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 Vikram Chandra at Adagia restaurant Vikram Chandra on a mild winter day at Berkeley's Adagia restaurant. (BAP photos)

UC Berkeley lecturer Vikram Chandra: From "weird little kid" in India to master storyteller - and winner of a publishing jackpot


In this interview series, we lunch with not-yet-famous faculty, learning about their fields and the paths that led them there. With luck — and the right sandwich — we get a glimpse into what makes these Berkeley brains tick.

Previous Hungry Mind interviews: [an error occurred while processing this directive] E-mail suggestions for likely candidates to bpowell@berkeley.edu

– Most serious novelists have day jobs. The state of the publishing business is such that all but a lucky handful - Philip Roth, Annie Proulx, Jonathan Franzen, to name a few - support themselves as teachers, journalists, or something else while they write. So to discover that UC Berkeley lecturer Vikram Chandra sold his third book for a rumored $1 million to HarperCollins after a bidding war tends to induce whiplash.

"Ummm . why are you still teaching?" I asked the literary lottery winner, a Fall 2005 addition to the English department, after we ordered our lunch at Berkeley's restaurant Adagia. He chose the roasted chicken salad with cranberries and walnuts, while I went for the wild mushroom risotto.

"Well, first of all, I like teaching. It takes me out of myself. I have a tendency to just camp out in some little hole with a computer and books and not emerge for a week, and that's actually bad for me," Chandra answered. He acknowledged that the book advance is mind-boggling, especially for "Sacred Games," a 1,200-page tome that Chandra says is a Victorian-Indian-gangster-spy-family saga. And yet, his family upbringing has conditioned him to be thankful for such a windfall, but never to count on it. "The numbers are large - thank God - but to actually raise a family even on that amount of money, even if you invested it, is not workable. It's been strange to even think like this, but you actually need more."

Lost in translations

The eldest of three children, Chandra was born in New Delhi. His father, Navin, is a retired executive, while his mother, Kamna, is a writer, the author of many films and plays in Hindi. She began writing for Indian radio and television in the 1950s, back when the sale of one script "wasn't enough money to last you for two days," said Chandra.

Her experience is not one he will ever forget. While his mother was passionate about her craft, "she's always prayed about how we kids would survive in this hugely competitive world. All my life I remember her saying, and very truthfully, 'The only reason I can do my writing is because your father supports me,'" Chandra recalled, raising both hands palms up in a gesture of rueful acceptance. "And so for us that was a huge question: how are you going to live? In India you could literally starve as an artist."

Despite such admonishments, Chandra was clearly destined to be a writer from an early age - even if it took a while before he could imagine it as a viable career path. He started, as most do, by falling in love with reading. A self-described "weird little kid," he would make up stories for himself with whole casts of characters that would go on for days. An Isaac Asimov buff by age 12, he wrote imitative science-fiction stories in the back of his boarding-school notebooks. A friend persuaded him to submit one of his stories to the weekly student magazine.

When it was published, "people I didn't know at school were coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, good story,' and I thought wow, this is cool," he remembered.

"Little did you know that was the last time that would happen to you," I teased, prompting a chuckle in agreement.

Not long after this debut, he traded science fiction for an obsession with the American modernists. Bombay and other big cities in India had lending libraries set up somewhat like Blockbuster Videos: members could check out books for a small fee, paying more for new-release hardbacks and less for old paperbacks. The young Chandra would spend entire vacations reading rented books, from 9 in the morning until "I ran out of money and had to beg for more." Somewhere among all the racy thrillers, he encountered the works of Fitzgerald and Hemingway by accident.

"Once I started reading them, I realized they were doing things to me that I didn't understand," Chandra recalled, still marveling at the power he felt decades ago. "Reading 'The Great Gatsby' at age 15 in India, I knew nothing - I had no context for it, social or symbolic - and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful."

With his mother's screenwriting picking up, Chandra thought perhaps he could make a living in either the film or advertising world or by moving between the two. He got an internship at a Bombay advertising agency and took a diploma course in filmmaking and screenwriting. And then he got the idea that he would go to the United States to study creative writing.

"Amazingly, my parents were willing to pay for it. They were working people, and sending a kid to the United States on an executive's pay in rupees was not easy." Chandra explained that at the time, the only other Indian youths going to America that he knew of were going to medical or graduate school to become doctors and engineers. His parents' friends thought they were crazy when they heard what young Vikram was studying. Chandra graduated from California's Pomona College in 1984 with his bachelor's in English, with a concentration in creative writing. (His parents' largesse didn't stop there: his younger sisters followed in his footsteps to U.S. colleges and into creative fields, as a filmmaker and a journalist.)

Melodramatic beginnings

Chandra's first novel, "Red Earth and Pouring Rain," was grown from the seed of a dusty autobiography of a 19th-century soldier, Colonel James "Sikander" Skinner, that he found in the Columbia University library. Chandra left Columbia's film school to work on "Red Earth" under the auspices of the writing programs at Johns Hopkins, where he studied under John Barth, and the University of Houston, where he worked with Donald Barthelme.

