shashi tharoor interviewed by richard gwyn at the Lakeside Terrace (York Quay Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West), Saturday (October 20) at 4 pm; and reading with Alberto Manguel and Jean-Christophe Rufin at Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West), Sunday (October 21) at 8 pm. $18. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNN
shashi tharoor is busy -- and that understates things.He's head of the communications department at the United Nations and he's been in big demand since the world agency copped the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize last week.
That won't keep him from hitting town for the International Festival Of Authors, mainly because his passion for his home country, India, drives him as much as his work at the UN. It comes through in his complex novel Riot: A Love Story.
Told through diaries and transcripts of interviews among his characters, Riot unravels the perplexing murder of American expatriate Priscilla Hart, who came to India to work in a birth control agency and died while the town of Zaligarhg was in the throes of a religious riot.
His characters are often stand-ins for particular points of view -- the radical Hindu, the fundamentalist Muslim, the American trying to bring Coca-Cola to India, the secular administrator -- but Tharoor knows that's the downside of writing a novel of ideas.
"The book is really about the construction of identity and memory," he says on the phone from his home in New York, adding that there is never really one history, just different perspectives on the past.
It's easy to see Priscilla, who falls for an honour-bound local administrator, as a naive young woman who sets herself up for trouble. But don't assume, says Tharoor, that do-goodism is flawed and doomed to failure.
"Of course, immense complexities are created when you are intruding into someone else's story. The key is to remember that what we share is important but you can never ignore what is different."
Hatred, especially the religious kind, sparks the book's central event.
"How we hate and why, how we build things up in our minds to justify the hatred" is a point of fascination for Tharoor. "The moment you get behind collectivity, you have a problem. Group hatreds make people forget the individual and demonize whole collectives.
"One of the difficulties with religions is that their proponents think they have a monopoly on the truth. All the Semitic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- suggest there's no way to salvation except through their lord and that everyone else is in error.
"The key to the Hindu vision is the unknowability of truth. Hinduism is the only religion that doesn't claim to be the only true one."
This point has extra resonance today, but as the Taliban stare down America, it's Tharoor's responsibilities as a senior official at the United Nations even more than as an author that will be increasing his workload.
He is aware that critics of the Nobel committee's decision to give the peace prize to the UN say the agency blew it when it failed to stop the 1992 slaughter in Rwanda. But he's convinced the UN has reacquired its credibility.
"The United Nations has almost a better standing in the East than in the West," says Tharoor. "Developing countries form the majority of members, and they feel the UN is their best defence in a money-poor world.
"Even the isolationists in America are starting to get the point: a fire that starts in a tent in one part of the world can melt the steel girders of two buildings in another. Terrorism is emblematic of world problems without passports. Terrorism is not based in one country, its perpetrators are not based in one country, its victims are not based in one country. And so neither are the solutions."
Riot: A Love Story by Shashi Tharoor (Arcade), 368 pages, $38.95 cloth. Rating: NNN