Riot by Shashi Tharoor is a book of great moral, social, religious, and political complexity. Tharoor is an ex-United Nations official and currently, State Minister of External Affairs. The story chronicles the events surrounding the murder of Priscilla Hart, a twenty four year old American student who came to work in a small town of India. At the very beginning, we find out that Priscilla, an idealistic student who was volunteering in a woman’s health programme in India has been murdered in the town of Zalilgarh during a communal riot.
Her parents, who are divorced, travel to India to come to terms with her untimely death. Their past also forms an important part of the novel and helps in understanding Priscilla’s character. They are accompanied by an American journalist. The story slowly starts unfolding as he investigates her murder. We meet the Hindu fundamentalist who explains why the Ram mandir should be constructed at Ayodhya, and his reasons for their antipathy towards Muslims and anyone who is not a Hindu. We also come across the Muslim scholar who attempts to articulate his thoughts about the ‘minority psyche’ of Muslims, with good rationale. Priscilla’s fervour and activism in trying to help the women in the face of all odds is admirable.
The story of the love affair between Priscilla and Lakshman is compelling. Lakshman is an intellectual IAS officer, but a married man who is torn between his love for Priscilla and his feelings of responsibility towards his family. The conversations between the two of them vary through religion, country, the meaning of love, duty, and family. The cultural conflict between the East and West is also explored through them. The strong attraction between them and their intellectual connection is beautifully written. Their interaction is loving, humorous, and intelligent.
The most striking aspect about this book is its form of narration. Tharoor has used a vast range of styles to tell the story- through letters, interviews, conversations, journal entries, poetry, and so on. The narration runs back and forth through time, between characters, with many differing points of view, all of them weaving together to form the novel.