Red Earth and Pouring Rain


Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Published Book
the David Higham Prize for Fiction

Vikram Chandra’s first book, which is a tale told by a young Indian student and a typing monkey, and also a novel about exile, about Indians abroad and foreigners in India, about the processes of national and cultural and personal redefinitions implicit in these juxtapositions. This is also a novel about how stories are born and how stories sustain us. The stories in this book take in 19th century India, punk bands in L.A., MTV, Rajput warriors…

[An] ambitious and extraordinary first novel… Red Earth and Pouring Rain is above all a novel about the telling of stories. The effect is rich, heady, many-layered and deliberate… Though Chandra’s stories are told, they are above all written—and written in an incandescent, evocative, breathtaking style that piles clause upon clause, adjective upon adjective, image upon poetic image until the reader is irresistibly swept along in the flow… Red Earth and Pouring Rain is rich in its use of metaphor, but Chandra is no more easily typecast than his protagonists. His prose employs fabulist imagery, magical realism, political satire and the conventions of the Kerouac road novel… And there is myth-making of rare beauty and power… The result is a magnificent tour de force, one of the finest Indian novels of the decade… As Sanjay tells his story, it is broadcast to a growing throng outside Abhay’s house, and is soon retold and translated and resold, with extrapolations and additions. “There are whole new stories in here,” Abhay protests. “It’s not even our story anymore.” But Sanjay points out, “It ceased to be yours the minute you wrote it.” This insight informs every page of Chandra’s splendid novel. The stories he has so vividly brought to life have ceased to be his. They are ours now, and in the exhilaration of discovering them, all of his readers have cause to be profoundly grateful. — Shashi Tharoor, Los Angeles Times (USA).

Red Earth And Pouring Rain [is a] dazzling first novel… Its huge cast includes witches and heroic soldiers of fortune, porn-stars and boys begotten miraculously by the consumption of sticky buns. It has passages of epic grandeur and desolation worthy of Thomas Malory. It has naive magic, mannered conceits and lush fantasies, and plenty of psychologically realistic accounts of family relationships and love, informed by kindly shrewdness. It has jokes and grotesqueries and flights of silliness and it has a handful of episodes in which Chandra is imagining and writing with such originality and intensity as to be not merely drawing on myth but making it. This exuberant diversity is not just a case of the novelist displaying his creative muscles. His form matches his polemical intention. His villains and madmen, who include Alexander of Macedon, Jack the Ripper and the l9th -century Christian missionaries to India, have in common a hectic desire for purity, simplicity, oneness—in other words, for domination. Red Earth And Pouring Rain takes its title from an ancient Tamil poem celebrating the dissolution of differences in the erotic act. The novel—for all its careful substructure of recurring themes and chiming incidents—honours confusion, and it is itself a triumphant demonstration of the creativity of a morass… [Vikram Chandra] belongs… in a tradition of storytellers stretching back in the east to Scheherazade, and in the west to the poets of the medieval romances, a tradition in which the mundane and the fabulous, the bawdy and the sublime are all allowed room. Chandra is a worthy addition to that venerable line. His prose is elegant and various. His imagination is visionary. Above all, his poetic apprehension of history allows him to write on a grand scale, even when telling a monkey’s tale. — Lucy Hughes-Hallett, London Times (UK).

Vikram Chandra’s first novel makes its British counterparts look like apologetic throat-clearings. Verbally lithe, astute, marvellously vivid, it brings the Indian gods into compelling play with our soild strivings, where telling a story—hundreds of them—becomes its own life-preserving act. — Adam Thorpe.

Vikram Chandra is beginning his writing life already a master. — John Hawkes.

One of the book’s magnificent images is a huge knot, fashioned to illustrate a story about Alexander the Great. It is a knot made of everything—plants, guts, steel and silver filaments, hair, butter, cords: “I slid things around each other and entangled them. I pressed them together until they knew each other so intimately they forgot they were ever separate… it is a thing of profundity … an undecoded mystery.” This knot is the book, the entwining stories… Chandra vaults forward into the linguistic present, leapfrogging Rushdie in a blaze of lyricism to hurtle the helpless, happy reader through the intricate, rushing tributaries of an irresistible narrative flow. This is a book that requires not a review but a dissertation, a doctorate, a deconstruction. Reading this book, for the first time it seemed like an imperialist insult to call it or others “magic realism”; an insult to those cultures who fail to make the sad and dreary distinction between flesh and spirit, imagination and empiricism, gods and humans that we do. Chandra’s writing—tender, funny, incandescent—so animates his subjects that it becomes possible to see through other eyes, to sense another culture and to shed for a while the dead flesh of European objectivism. — Elizabeth Young, Guardian (UK).

