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July 27, 1999
The Charmer Is Back!
Arthur J Pais
"There is no danger that I will give up my day-time job, not at least for the time being," Sanjay Nigam had said about two years ago at a book-signing in New York City.
A reader had asked Nigam, a doctor with the Massachusetts General Hospital and a Harvard University professor, if he was going to follow in the footsteps of Michael Crichton ( Jurassic Park), Robin Cook (Coma) and other doctors who have turned novelists.
Nigam, the author of The Snake Charmer, published by William Morrow, believes he cannot write a potboiler. He is more interested in examining the spiritual and emotional malaise of his characters than write hi-speed novels about computer piracy or medical fraud.
Nigam may want to keep his day-time job, but there is no denying that his book has received some of the best reviews in recent years.
Though he has spent most of his adult life in the United States, Nigam, who is in his late 30s, is drawn by Indian themes and immigrant stories.
His critically acclaimed first novel is due soon in paperback.
The Snake Charmer reads like a deceptively simple novel about a deceptively simple man but good readers will find in it an intricate story about pride, self-righteousness and redemption.
The novel begins with Sonalal's moment of madness in front of foreign journalists that leads to his 15 minutes of fame: for a few days, his face and story are splashed across newspapers around the world, and for a few brief moments he has the admiration of his family, friends, and neighbors.
But the attention he gets biting his favorite cobra is no antidote to the guilt that gnaws at him. The lifelong demons he has been facing begin haunting him more ferociously than ever. As Sonalal seeks desperately -- but not without comedy for solace -- first in medicine, then in magic, and eventually in the arms of his favorite prostitute, we get to understand the heart and soul of this seemingly ordinary man.
Nigam's novel received raves in major American publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times.
'An engaging, light-as-a-feather tale of a comically stubborn struggle for both moral absolution and a few dollops of worldly pleasure,' wrote The New York Times reviewer, Richard Bernstein.
'Nigam has struck a poignant, almost elegiac tone made up in part of the simple passage of time in the world he has created but also of the sense that as India changes, the places, literal and metaphorical, set aside for snake charmers like Sonalal will slowly disappear.'
The Washington Post reviewer Guy Amirthanayagam noted:
'Of the new stars that have been spotted in the literary firmament of Indian writers in English Sanjay Nigam's The Snake Charmer bids fair to join this select company.. Because he is not given to verbal pyrotechnics or to adventurous tricks of style, he does not build barriers between himself and his reading public. Nigam has been able to create a convincing character who is able to aspire toward perfection and at least once in his life senses it. It is this achievement that makes The Snake Charmer an exceptional novel.'
Nigam is working on a novel that weighs the experience of the Indian diaspora in America.
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