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Vikram Chandra offers a Hindi phrase to describe his career: "Apun fillum line mein hai, bidu."
That's the Bombay way of saying, "I'm in show biz, babe."
The owlish, 34-year-old Chandra is indeed in show business, at least peripherally: he's a writer for an Indian television soap opera, City of Gold, which is sort of a "Bombay 90210." But with the publication of his first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, the Montrose habitue is being hailed as a serious literary artist -- an honorific of sorts that he didn't seek and claims not to fully embrace. The 540-page book, a historical fantasy involving a 19th-century Indian poet who's reincarnated in the present as a white-faced monkey, also has Chandra on the verge of a transcontinental breakout that will make him the most commercially successful product of the University of Houston's creative writing program.
Red Earth and Pouring Rain is being simultaneously published in the United States, Britain, Australia and India, and a Dutch edition is in the works. While Chandra has won a small measure of acclaim previously -- the Paris Review awarded him its "Discovery Prize" for a short story, another short story in the New Yorker's special Christmas issue was well-received -- it's been nothing compared to the praise being lavished on Red Earth in several time zones.
The London Times lauded Chandra for "casting a sensual spell," while the English-language Hindustan Times gushed: "Going well beyond the post Rushdie independence movement-cum-magic realism novel being attempted by so many new writers, Chandra presents us (in the most postmodern manner of bringing together disparate strains) with a daring medley of fiction, mythology, folklore, history and comtemporaneity."
Chandra would prefer to simply call his book a good story that appeals to the masses. And it's certainly doing that in India, where Red Earth is now number three on the country's bestseller list -- a pleasant surprise to his Indian editor, David Davidar, who gratefully popped the cork on a bottle of champagne when the book made it to number nine.
But the novelist isn't planning on retirement after his success in his homeland.
"Even if it hits number one, and stays awhile," he shrugs, "... rupees."
Although he likes to call himself a "simple lad from Bombay," in truth Chandra springs from a decidedly cosmopolitan background. His mother, Kamna Chandra, is a writer who's had critical and commercial success with Hindi fiction, plays, radio plays, television and, most recently, films. Vikram says Kamna is quick to point out, however, that without the financial support of her husband, Navin, neither she nor her son would have had the luxury of pursuing their writing careers. The managing director of an international trading company based in Bombay, Navin Chandra is "often thought of as the odd man out in the family," Vikram says, "but he's probably the most creative out of all of us, since creativity is what it takes to do big business, as he does, in Bombay."
Chandra takes pleasure in painting modern Bombay -- an industrialized post-colonial city just now regaining a distinctly Indian identity -- as a wild, distinctly un-Western city. And he is stubbornly in love with all things Indian -- the people, the history and especially the stories -- from Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to contemporary three-hour Hindi musicals. In Houston, where he's lived since 1987 (without owning a car or deigning to drive!), Chandra will go out of his way to cage a ride out to Hillcroft to gobble authentic Indian street snacks at Anand Bhavan.
Yet the West also holds a certain deep fascination.
"I came to this country as an undergraduate," Chandra explains earnestly, "because I was interested in American fiction, because as a boy I had read Twain and Wharton and Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
"I stayed in this country," he adds wryly, "because I discovered the existence of writing programs: I sank gratefully into my stipend and cheap health insurance and access to inter-library loans and mainframe computers."
The wise guy graduated magna cum laude in writing from Pomona College in California, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He took his master's in fiction at Johns Hopkins, and there worked with The Sot Weed Factor author John Barth. He also devoured trashy novels -- "I get such visceral, sweaty pleasure from a kick-ass detective story" -- and watched a lot of television.
He's since taught at UH and Rice, where he's brought the fruits of both his university training and his passion for low-rent pop culture into the classroom. One thing he wants his students to understand is the importance of a "Kimberly moment."
"A Kimberly moment, named after that breathtaking return of Kimberly in Melrose Place, is an instance of supreme narrative sleight-of-hand, a stunning dramatic reversal that leaves you, the audience, gasping with astonishment and pleasure," Chandra explains. "It has to be completely fair, in that you can't use a deus ex machina to effect the reversal, but it must be completely unexpected."
That's what Chandra tells eager students of the literary arts. While he's playfully aware of the shock value of his lowbrow posturing, he's just as aware of the value of wording his message, and his stories, artfully.