Setting 18th- and 19th-century Mogul India against the open highways of contemporary America and fusing Indian myth, Hindu gods, magic and mundane reality, this intricate first novel is a magnificent epic that welds the exfoliating storytelling style of A Thousand and One Nights to modernist fictional technique… Chandra has built a powerful, moving saga that explores colonialism, death and suffering, ephemeral pleasure and the search for the meaning of life… This is an astonishing and brilliant debut. — Publishers Weekly (USA).

If Vikram Chandra never again put pen to paper he would still be guaranteed a place in literature’s hall of fame with his first novel. The incredible power of his writing and imagination ensures that Red Earth and Pouring Rain rolls like a tidal wave from page to page… it is a truly great novel. — Gareth Crickmer, Shield’s Gazette (UK).

Chandra’s short stories published in the NewYorker and Paris Review revealed an easy fluency with language and a scriptwriter’s ambition with plot, so it should likewise be no surprise if Chandra’s debut reaches for formal complexity and poetic beauty in the same two-fisted grasp. But none of that advance expectation makes the actual impact of this tour de force any less powerful. There seems to be little point in tagging any book a masterpiece at this point in history—since that concept implies the book’s influence on a successive generation that doesn’t read—but at the very least Red Earth and Pouting Rain does the language, and the novel, proud… Red Earth and Pouring Rain is worth a second leisurely read, and probably a good many more before a reader encounters any signs of depletion in the multifaceted text. If there’s a major genre of American, Indian or British literature of which Chandra is unaware, you wouldn’t know it from the dazzling array of styles he adopts here. Everything from gumshoe detective to epic poetics to colonial propaganda is taken out for a spin in Chandra’s graceful, looping tale… The magical conflicts of Chandra’s alternative Indian history pull readers along of their own dramatic force, and episodes set in Victorian England and modern-day America are made vivid with detail and imaginative plotting. As the novel stretches out, clashes and parallels between two narratives, and two cultures, resonate with a low, insistent hum… Red Earth and Pouring Rain encompasses dozens of tragedies, jostling alongside more dozens of love stories, battles, rivalries, comedies, partings and reconciliations. That a patterned fabric eventually emerges from the tangled threads is no small achievement in its own right. That the pattern is at the same time so wondrously pleasing to the eye makes Chandra’s debut one of the most accomplished and rewarding novels of recent memory. — Brad Tyer, Houston Chronicle (USA).

[Vikram Chandra] embraces the history of two centuries, three continents and the struggles which lie at the heart of all cultural growth and definition: a people’s relationship with place, religion, language, and other peoples… Chandra tells stories. His virtuosity is rare, sustained and dazzling. — Tom Adair, Scotland on Sunday (UK).

No more silence—that is the power of Chandra’s extraordinary novel, that where there are people suffering, oppressed or full of joy and intelligence, there can only be the sound of stories and affirmation, “the collective dream of many peoples who were one people.” — Chris Searle, Morning Star (UK).

Wonderfully told, with vividly atmospheric descriptions, appealing minor characters, and interesting insights into the history and culture of colonial India. Vikram Chandra’s considerable gifts as a stylist shine here. — Philadelphia Inquirer (USA).

Richly textured and engrossing. — Kirkus Reviews (USA).

