Once a Monkey, Always a Poet : When you’re in the spell of epic Indian storytelling, any other sort of novel seem anemic : RED EARTH AND POURING RAIN, <i> By Vikram Chandra (Little, Brown and Co.: $24.95; 542 pp.)</i>

<i> Shashi Tharoor's most recent novel is "Show Business" (Arcade)</i>

An Indian collegian, Abhay, freshly back home from the United States, shoots a thieving monkey on his parents’ roof. The shock brings back the wounded animal’s human consciousness; he had, in a past life, been a 19th-Century Indian poet, Sanjay. As Yama, the God of Death, approaches to claim the dying creature, the monkey yearns to tell his story. With the intervention of the powerful Hindu deity, Hanuman, a deal is struck. Sanjay will type out his saga--"a finely colored dream, a thing of passion and joy, a huge lie that will entertain and instruct and enlighten"--on Abhay’s father’s typewriter each day.

His audience is Abhay’s family and friends and a pair of Hindu gods; if he fails to keep at least half of this dead poet’s society interested for at least two hours each day, his life will be forfeit.

So begins “Red Earth and Pouring Rain,” Vikram Chandra’s ambitious and extraordinary first novel. Sanjay embarks on a tale of adventure and heroism in late-18th-Century India. But soon enough another twist is added: The monkey’s fingers are raw and painful from the unaccustomed exertions of typing, and so Abhay has to step in to complete the allotted time. After all, the deal with Yama was only that “a story must be told,” not necessarily by one teller. Abhay tells his own story, of careening aimlessly through America in a Jaguar, drink-sodden and drug-hazed, with two other undergraduates, “looking for the good life, life free of gravity, for a light-filled paradise on earth.”

Dominating the book is Sanjay’s narrative, a compelling portrait of north India in the early years of British conquest, as assorted chieftains and princelings fought over the detritus of the collapsing Mogul Empire. Legends soon grew around a number of European adventurers who fought for one side or another (though above all for themselves).

Chandra delves into the pages of Indian history to re-create these characters with a novelist’s imagination: La Borgne, the Savoyard swordsman who acquired fame and riches in India as Benoit de Boigne, chief of the dreaded force of silent horsemen known as the Chiria Fauj; George Thomas, the Irish adventurer who jumped ship in Calcutta and went on to rule his own principality north of Delhi as the invincible Jahaj Jung, “the warrior from the ship”; and above all James Alexander (“Sikander”) Skinner, son of an English officer and a Rajput noblewoman, neither English nor Indian and yet both, whose exploits at the head of his own cavalry regiment, Skinner’s Horse, became the stuff of legend.


Chandra depicts these fortune-seeking heroes and their gory battles with a sort of despairing poetic mysticism, imparting magic to a world where the boundaries between warring kingdoms melt as easily as those between the historical and the phantasmagoric.

“Red Earth and Pouring Rain” (the title comes from a 1st-Century Tamil poem: “But in love / our hearts have mingled / like red earth and pouring rain”) is above all a novel about the telling of stories. Not only do we have Sanjay’s and Abhay’s stories, but--in a centuries-old Indian tradition--also stories within those stories, so that Sanjay tells a story about a monk named Sandeep who tells a gathering of sages about a story he heard from a wise old woman. Almost every character in this story, however minor, has a further story to tell. Even Abhay’s American setting does not exempt him from this technique, for he and his friends tell their own stories and meet up with a porn-film actress who recounts hers.

The effect is rich, heady, many-layered and deliberate. Early on the author writes: “Even the images we cling to give birth to other stories, there are only histories that generate other histories, and I am simultaneously seduced by and terrified by these multiplicities.”

The novel is suffused with a sense of the immanence of stories, of stories turning and remaking themselves, of stories told and retold, and particularly of the Indian stories “that became memory and gathered the dreams of whole peoples about them, as a speck of dust accumulates a pearl about itself, and these accumulated stories became the stories of stories, the stories of a nation made up of many nations, the collective dream of many peoples who were one people.”

Though Chandra’s stories are told , they are above all written --and written in an incandescent, evocative, breathtaking style that piles clause upon clause, adjective upon adjective, image upon poetic image until the reader is irresistibly swept along in the flow. Sanjay types, and so does Abhay; through much of life the human Sanjay is literally tongueless, and has to express himself through writing.

“When you handled pen and paper,” he muses, “what was said was visible and solid, and could be handed back and forth, but words from the mouth, despite the pleasure one could take in their taste and form, were ephemeral, apt to vanish like life.” In one powerfully moving scene, Sanjay, as a printer’s apprentice, inserts a subversive message in a different font into an English tract he is typesetting; when he is discovered, he eats the incriminating type, devouring the leaded English letters. Later, these letters emerge from his skin during a rebellion against the British and are used as ammunition.

As this fragment of the story suggests, “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” is rich in its use of metaphor, but Chandra is no more easily typecast than his protagonists. His prose employs fabulist imagery, magical realism, political satire and the conventions of the Kerouac road novel. He inserts a hilarious piece of theater, a fragment of a play about Alexander the Great being told by a naked holy man.

There are echoes of Salman Rushdie in the portrayal of the young Sanjay, who, as a result of a childhood accident, has two holes in his forehead, above his eyes, and so sees everything twice, but often errs in determining what is real and what is not. And there is myth-making of rare beauty and power; the story of Skinner’s iron-willed mother, and the birth of her sons after she consumes sweets from the lover she cannot have, is as wondrous as anything from the great Indian epics.

At heart, though, “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” is an attempt to reclaim Indian stories for an Indian voice. An English character with the Dickensian name of Markline dismisses Indian writing as “a mass and morass of . . . confusion. . . . Plots meander, veering from grief to burlesque in a minute. Unrelated narratives entwine and break into each other. . . . Metaphors that call attention to themselves, strings of similes that go from line to line. . . . Characters die, only to be reborn again.”

Chandra defiantly adopts these characteristics for his own novel. Sanjay reads an English tract and despairs that it does not matter what Indians know; the English will tell the world only their version of history. Then he decides that his only recourse is: “Speak against it. Write something.” It is a task that his creator, Chandra, takes on with vigor. The result is a magnificent tour de force, one of the finest Indian novels of the decade.

I have only two quibbles with this exceptional work. One is stylistic: The author’s enthusiasm too often takes over his writing, so that all the various narrators tend to sound alike. The other is more substantive: Chandra’s two parallel plot lines, Sanjay’s story and Abhay’s, do not really mix together like red earth and pouring rain. Despite the author’s atavistic faith in unrelated narratives, the lesser, Abhay’s, detracts from the greater, Sanjay’s. One is left with the impression that Vikram Chandra has written two books, one good and one very good, on the same high-speed word processor, and unaccountably merged his computer files.

The book’s copyright page reflects this duality: The part of the novel that the U.S. Library of Congress catalogue lists under the rubric “East Indian students--Travel--United States--Fiction” might not have stood as well on its own as the monkey’s, but it does rather get in the way of the part that the same indexer improbably classifies under “Human-animal relationships--India--Fiction.”

But it is a luxury to complain about having too much of a good thing. As Sanjay tells his story, it is broadcast to a growing throng outside Abhay’s house, and is soon retold and translated and resold, with extrapolations and additions. “There are whole new stories in here,” Abhay protests. “It’s not even our story anymore.” But Sanjay points out, “It ceased to be yours the minute you wrote it.”

This insight informs every page of Chandra’s splendid novel. The stories he has so vividly brought to life have ceased to be his. They are ours now, and in the exhilaration of discovering them, all of his readers have cause to be profoundly grateful.