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An Indian moment, perhaps?

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.”

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“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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“ ‘Sacred Games’ is serious literary novel and a commercial novel at the same time,” Burnham said. “It’s got remarkable writing, and it’s also a page-turning thriller.”

Even Mishra in the New Yorker gave Chandra credit for “a particularly Indian ambition to retool the novel as an epic form.” And when it comes to storytelling, the author of “Sacred Games” has a lot of literary company. Although an estimated 4% of India’s 1.1 billion inhabitants speak English, they make up its cultural, political and economic elite. Their impact on the book world -- already strong, given the influence of writers like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth -- is intensifying. During the last 12 months, Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, and she was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City,” a nonfiction book about Mumbai, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Meanwhile, the publishing world is making a greater investment in India. Simon & Schuster recently announced it was beginning an Indian publishing program in New Delhi, joining Random House and other publishers to tap into the nation’s burgeoning English-language book market, which includes chain bookstores in urban areas. Publishers of glossy U.S. magazines have said they too are planning to woo Indian readers, according to the Wall Street Journal. India itself was the theme at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book-publishing gathering in the world.

Seen in this light, Chandra’s book is just the most recent example of a new wave. And whatever controversy has been generated by his enormous advance may in itself be a clever marketing tool.

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“The financial gamble by the publisher creates a certain amount of buzz and interest,” said Amardeep Singh, an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University and a blogger who follows Indian culture and media. “The $1.3-million money that has been spent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s the first question people ask.”

Epic and cinematic

AS he fielded questions recently from a packed crowd at the Asia Society in New York, Chandra stressed repeatedly that he had struggled with the scope and theme of his novel from the beginning. He said he had envisioned writing a 300-page story about a murder in Mumbai; he spent several years following veteran crime reporters around the city; and he also interviewed several mafia leaders, who agreed to talk with him about their lives, crimes, hopes and ambitions.

The book quickly got bigger. “You can’t talk about organized crime without talking politics, because there’s so much collusion over this in India,” Chandra said. “And if you’re talking about politics, soon you’ll be talking about religion. And then there’s the question of show business, the filmmaking world in India, which intersects with so many of these other worlds.” His first draft was much longer than 900 pages, so he and his wife, Melanie Abrams, also a novelist, “took turns having a whack at it.... It sounds funny, but at 900 pages, the book to me seems short.”

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The result is a novel that begins with a mystifying crime scene, builds to a heart-stopping climax and ends with a long-suffering, hard-working police detective returning to work, deeply perplexed about the meaning of what has happened. But if it reads at times like a taut international crime thriller, “Sacred Games” also meanders and takes lengthy detours into the back stories of its characters. According to Chandra, the book is designed to mimic the leisurely, elongated storytelling tradition of pre-modern Indian literature.

There is also a noticeable cinematic influence. Chandra’s mother, sister and brother-in-law have either written or directed films in India, and the author himself co-wrote the 2000 Bollywood movie “Mission Kashmir.” He acknowledged a debt to film noir and the “psychological realism” of Western films but noted that his novel reflected the more nakedly emotional, dramatic passions of Bollywood films. If there is one theme throughout, Chandra said, it is the eternal union of opposites -- life and death, hope and despair, triumph and loss -- in a universe that defies easy explanation.

To fully appreciate this vision, however, readers must enter a modern-day Mumbai that may seem as exotic and bizarre as American cowboys appeared to the author many years ago. The good news, he said, is that cultural barriers can fade. After years of immersing himself in the genre, for example, Chandra is now comfortable watching westerns. And while he shrank with horror at the idea of turning his book into a screenplay, he had an idea as to how it might be done.

“I’m thinking in terms of a multipart TV series, something like you’d see on HBO,” he said matter-of-factly. “I really liked ‘Deadwood.’ Once you got into it, once you understood the language and the whole cultural scene, it was truly great stuff.”

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Chandra will appear at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena at 7 p.m. Thursday.


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