While building sets for a play, Tilo meets three men, bonding in the momentous year of 1984. Tilo is in love with the quiet, gentle Musa, a Kashmiri who later becomes a rebel leader in Kashmir’s attempt at succession from India. The flamboyant Naga is from a diplomatic family and later a well-known journalist and television personality. The third man, Biplab, becomes a government official. He too is in love with Tilo: “The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”
Tilo does not want to marry, so Musa goes back to Kashmir. He marries and has a daughter, but they are killed in the crossfire while watching a funeral. Musa, who is deeply committed to Kashmir’s freedom, goes underground. He asks Tilo to come to Kashmir. “They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle.” After a night spent together, he tells her “Someone will come for you … You’ll be traveling. I want you to see everything, know everything. You’ll be safe.”
Tilo travels around Kashmir for several weeks, handed off from person to person. She returns to the houseboat where Musa lives, but when he leaves, she is captured by a ruthless local policeman and known killer. She is interrogated, but, knowing Biplab is in town, she tells her would-be torturers to contact him. Biplab, whose name is recognized, sends Naga to find her. Tilo, shaking, is released, but not before her head is shaved.
At his own “funeral” the next day, Musa tells Tilo to return to Delhi, but to get married, if possible. Naga, who could have any woman, is besotted with Tilo. Naga’s mother is horrified when she hears they will marry. Tilo, whose skin is “more café than au lait,” seems to Biplab, “utterly, unreachably alone, even at her own wedding. The insouciance was gone.” Tilo and Naga live on an upper floor of his parents’ home in the diplomatic enclave in Delhi, a perfect cover.
After 14 years of marriage, during which Tilo keeps in some touch with Musa, she leaves, renting a room from Biplab. Musa sends her notes and information in the false bottoms of fruit boxes from Kashmir. Tilo wonders “how to un-know certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know.” She also spends time at the Jantar Mantar, a public square where political demonstrations go on at all times of the day and night.
One night, a baby is abandoned in the square and Tilo picks it up and takes it home. The police focus on this abduction and question Tilo’s downstairs neighbor. Tilo escapes to go and live in the cemetery establishment of a hejira named Anjum, taking the baby. After some time, a letter from the child’s mother surfaces: she is a Telugu woman, a Maoist, who was raped and knew she was about to be killed.
The cemetery, a refuge of outsiders, is a happy enclave with gardens and animals. Tilo begins a school for poor neighborhood children. Musa visits Tilo now and then. She knows that one day he will not return from Kashmir, and when he doesn’t she grieves deeply, but she is able to “visit him often enough through the crack in the door that the battered angels in the graveyard held open (illegally) for her.”
It is difficult to separate Tilo from her creator, Arundhati Roy. Many of the causes Roy publicizes after becoming an internationally-known author (for her first novel, The God of Small Things ) are represented in some form or other in Tilo’s story. Roy wants to tell the stories of people, birds, animals, trees, dung beetles, who are marginalized and have no voice. She continues to live in the tumultuous country of India, fearless, direct and with little personal vanity. You can become acquainted with her here.