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Chandra came to Houston in 1987 to work with the great god of the UH creative writing program, Donald Barthelme. As he tells it, it was while living off the fat of the writing program that Chandra noticed an important difference between Indian and American conceptions of literature. In his fellows at the UH program, he observed a priggish devotion to the conception of the genuine artist -- "somebody who is exalted," Chandra says, and who "lives in a frenzy of sublime truth."
But Chandra, when it comes to proper artistic sensibilities, isn't with the program. He professes to be delighted when writerly friends are shocked -- or better yet, "indignant in a sort of Bowdlerian, Victorian way" -- to discover that he makes no class distinctions between high art and low entertainment. In his own home, Robert Penn Warren and sleazy true-crime potboilers are stacked side-by-side on cluttered shelves. When a colleague from UH asked uneasily why he read the pulp stuff, Chandra's wicked answer was, "Because it gives me pleasure." She was, he reports with glee, "embarrassed, as if I'd said something intimate and vaguely unhealthy."
Chandra certainly had noticed the rabid quest for artiness before he came to Houston -- at Johns Hopkins, at Pomona College or while reading American magazines in India. His solid and regularly performed shtick on the subject is sincere, and his lurid and sensational polemics on pleasure, and the artist's responsibility to please the groundlings, have a subtext.
Chandra, you see, views himself as "belonging to the ancient and honorable line of nautanki-wallahs, of street-side entertainers." He's also, obviously, studied-up on traditional literary forms. What he's about is using the tricks of the literary trade to continue in the ancient poetic traditions of his country, the spiritual tradition launched by the ancient Tamil anthologies, and he speaks with equal reverence of Cempulappeyanirar, "the poet of red earth and pouring rain," and the Phantom.
As a child, reading American cartoons with Hindi captions, he was unsettled when he realized that his hero, the Phantom, was a white guy. Later, he read Kipling and found him to be a wonderful writer, "despite his calling me a wog and a nigger," Chandra says.
For his entire upbringing, and during his Indian and American education, the unpleasant question of where his cultural loyalties lay was always nagging. By the time he came to Houston, though, he was utterly committed to writing, period.
Working in inexpensive Montrose apartments and UH workshops (and under Barthelme's mentorship prior to his death in 1989), it took Chandra six years to complete Red Earth. The combination of his Indian upbringing, American education and his fascination with storytelling are crucial to Red Earth's success. In fact, the book is about storytelling, about the conflict between Indian and Western culture, about the exiles of both worlds -- and very much about how much Vikram loves stories.
Abhay, one of the central characters of Red Earth, is an Indian boy, just returned from college in the States, who shoots a sacred white-faced monkey on his family's patio. The monkey's crime was stealing Abhay's jeans from the laundry line. Blue jeans, Chandra says, are not just status symbols in India but are regarded as "a magical item from the West."
The white-faced laundry thief, it turns out, is no mere monkey -- he's the incarnation of poet Sanjay Parasha, or rather, "that diaphanous mechanism once encased in human flesh." Sanjay as monkey makes a deal with the god of death: he won't die if he tells an entertaining story. The monkey is seated at a typewriter, for monkey fingers can do what monkey vocal cords cannot, and begins spinning tales. Within this collection of tales, Chandra ranges widely over the sociopolitical landscape of pre- and post-colonial India, modern America and historical England. Jack the Ripper makes an appearance, and college boys enjoy a road trip. Salacious thrills and Kimberly moments abound. Yet Sanjay's tales are more than voyeuristic historical fantasy; they are a litany of exiles and of border crossings, literal and symbolic.
The author claims that narrative storytelling is a lost art in America, surviving only in the ghetto of genre fiction. "Artists and their admirers are terrible snobs," the contrarian product of at least three writing programs says, "who want to save and succor the downtrodden masses, but always from a position of innate, unquestionable superiority, on the artist's own terms. The trouble is inevitably that the downtrodden masses show no sign of wanting to be rescued. What they want is pleasure, and more pleasure." (The downtrodden masses, it should be noted, must pony up $23.95 for the pleasure of reading Red Earth and Pouring Rain.)
As a child, Chandra was schooled in the Indian epics, the scriptures and movies. "All those stories," he says, "have completely compelling juxtapositions of earthy humor, realpolitik, cynicism, breathtaking beauty, violence, philosophical questionings and utter silliness, all adding up somehow to a vision of life that seems complete and hints always at the unsayable."
And the unsayable -- the sublime, if you will -- can only be approached "through craft, through pleasure and through Kimberly moments," he opines.