Adecade ago Vikram Chandra was one of the golden boys of Indian lit, his short fiction appearing in The New Yorker, his massive first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), published to strong acclaim. Red Earth and Pouring Rain seemed to conform to what Western publishers and readers were craving from India at the time; like one of John Barth’s big novels from the 1960s, it was a wild and exotic romp that spanned centuries and continents with a typewriting monkey protagonist. Hailed as a "magic-realist blockbuster," the novel invited the usual comparisons with Salman Rushdie–one critic even suggested Chandra was "leapfrogging Rushdie."
But while Chandra displayed no shortage of talent and imagination, one’s vision around this time began to blur amid the proliferation of outsize novels coming from the subcontinent–books that seemed "as big as India," as one writer remarked of Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Another reviewer quipped: "Entire forests have gone to blade in the past decade or so to make way for the current crop of Indian novelists writing in English." Void of the slight note of condescension, these sentiments were echoed by Bengali novelist Amit Chaudhuri, who fretted that the big, bustling novels of Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth were overshadowing the equally strong traditions of short story and novella writing in India. The assumption, Chaudhuri argued, "is the tautological idea that since India is a huge baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well." Red Earth and Pouring Rain was, for all its pleasures, one of those "baggy monsters," and one craved simplicity and more control.
One found that in abundance in Chandra’s next book, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), a jewel of a short story collection. There his prose cascaded through his beloved city like Christopher Doyle’s freewheeling camera in Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Chandra seemed more at ease with the long-form short story, which played to his gifts as a storyteller yet held his youthful verbosity in check. Love and Longing in Bombay also succeeded as an enduring portrait of Bombay’s naughty ’90s, reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s interwar tales. There was raw romantic agony and an unbridled sexual hunger in these stories. (The story "Kama" is justly celebrated for its eight-page sex scene, one of the most bittersweet break-up fucks in modern letters.)
Chandra also deftly incorporated elements of Indian popular culture, along with B-genres–romance, mystery, ghost stories, soldier stories, gangster stories–in a manner unique for Indian fiction at the time. It wasn’t just his knowledge of popular culture that struck the reader; it was the lack of condescension or Rushdie-style parody. Perhaps the secret of Chandra’s success could be explained by his close relationship to the city’s film industry. While many Indian writers have Bollywood in their blood, Chandra has it in his bones, too. His mother has written scripts for some of the most popular Hindi movies; his sister Tanuja is an emerging director in the same industry; another sister, Anupama, is a seasoned film journalist; and his brother-in-law is Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose film Parinda is hands down the most powerful and influential Hindi gangster film of the last two decades, admired and quoted by Bombay’s dons for its authenticity. Chandra, too, has dabbled in the industry; he is a co-writer of Chopra’s film Mission Kashmir, with Suketu Mehta, whose nonfiction paean to Bombay, Maximum City, raised the bar, too high perhaps, for others writing about this city.