Tharoor (Show Business, 1992, etc.) makes an anguished plea for religious tolerance, in a story about the 1989 murder of a young American during a sectarian riot in northern India.
The New York–based author, an official at the United Nations, is impressively knowledgeable and perceptive about the subcontinent’s history and current ills, including increasing intolerance of religious diversity. And the story he tells graphically illustrates incendiary tensions between Hindus and Muslims. But the investigation into the brutal murder of blond, blue-eyed doctoral student Priscilla Hart is schematic and rife with foreshadowing. Newspaper clippings, interviews with officials, letters, and individuals’ recollections offer relevant commentary and suggestive clues as Priscilla’s divorced parents, Rudyard and Katherine Hart, do some sleuthing and recollect their past. The marriage broke down while the family was living in India, as Coca-Cola executive Rudyard fought to retain the beverage’s market share on the subcontinent and 15-year-old Priscilla came home to find Dad in bed with his secretary. Idealistic Priscilla returned to India in her early 20s to research her dissertation and work at an American-run population-control center in Zaligarh. In that small town, she met and fell in love with handsome Lakshman, a district magistrate who wrote poetry on the side. He was married and a father, but soon he was meeting Priscilla to make love at an old ruin. The investigation also reveals that Priscilla made enemies as she tried to help the town’s abused women. Realizing he couldn’t leave his wife, Lakshman had arranged to meet Priscilla one last time before the riot, which broke out when a militant Hindu group provoked the local Muslims. The ensuing mayhem gave license to kill and avenge as a truth long intimated was revealed.
Sexual passions are secondary to far more fiery political ones in Tharoor’s truthful but disappointing third novel, more a reasoned argument than a tender love story.