The violence of these [colonial] encounters certainly testifies to the devastation wrought by imperial narratives. Yet—and this is Chandra’s genius as an entertainer—metaphors that verge on didactic are, in Red Earth, first and foremost elements of a good story—in this case gory, grandiloquent and glorious battles. The waning days of the Moghul Empire burst enough with warring princelings, foreign adventurers, and anarchic lancers for Parasher to develop a veritable art of blood (which continually stains the earth throughout the novel). At the same time, Chandra’s soaring prose frames the duel between homo- and heterogeneity that is Red Earth’s true holy war—as when the Chiria Fauj, the synchronized infantry brigades who revolutionize Hindustan’s battlefields, endure “the laughter and sneers of the proud wild cavalrymen who passed by, sniffing elegantly at roses.” That the chaotic Rathor horsemen inevitably fall to the “clock-work motion” of European military strategy only underlines Chandra’s lesson: Contamination is the font of resistance. Red Earth takes its title from a “polluted” transaction—between an Untouchable prostitute and her johns… Only the spawn of such unions — “this new thing that nobody wants… . chi-chi, half-and-half, black-and-white”— holds the possibility of truly contravening the struggle between This and That, Us and Them… And that knowledge lays the final ring upon Chandra’s circled narrative. Recorded on both passport and page, his voyage opens the road for his vibrant, confused, newborn characters. The reach and texture of his prose speaks the novel language that escapes his fictions: “What was possible to say he couldn’t say in English… ” — Nisid Hajari, The Village Voice Literary Supplement (USA).

The novel becomes the history of India converted into the brilliant disorder of a kaleidoscope. It is adroitly written, constantly interesting, lyrical, fantastic, brutal, and, at bottom, serious. Mr. Chandra can make a lightning bolt look like a Roman candle—but that bolt strikes. — The Atlantic Monthly (USA).
First novels are usually slight and autobiographical, content to meditate on minor themes and personal matters. Chandra’s debut is a magnificent exception. His novel takes on nothing less than the whole of the Indian sub-continent in a huge, twisty narrative bursting with colour, light and energy. A monkey—a sacred animal—lies dying. To save its soul it must tell a story that will snag the imagination of the dusty crowd which chatters outside. The result is an epic tale of “good doctors, soldiers, poets, tribesmen, loafers and goondas, loan-takers, dashing pilots, fast horses, card players, socialites, actresses and politicians.” It’s a recreation of the savage, magical, desperate place that was India during the last century. Like all good novels, Chandra’s first outing has a resonance that exceeds the particular time and place in which it’s set. At a time when the nation states of central and Eastern Europe are fracturing into their ethnic and regional components, his exploration of what it means to remain attached to a particular family, class or country has never seemed more relevant. Exile may be the attractive option for the educated world citizen, but belonging somewhere is perhaps the harder and more valuable option. — Maxim (USA).

[Red Earth and Pouring Rain is] a wonderful tale, or rather a number of wonderful tales, of magic, beautiful women, brave men, heroic deeds, and of India and Europe, from the time of the Aryin invaders to the present. Through these stories Chandra contrasts European and Indian philosophies, which in turn determine how stories are told. At one point a British man complains that Indian stories are not linear, based in verifiable reality. Instead they are huge, rambling, go off at tangents, and ultimately are, explained by something which happened in a previous life. Chandra’s great skill is in playfully weaving the two traditions together. The characters are memorable and the language poetic. — Good Book Guide (USA).

… the book is a celebration of not only life—the eternity of “the eater and the eaten,” the end signalling that we all begin again—but of the even greater longevity of narration, the story itself: how one tale begets another, the ripples of overlapping existences never reaching a non-existent shore. Listen, says our monkey storyteller repeatedly, just listen. And you would do well to: Red Earth and Pouring Rain is an astonishing novel, and you will not read another like it. — Joseph Connolly, Hampstead & Highgate Express (UK).

… two continents (India and North America) separated by the language of a third (Britain in Europe) is the very dynamic driving the novel forward… The novel relishes the paradoxes, contradictions, and confusions running through the English language and its use… It is this intermingling and coexistence of India’s pasts and presents that the novel explores. The cliche is that if the British left nothing else in India, we bequeathed a legal system, a civil service and the railways. But what about the English language which Vikrarn Chandra has singing and crying, laughing and whispering in Red Earth and Pouring Rain? Open, listen, admire and enjoy. — Richard Walker, Indian Book Review (India).

It is rare to read a first novel and feel absolutely convinced that you have been lucky enough to discover a major new writer. I felt this after reading Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. Chandra has written a breathtakingly imaginative and epic book steeped in the Mahabharata tradition of Indian folklore… As a bookseller I have the pleasure of reading many books, but I can count on the fingers of one hand those that have truly excited me. This is definitely one of them. — Keelin Watson, Stet (UK).

This debut novel is a daring feat of imagination, technique, and wordplay… . Ambitious… And impressive, too. — Daneet Steffens, Entertainment Weekly (USA).

