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The Shashi Tharoor column: A departure, fictionally

THERE is nothing quite like the thrill of publishing a book, though mothers have probably come closest to the experience in having a baby. (Much the same combination of emotions is involved - the thrill of conception, the anxiety of nurturing the spark into full-blown life, the exhausted satisfaction of delivery.) As I write these words I have before me two different editions of my new novel Riot - the Indian edition from Viking Penguin, with a stark, powerful cover photograph of a scene from a real riot, with flames and smoke arising from an overturned cart; and the American edition from Arcade, black and red and gold, with an elegiac photograph of the sun setting behind a Mughal monument, bordered with colourful Rajasthani fretwork. The Indian edition reflects the publishers' focus on the political themes with which the book engages; the American edition evokes an older, gentler image of India, and is subtitled "A Love Story". My Indian friends all prefer the Indian cover; my American friends are much more attracted to the American. So clearly both publishers know their markets well.

The two covers reflect, too, two different aspects of the same novel, because Riot is a love story, while also being a hate story. That is to say, it is the story of two people intimately in love in a little district town in Uttar Pradesh, but it also a story of the smouldering hatreds being stoked in that town, Zalilgarh, and of the conflagration in which both are (also intimately) caught up. American readers looking for a love story will also find a novel about the construction of identity, the nature of truth and the ownership of history; Indian readers expecting a novel about the dangers of communalism will also discover a tale of another kind of passion.

Both are central to the novel's purpose. I am conscious that in India, critics expect a serious writer to be "ambitious", something that some felt I had failed to be in my second novel, Show Business, which came in the wake of The Great Indian Novel. I believe Riot is ambitious in its own way - The Great Indian Novel took an epic sweep across the entire political history of 20th Century India while reinventing the Mahabharata in the same breath, while Riot seeks to examine some of the most vital issues of our day on a smaller, more intimate canvas. Who is to say whether the work of the landscape artist is more ambitious than that of the miniaturist? As I said somewhat testily to an interviewer the other day, I would like to think that all my books are, in their own ways, extremely ambitious - otherwise, with everything else I have to do already in my life and work, what would be the point in writing them?

The fact is that I had become increasingly concerned with the communal issues bedevilling our national politics and society in the 1990s, and I wrote extensively about them in my newspaper columns and in my last book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium. This was all in the nature of commentary. As a novelist, though, I sought an interesting way to explore the issue in fiction. Years ago, my old college friend Harsh Mander, an IAS officer, sent me an account he had written of a riot he dealt with as a district magistrate in Madhya Pradesh. I was very moved by the piece and urged him to publish it, and I am very pleased that a collection of Harsh's essays about the "forgotten people" he has dealt with in his career has just emerged from Penguin under the title Unheard Voices. But his story also sparked me thinking of a riot as a vehicle for a novel about communal hatred. Since I have never managed a riot myself, I asked Harsh for permission to use the story of "his" riot in my narrative, a request to which he graciously consented. At about the same time, I read a newspaper account of a young White American girl, Amy Biehl, who had been killed by a Black mob in violent disturbances in South Africa. The two images stayed and merged in my mind, and Riot was born.

I began writing it in December 1996, immediately after completing India: From Midnight to the Millennium. But in view of the various demands on my time with my work at the United Nations, I could only complete it four years later, around the end of 2000. In between, whole months went by during which I was unable to touch the novel. With fiction, you need not only time - which I am always struggling to find - but you also need a space inside your head, to create an alternative universe and to inhabit it so intimately that its reality infuses your awareness of the world. That is all the more difficult when your daily obligations and responsibilities are so onerous that they are constantly pressing in on you, and you do not have a clear stretch of time to immerse yourself in your fictional universe.

And Riot is also a departure for me fictionally, because unlike my earlier novels it is not a satirical work. Like the other two, though, it takes liberties with the fictional form. I have always believed that the very word "novel" implies that there must be something "new" about each one. What was new to me about the way Riot unfolded was that I told the story through newspaper clippings, diary entries, interviews, transcripts, journals, scrapbooks, even poems written by the characters - in other words, using different voices, different stylistic forms, for different fragments of the story. (It is also a book you can read in any order: though ideally you should read it from beginning to end, you can pick it up from any chapter, go back or forward to any other chapter, and you will bring a different level of awareness to the story.)

The story of Riot was a story of various kinds of collisions - of people, of cultures, ideologies, loves, hatreds - and it could not be told from just one point of view. The challenge I set myself in writing this book was not just to imagine a dozen different characters but to try and enter their imaginations, in other words to see the world through their eyes. In describing Zalilgarh from "Mrs. Hart"'s perspective, for instance, I had not just to visualise the town, a town like many I have seen throughout India, but to ask myself what a middle-aged, intelligent but fairly conservative American woman would notice about it. Similarly I sought to depict four or five different people's views of the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid controversy; despite my own strong feelings about it, I tried honestly to empathise with each of them individually.

I write, as George Bernard Shaw said, for the same reason a cow gives milk: it is inside me, it is got to come out, and in a real sense I would die if I could not. It is the way I express my reaction to the world I live in. Sometimes the words come more easily than at other times, but writing is my lifeblood. Riot is my sixth book. But I have also pursued a United Nations career. I see myself as a human being with a number of responses to the world, some of which I manifest in my writing, some in my U.N. work (for refugees, in peace-keeping, in the Secretary-General's office and in communications). I think both writing and the U.N. are essential for my sanity: if I had given up either one, a part of my psyche would have withered on the vine.

I am often asked why, despite my international career, I have set all my books so far in India. The answer is simple. My formative years, from the ages of three to 19, were spent growing up in India. India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. India matters immensely to me, and in all my writing, I would like to matter to India. Or, at least, to Indian readers ....

Shashi Tharoor is the author of Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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