The 550-page book is a fantastic storytelling adventure, the concoction of an Indian student and a typing monkey, whose cameras swing from 19th-century India to punk bands in L.A. While on the surface - if a book this layered can be said to have one surface - it is about exile, it is mostly a wild ride through hundreds of indelible characters and their stories. (Read an excerpt.)

And at first, the other writing students at the University of Houston hated it. "It was 1987 when all the minimalist stuff was in vogue, and suddenly here I am with these Indian gods making pronouncements," said Chandra, shaking his head. "They'd say, 'This is melodrama'" - he made a face like he'd bitten into a lemon - "and I would answer, 'I know, but I like melodrama, we Indians do melodrama.'"

Chandra persevered, eventually winning over Barthelme, who before his death saw to it that his agent handled "Red Earth." It was published in 1995 by Little, Brown in the United States, and others in the United Kingdom and India, to wide critical acclaim. Chandra followed up with a slim, amazingly vivid volume of five short stories in 1997.

Titled "Dharma, Shakti, Kama, Artha, and Shanti" - meaning faith, power, love, meaning, and peace, (although I had to go to the Web to find that out, as Chandra doesn't translate them for English readers) - the stories provide snapshots of a world most Americans will know nothing about, keenly observed through disparate inhabitants. There's a turbaned Sikh police inspector (who resurfaces as one of the protagonists in Chandra's new novel); a gay computer programmer who stumbles into Bombay's criminal network; and a former flight attendant doing battle with India's neocolonial social hierarchy. Book reviewers invoked favorable comparisons with the work of Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje; throw Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a dash of Raymond Chandler into the mix, and you might just approximate the glorious curry that is Chandra's style. (Read an excerpt.)

Taking a moment to genuflect, I told him, "I thought 'Love and Longing in Bombay' was absolutely incredible." He ducked his head and thanked me rather shyly, considering that the book won a major award and was named one of the year's best by the New York Times Book Review, the Independent, and the Observer. (Check out this collection of reviews, for which any writer would chop off her mother's left arm.)

Object-oriented writing

Chandra and his about-to-be-wife, Melanie Abrams - also a fiction writer, and also an English department faculty member - have not had an easy transition to Berkeley. In addition to planning their Dec. 8 wedding in Los Angeles, where Abrams is from, with a follow-up ceremony to be held in India, the couple must deal with the loss of many of their belongings in the move from Washington, D.C.

 Vikram Chandra
'Once I started reading [the Modernists], I realized they were doing things to me that I didn't understand. Reading "The Great Gatsby" at age 15 in India, I knew nothing — I had no context for it, social or symbolic — and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful.'
-Vikram Chandra,
Novelist and UC Berkeley lecturer

In August, the moving truck with their and two other families' household goods caught fire in the California desert. Chandra and Abrams lost all of their furniture and most of their clothes; they had to go through 250 water-damaged boxes stacked on the sidewalk in front of their Clark Kerr apartment to determine which were theirs and which belonged to the other unfortunate families. Luckily, Chandra did not lose any of his work, thanks to obsessively backing up his electronic data.

Right now, they're living like graduate students. "The English department has been very kind," said Chandra, explaining that his desk is a table that spent most of its life in Associate Professor Julia Bader's garage. "But it's been crazy. Only in the past couple of weeks have I felt like we're really here."

He's looking forward to exploring Berkeley's resources, such as the South Asia Studies department, and toying with the idea of relearning Sanskrit. "They made me take it in school when I was India, and I hated it as much as anyone could hate a language," he said. "But now I really think it would be great to actually learn it."

But mostly, he's enjoying working out his own nagging writing questions and dilemmas by raising them for discussion in the classroom. A computer programmer by avocation - he taught himself to use one of the first consumer PCs as a Columbia student in the mid-'80s, parlaying it into a lucrative side business setting up databases for bookstores and later oil companies in Houston - Chandra believes that novels, like computer programs, exist to solve a problem. He is fascinated by the work of a group of software designers called the Gang of Four (authors of the influential book "Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture, Volume 1: A System of Patterns") and how it might speak to other fields like literature.

Chandra looked longingly at his salad, which I had barely given him a chance to nibble at in two hours. "Often in software you're faced with the same problem presenting itself in slightly different guises, and the most elegant solutions will tend to fall into the same shapes," he said. Building an inventory to keep track of widgets is not that different from building a system that keeps track of students. Drawing on the work on an architect from the '50s, he explained, the Gang of Four proposed that by abstracting from solutions that have been tested and known to work elegantly time and time again, one could identify patterns that could be reused.

Applying this to fiction tends to irritate writing students, Chandra laughed. "At some point in the semester I'll get the question, 'Why does every story have to have a conflict? Can't we just write something different?' And my answer is, 'Yes you can, but will it work? Will anybody want to read it?'" He elaborated: humans are organisms evolutionarily designed over millions of years to look for certain patterns that are pleasing or that work for us by teaching us how to interpret heartbreak over lost love, or over an absent father.

"The worst aspect of that - and this is what the kids dislike, I think - is whether we're really just talking about formula," Chandra said. "And yes, to a certain extent you are. The challenge is to do something within that pattern that's original, that's pleasing, and has a sense of the expected - but that blows our mind with the surprise that it holds within itself."

A rather apt description of Chandra's own work, as it happens.