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.
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.
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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.
Chandra is serious about all of this, and he's serious about following the tradition of the nautanki-wallahs. While he's not reading out loud on the streets, he is allowing his audience -- at least the computer-literate portion -- to respond directly to his work by including his e-mail address in Red Earth. "It's an experiment." he says. "If Sanjay's listeners want to talk back, they can yell.