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MARCH 20, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 11

Bland Fare
A "hot" Indian novel caters to foreign tastes
By MEENAKSHI GANGULY





For a while, Indian fiction was hotter than vindaloo. After the runaway success of Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things in 1997, publishers ransacked the subcontinent in search of a commercial successor, showering six-figure advances on unpublished novelists. Now the harvest is coming in, and it's not looking too bountiful.

Last April, the first of the New Wave novels, The Blue Bedspread, was published to lukewarm reviews. To be fair, author Raj Kamal Jha made no claim to greatness, saying he had written the book merely to cope with insomnia. The greater Indian hope was Pankaj Mishra, 30, who received a reported $300,000 advance for his debut novel, The Romantics. As a literary critic, Mishra had dared to pen a devastating review of the celebrated Salman Rushdie. He had then attacked fellow writers for catering to the Western market. And it was Mishra who discovered Roy's God of Small Things.

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Books: Bland Fare
A 'hot' Indian novel caters to foreign tastes

He turns out to be a better critic than producer of literature. His own novel, released this year, is disappointingly mediocre. The plot: a modest young Indian man, Samar, is smitten by a shallow French woman living in Benares. The affair falls apart, and the distraught Samar heads for introspection and exile in the Himalayas, where he discovers a world of enticements outside his country. In the end, however, the story goes nowhere. The novel's chief virtue is what Mishra claims to despise most: it speaks clearly and evocatively about India to a foreign audience tempted by holy cities and Himalayan detachment.

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