dream of an extraordinary, polyglot, polychrome, polyconfessional country. Democracy will solve the problems we're having with some disaffected Sikhs in Punjab; and democracy, more of it, is the only answer for the frustrations of India's Muslims too."

Democracy, of course, is the rallying cry for many in the West who believe it is the Way that the former Communist world, the fundamentalist Islamic world, the militant African tribal world must follow to ensure the continuation of the species. Yet Lakshman, and presumably Tharoor, sounds the cautionary note of chaos: "But who, in all of this, allowed for militant Hinduism to arise, challenging the very basis of the Indianness I've just described to you?"

The riot of the title is, finally, the maddening entanglement of world views that may, at the end, be too Gordian a knot to untie. The arguments over contraception that bother Priscilla and her Indian clients, or over premarital sex that bother Priscilla and Lakshman, might strike the enlightened American reader as, well, a bit silly. But Tharoor sees them as two of the more comprehensible disputes between enlightened people of different cultures.

In such a climate, how can anyone explain the death of a young woman? "'It is hard to escape the conclusion,' a U.S. embassy spokesman said, 'that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.' Mr. Lakshman, however, questions whether there is such a thing as the wrong place, or the wrong time. 'We are where we are at the only time we have,' he said. 'Perhaps it's where we're meant to be."'

If "Riot" is a love story, it is the love story of Tharoor for the romantic potential of language--the clay of the novelist and the shovel of the press officer. It is the romantic belief of Tharoor and his lovers that language can solve the ills of the human riot of the last 10,000 years. The alternative is a fatalism which, for a novelist and a diplomat, is fatal.

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