The Subcontinentals

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R.Z. SHEPPARDIt is probably no coincidence that some two years after Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things became an international best seller, more novels by young writers with roots in India are showing up on this side of the world. Editors will grab at what's in the air, says Sybil Steinberg, fiction editor at Publishers Weekly. But the next Arundhati Roy may not materialize soon. She is a rare delight: a gifted writer who looks like the village beauty in a Satyajit Ray film. Nevertheless, what is called Indian-English fiction hasn't had so much attention since Muslim clerics ended their reviews of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses with death threats.

That book's modernist style was not everyone's cup of Darjeeling. Like Ulysses or the Upanishad, Satanic Verses remains more read about than read. The new wavelet of young writers with ties to the subcontinent should be more welcoming to a British or American public, which includes an increasing number of residents from that region. There's a very highly educated second generation of readers within that community, notes Pankaj Mishra, 31, who lives in Mashobra and is the author of The Romantics.

Mishra's creamy narrative about a young Brahman's student days on the banks of the Ganges is reminiscent of one of those mildly exotic stories that turned up regularly in the old New Yorker. Mishra's eye is sharp, his prose flawless. But his hero is a bit detached, a kind of secular holy man who would rather commune with the deities of Western literature than embrace the reality around him. The reason may be partly sociological. Most of the writers who are using the English language belong to a very, very microscopic section of the country, which is fairly divorced from what the country is actually about, says Raj Kamal Jha, 33, a novelist and editor with a regular paycheck from the Indian Express in New Delhi.

Jha's The Blue Bedspread illustrates that observation by dealing artfully with unchallenged male mayhem directed at women. Jha, who escaped a career in mechanical engineering to study journalism at the University of Southern California, frames his story in a series of impressionistic and quietly menacing scenes. The technique works, but some may find the tableaux approach somewhat oblique.

Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father, published this month in the U.S., is an Indian family novel that should appeal to anyone with a taste for red-blooded American realism and farce. His narrator, Ram Karan, a corrupt inspector for the New Delhi school system, is a self-pitying moral sloth whom Mark Twain would have recognized in a Missouri minute.

Sharma has deeper roots in New Jersey than in New Delhi. His parents left that city to settle in the Garden State when Sharma was nine. He started writing in junior high school. Sort of trying to plagiarize science-fiction writers whom I admired, he says.

Like many dutiful sons, Sharma had to satisfy the practical ambitions of his parents. He picked up a degree in public policy and English at Princeton and a creative-writing fellowship at Stanford. Sharma next steered for Los Angeles, where he wrote scripts that he describes as a wife-swapping murder mystery and an illness-of-the-week movie. Then, before anyone could ask, What is a nice Hindu boy doing in a place like this?, Sharma left Hollywood for Harvard Law School. He is now a New York City investment banker.

So much for the quaint and condescending label Anglo-Indian. Would anyone tag Nigeria's Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka an Anglo-African? Mishra, Jha, Sharma and other promising Indian-rooted writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Interpreter of Maladies recently won the New Yorker Book Award for best debut, work in an age when East and West are cross-pollinating at a dizzying pace.

One-way immigrants are giving way to two-way frequent flyers who shuttle back and forth between their old and new worlds. Who could have imagined that the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets would play their opening game in Tokyo? Or that internationally savvy Indian men and women would so quickly settle a land of literary opportunity without borders?