“A Novel of Collisions”: The Subversive Treatment of the History of Communal Violence in Shashi Tharoor’s Riot


In his critical collection of essays on reading and writing, Bookless in Baghdad, Shashi Tharoor wrote of Riot: “The story of Riot was a story of various kinds of collisions . . . The themes that concern me in this novel [are] love and hate; cultural collision, in particular, in this case the Hindu/Muslim collision, the American/Indian collision, and within India the collision between the English-educated elites of India and people in the rural heartland; and as well, issues of the unknowability of history, the way in which identities are constructed through an imagining of history . . .” (36-37). Shashi Tharoor’s Riot is a unique treatment of the very sensitive issue of communal violence in India, in particular, the communal hatred that was sweeping across the country in the 1990s due to the emergence of the Babri Masjid/Ramjanmabhoomi controversy. Tharoor assembles his narrative through newspaper clippings, diary entries, interviews, transcripts, scrapbooks, even poems written by individual characters. The novel is based on an actual riot that took place in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh. Tharoor, however, fictionalizes the place of the riot which is Zaligarh in the novel. By treating history as fiction, Riot challenges the meta-narrative of historical ‘truth’, positing varied perspectives of history through its characters.

The novel revolves round the death of an American social worker, Priscilla Hart, during the communal violence generated in the wake of the Babri Masjid agitation. The story unfolds through the investigative reports of an American journalist, Randy Diggs, who accompanies Priscilla’s estranged parents to India. Diggs meets the local Hindu fundamentalist leader, Ram Charan Gupta, to investigate the political reasons behind the riot. Gupta supports the cause of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, passionately exclaiming: “In Ayodhya . . . the most famous temple is not really a temple any more. It is the Ram Janam Bhoomi, the birthplace of Lord Rama. A fit site for a grand temple . . . A mosque on Hindu’s holiest site! . .” (Riot 52). A totally opposing view is given to Diggs by Mohammad Sarwar, a Muslim scholar who teaches in the History department at Delhi University. Sarwar bitterly comments: “The Hindutva brigade is trying to invent a new past for the nation, fabricating historical wrongs, degrading evidence of Muslim malfeasance and misappropriation of national glory . . .” (Riot 67).

By giving us contrary views of two religious leaders, Tharoor subverts the unilateral approach to the problem of sectarian violence. In the novel we do not hear just one point of view; rather there are multiple, varied points of view, and instead of an ‘‘ideology’’, we encounter several ‘‘ideologies’’. In the course of his investigations, Diggs also meets Gurinder Singh, a local policeman who wants to uphold law and order at any cost. Gurinder has his own past to battle as he is the victim of the Sikh riots of 1984. Throughout the novel Tharoor questions the ownership of India’s history. All of the characters, from Ram Charan Gupta to Mohammad Sarwar to Gurinder Singh to the district administrator Lakshman, grapple with their identity of being ‘Indian’. What emerges is a desire for “majority”, a desire that takes the shape of communal violence. In the midst of the conflicting communities violently asserting their identity, chaos ensues and lawlessness prevails.

The multi-vocal narrative of the novel ensures that the reader encounters every community’s beliefs and perceptions; that there is no hegemony of narrative. The narrative mode of journalistic reporting is a brilliant stylistic medium, highlighting the intertwining of religion and politics. The novel gives a glimpse of how politicians hungry for power use religious sentiments as a means to gain political leverage, and fan the fire of colonially inherited divisions between Hindus and Muslims. What emerges through the grim voice of Lakshman is the disturbing reality of fissures in Indian society: chaotic violence and riots are commonplace occurrences, to the extent that Priscilla’s death garners a mere ‘snippet’ in a newspaper. Interspersed within the plot of the riot is the love story of Priscilla and Lakshman. We hear Priscilla’s voice through her letters to her friend Cindy and her diary entries.  We see the differences of opinion between Priscilla and Lakshman slowly emerge, a difference that underscores the opposing cultures of the East and the West. The cultural and social limitation on women in small town India has Priscilla puzzled. Her poem to Cindy hauntingly captures the sadness of the discriminatory practices against women:

     They go back to their little huts

     Roll out the chapattis for dinner

     Pour the children drink of sewer water

     Serve their men first, eat what is left . . .

                                                                                                 (Riot 18)

Conforming to its fluid narrative technique, the novel’s ending is ambiguously open ended. There are no answers as to who murdered Priscilla. Diggs publishes his report which states the difficulties of the investigation, and points out the arrest of suspected rioters, but asserts that there are no definite answers, and “for Priscilla’s parents, Rudyard and Katharine Hart, who travelled to Zaligarh to understand the reasons for their daughter’s death, the questions will never cease” (Riot 266). The ending of the novel does not attempt to resolve the questions it has raised, both in terms of plot (Priscilla’s murderer is not clearly identified) and in terms of the critical issues it raises (there are multiple views of various characters but no definite “truth” emerges regarding sectarian hatred and violence). Tharoor comes across as an explorer of Indian history and politics, questioning and challenging the prevalent discourse of the Babri Masjid/Ram Janam Bhoomi debate, and depicting multiple discourses. There is no singular “History” and certainly no “major” community. In the words of Tharoor himself Riot “. . . speaks of an India of multiple stories, multiple perspectives, multiple tellers, multiple truths. The structure of the novel served a substantive purpose, in pointing to different perceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘history’ and therefore of the Indian reality” (Bookless in Baghdad 38).

                         -Somrita Misra


Tharoor, Shashi. Riot. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.

—. Bookless in Baghdad. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

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