Writing for Fun and Profit

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ANTHONY SPAETH New DelhiPankaj Mishra's literary odyssey began on a train. In April 1996, Mishra, then a 27-year-old New Delhi editor for an international publishing house, was traveling from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Indian capital. He was perusing the manuscript of a first novel when the train made an unscheduled halt. He dashed to a telephone on the darkened station platform to inform the author, by crackly long-distance line, that she was a genius. The author was Arundhati Roy, and the novel was The God of Small Things, which went on to earn millions for its author and win Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. Mishra discovered it.Chapter Two. Eighteen months later, Mishra had quit publishing, but aspiring authors continued sending him their work. A 31-year-old journalist named Raj Kamal Jha asked him to read six short stories. Mishra advised the author by e-mail--the two men had never met--on how to meld the stories into a novel. On the strength of 20 manuscript pages, Jha got a reported advance of $163,000; editions are planned for the United States, Germany, France, Denmark, Italy and Israel, and in two Spanish dialects. The Blue Bedspread comes out in April. Mishra discovered it.Chapter Three: Mishra, at age 30, finally gets himself discovered. In early February, his novel The Romantics, written in nine weeks, was sold in London and Germany for a reported $300,000.And the story is far from over. Documentary filmmaker Ruchir Joshi, 39, sent off two chapters to a London agent last September. The incomplete novel, called The Last Jet Engine Laugh, was sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair a month later for $130,000. To celebrate, I took the kids out for pizza, Joshi laughs. Me and their mother were very, very broke. Journalist Suketu Mehta, 35, has a two-book contract with Knopf and Britain's Hodder Headline and is getting the kind of up-front money--more than $140,000 from the Brits alone--he never dreamed of. It is pretty amazing, he says. I thought I'd go the usual route: University of Nebraska Press, then maybe get noticed by some Hungarian publisher. But boom--here I am at Knopf, up there with Marquez and Naipaul.PAGE 1  |    |  
The Indian fiction phenomenon has been building for at least a decade. The surprise is that it only gets bigger--American publishers are starting to share some of their London colleagues' enthusiasm--and that the wave is swelled by so many new, talented unknowns. Says Sanjeev Saith, publisher of IndiaInk, a two-year- old New Delhi publishing house that holds the India rights to Roy's book and now Joshi's: There are people who will be able to make a living out of writing now. Five years ago, no Indian could do that.This promises to be the biggest year yet. Aside from the newcomers, veteran Vikram Seth's first novel since 1993's A Suitable Boy will be released in April, titled An Equal Music. The same month, the granddaddy of contemporary Indian fiction, Salman Rushdie, will release The Ground Beneath Her Feet. One name you won't find in the spring or fall catalogs is Arundhati Roy, who has dramatically declared that she may never write another novel. But it's no secret that publishers are scouring the Indian urban landscape, wielding fat checkbooks, in an attempt to find the next The God of Small Things. Of course, this is all thanks to the great Arundhati Roy, may she have many children, lauds Mehta. I was told as much by publishers abroad. They said: 'We now know that Indian authors sell.'That Indians write novels at all, especially in English, remains a tribute to the prime mover, or only begetter, of the Indian fiction movement--Rushdie--and particularly to his 1981 epic Midnight's Children. His book told us that if you have a story to tell, says Jha, if you can get the words from God knows where, do it. Before Midnight's Children, Jha relates, middle-class Indian families didn't approve of a child being more interested in novels than in engineering or pre-med textbooks. Fiction was a kind of secret world where you weren't supposed to go. James Hadley Chase, Harold Robbins--you were only wasting your time.So powerful was Rushdie's impact that the first wave of young Indian novelists comprised a uniform school of fiction: big books, drenched in magical realism or draped on ambitious allegorial frames, whose topic was inevitably India itself. (One Rushdie-esque tome was even titled The Great Indian Novel.) The urbane and accomplished Seth shook loose from Rushdie's jazzed-up prose style with A Suitable Boy in an overwhelming 1,349 pages. Roy, meanwhile, zeroed in on a highly personal tale of forbidden love in a suffocating Indian backwater, but her prose was so playfully profligate it nearly tumbled off the pages.  |  2  |  
There are signs that the new crop has benefited from Rushdie's liberating influence without surrendering artistic sovereignty. Jha's The Blue Bedspread tells the tale of an old man and a newborn in a Calcutta house at midnight. The man has until dawn to tell the sleeping baby about her tragic antecedents. The book is so short the publisher had to widen the usual margins on the page. Ruchir Joshi's The Last Jet Engine Laugh, also set in Calcutta, sounds big--it spans a century, ending in the year 2030--but its voice is confident, humorous, unshowy (There was the time when we went to the restaurant by the river, Gay Restaurant it was called then, though it isn't now ...). My novel has sweep, says Joshi, but it is not Rushdie-esque at all. I think it's time to bring the realism back into magic realism. And all those pyrotechnics--they get a bit tiring after a while.The genre remains somewhat narrow considering the vastness of the subcontinent. The authors are all urbanites from similar educational backgrounds. (The outside world, and India itself, still ignore fiction written in vernacular languages.) Big successes such as The God of Small Things produce waves of imitations. A U.S.-based Indian writer named Ann Bhalla has written a book called A Season for All Things, and hired a public relations firm to flog it. Everyone is trying to write a love story these days, says David Davidar, publisher of Penguin India, though I've also had two or three novels in verse, following Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, and a mini-wave of Bright Lights, Big City-type books. Bright Lights, Big City in Lahore--can you imagine that? Increasingly, authors are calling up publishers to inquire about advances--before writing their first sentences.But while the Indian fiction boom has produced many well-touted debuts, the second novels haven't been impressive. There's very little sense of people developing from book to book, says Mishra, literary-midwife-turned-well-paid-novelist. He blames India's overexcitement toward new talent. A Western writer, if he writes the kind of stuff an Indian novelist does--good, second-rate fiction, for that's what it is--doesn't get this kind of attention. The limelight is just not good for the flowing of talent. A writer is still trying to figure out what his themes are, what his talent is, whether he has any talent. It's still only a first novel.Mishra himself is trying to avoid that limelight. He has secluded himself in a monastic pair of rooms in Mt. Abu, a 1,220-m elevation temple town in western India, to polish The Romantics for publication. It's a fairly wild place: bears and panthers can be heard nearby at night, and some residents carry pistols in case of chance encounters. When he takes the train down the mountain, though, he'll no doubt be hailed as India's newest literary superstar--until next year at least.With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi  |    |  3