Red Earth and Pouring Rain is one of the most exciting adventure stories you will ever read. It captivates you, spanning centuries and continents, The characters are well–drawn and believable. The writing is challenging and descriptive… Chandra’s descriptions are imaginative and vivid… The action is rivetting, weaving the mystique of the gods with the frailties of humans. You will be able to suspend disbelief and ride the train of imagination through some of the most exotic and breathtaking scenery, and ordinary places made exciting, where you will meet the oddest assortment of people—turbaned warriors and swarthy magicians, drug dealers and scholars, from nobility to commoners, all engaged in spectacular activities. Red Earth and Pouring Rain is, quite simply, good fiction, pure enjoyment. — Ron Simmons, Virginian Plot & Ledger Star (USA).

When it comes to literary fiction, the tail that wags the dog of success is an author’s ability to tease, rather than sate, the reader’s opportunistic hunger for a story that satisfied. By such standards, Red Earth and Pouring Rain is a “Babette’s Feast” of steamed epic themes, roisterous subplots and clever overlays of Indian history and jauntily fresh fiction. Of course, everything is dusted with the salty talent of Vikram Chandra… In a word, this debut novel is a marvel. — Nina Mehta, Newsday (USA).

Vikram Chandra’s novel is startlingly innovative and vibrant. Going well beyond the post-Rushdie Independence-movement-cum-magic-realism novel being attempted by so many new writers, Chandra presents us (in the postmodern manner of bringing together disparate strains) with a daring medley of fiction, mythology, folklore, history and contemporaneity. — Rita Joshi, The Hindustan Times (India).

[Red Earth and Pouring Rain] is one of the best works of literature to emerge from the subcontinent in years… It’s a tale told with rare elegance and insight by an author who can make the reader feel a wide range of emotions. Most of all, this book is meant for adults who’ve secretly wanted to go back to the days when they could say, “Tell me a story,” and then settle back, prepared to be baffled, outwitted, pleased and entertained. — Nilanjana S. Roy, Business Standard (India).

This is an exceptional novel. Set in many different times and places and spanning the world, yet living in the interstices between different cultures. Red Earth and Pouring Rain explores history and adventure and passion and power. (Yes, I know this sounds like a publisher’s blurb. This is one of the rare cases where the blurbs tell the truth.) This is [Vikram Chandra’s] first novel, and an astonishing debut. It is the best novel by an Indian that I’ve read since Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children… But it’s not merely a historical novel, good as those portions are. A major thread, taken up by the protagonist, deals with his university-student life in the U.S., about youthful angst and rebellion and sorrow, and how he carries the memory and the burden of past Indian failures in the face of British greed. And the writing in the American sections, in modem American, is just as skillful, as riveting, as in the historical sections, written in the ornate, lush, moving English of colonial times. Within the first few pages of this novel, it becomes clear that the voice is one of absolute skill and authority, the kind of voice that one seldom finds in works by well-known, established writers, let alone in a first novel. I slowed my reading in order to relish the language, to admire its heft and polish. This is a long novel–over 500 pages—but for me it ended too soon. If you only buy one novel this year, buy this one. Read it slowly, relish it, lend it to your friends; make sure you get it back (my copy is gone, alas). It’s a work of consummate art. The Indian novel has taken another step forward. Congratulations, Vikram. And thanks. — Prasenjit Gupta, India Currents Magazine (USA).

It’s hard to believe that Red Earth and Pouring Rain is Vikram Chandra’s first novel. Its scope is so vast, its themes so large, one wonders not only that this is the work of a young man, but also where his next novel could possibly go… Time spent here will be all pleasure. — John Sutherland, The Seattle Times (USA).

Chandra has constructed a brilliantly conceived story line, and this book certainly will help classify him as a premier teller of tales. The language used by the young author is mesmerizing. — Cynthia Pasquale, Denver Post (USA).

Memorable and astonishing. — The Literary Review (UK).

Red Earth and Pouring Rain is an important story… in its breadth and scope, theme and style. For those readers open to experiencing the blurring and complexity of the twice-told and twice-felt, this is a vastly gratifying work. — Portland Oregonian (USA).

There is much to admire and applaud in this novel—its playful but always intelligent command of its diverse materials; its implicit creation of contrasts between different civilizations and epochs; its ability to create a world in which gods, monkeys, Indians and Englishmen coexist; and the sheer onward movement of its story or stories. — The Times Literary Supplement (UK).