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BOOKS & IDEAS

An Indian moment, perhaps?

This could be Vikram Chandra's time -- if everyone would stop talking about his big advance already.

January 28, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — AS a boy growing up in India, Vikram Chandra went to a Catholic school where teachers showed English-language movies every week to help students learn the language. Once, Chandra recalled, his class watched a spaghetti western where the hero sat down to Thanksgiving dinner and carved up a huge turkey.

"We had never seen such a bird; all we knew from our experience were chickens," he said. "We all decided that the bird had to be a vulture, and we thought: 'How weird. How very strange these Americans are.' "

Some 40 years later, Chandra is grappling with a similar cultural divide, except this time he's the object of fascination. As the author of the just-published "Sacred Games," a sprawling, 900-page novel about organized crime in Mumbai, the 45-year-old writer has been fielding a wave of skeptical questions about the resonance and marketability of his latest work, for which he received a reported $1-million advance: Will U.S. readers plunk down $27.95 for a complex, multilayered novel, sprinkled with phrases in Hindi, about an unfamiliar society? Does Chandra truly believe that his epic -- which is longer than "Moby-Dick" or "The Brothers Karamazov" -- will catch on in a culture that is notorious for its short attention span? And will HarperCollins, which has earmarked $300,000 for a national publicity campaign, come close to making back the money it has spent on "Sacred Games"?

Chandra doubters have been answered by true believers, who say his novel is the most vivid example yet of an "Indian moment" in the U.S. publishing world, a book that shows how Indian writers -- and the worlds they represent -- are increasing their presence on the U.S. literary radar. American readers, they say, may now be ready to embrace a highly praised but relatively unknown author like Chandra, as India's expanding clout on the world political and economic stage is matched by the growing visibility of its English-speaking authors.

"It used to be that Indian writers were better known and sold in England, where they got a lot of coverage," said Akash Kapur, an Indian American critic and writer living in India, whose nonfiction book "India Becoming" will appear in 2009. "But while the global audience woke up to Indian fiction a while ago, the American audience has begun to wake up more recently. The trend has become very clear."

Chandra himself seemed astonished by the whole brouhaha as he sipped coffee in a midtown Manhattan hotel at the start of a lengthy tour.

"I never thought of any of these things when I was producing the book," he said, noting that it took seven years to finish his novel. "I'm a writer, and this whole experience has been surreal."

Early U.S. reviews have been largely positive but not uniformly effusive. Most have praised the book for its richly nuanced portrait of Mumbai and its interconnected story lines, blending the tales of a powerful mafia don and a world-weary detective who stumbles on a plot that threatens the city with nuclear annihilation. Some, however, have criticized Chandra for failing to produce a fully realized work of literature. Fellow Indian author and critic Pankaj Mishra, for example, writing in the New Yorker, described the book as "too much in thrall to the kind of sensationalist fantasy underpinning disaster movies that manipulate terror in an age obsessed with terror."

"Sacred Games" began generating a huge buzz in spring 2005, when HarperCollins won the U.S. rights over six competing publishers. According to Chandra's agent, Eric Simonoff, Chandra himself was "fairly stunned" that the bidding had reached $1 million. "I know it exceeded our expectations," the agent said, adding that he has been mulling several Hollywood offers for movie rights.

All the fuss wasn't simply because Chandra, a largely unknown writer who teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley, had won the literary jackpot. What was intriguing was that a book so uncompromising in its language, tone and detail -- making little concession to Western tastes -- would spark such a bidding war.

"I asked the same questions that you're asking," Chandra said. "Will they be able to sell the full amount of books they need to be able to sell? And will it be a popular book?"

To simply earn back its advance, "Sacred Games" would need to sell more than 70,000 hard-bound copies, according to publishing industry observers. That's a tall order for any work of literary fiction, but then again, the book has sold an estimated 10,000 copies in its first week on stores, according to Nielsen BookScan. . The American public is accustomed to lengthy fiction -- ranging from "The Historian" to "Harry Potter" -- and Chandra's book has unique appeal, said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher. He likened the novel to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and books by Charles Dickens for its ability to transport readers to a new world.

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