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The Rediff Special /Vir Sanghvi

'Obviously, the book had touched him enough to get on to a plane and come to a strange country'

Arundhati Roy Within three days of receiving copies of the manuscript, Transworld and Jonathan Cape were ready to make offers for the British rights. Their enthusiasm took Roy by surprise and she was even more startled when they asked for a fax number so they could send her details of their bids. She didn't have a fax, so all bids were sent to her neighbour Valmik Thapar who passed them on to an increasingly bemused Arundhati.

But while she was still trying to work out which publisher to select, David Godwin took her by surprise. By the end of the week, he had caught a plane to India -- a country he had never visited before -- only so that he could sign Roy up.

She says now that she chose to go with him because of the commitment that the sudden trip demonstrated. ''Obviously, the book had touched him enough to get on to a plane and come to a strange country,'' she explains.

Godwin told her that American rights would be a problem because publishers in that country were sceptical about the market prospects of books set in India. British rights would be easy to sell. But he wanted to auction them because he believed that this was a novel that everybody would want to publish.

Godwin was right about England, wrong about America. Eight British publishers bid unheard of amounts for hardback rights for a first book. And then, as Godwin and Roy watched astonished there was a scramble for European rights; France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Greece, Estonia, etc.

But the best was still to come.

Flushed with the success of the British auction, Roy flew off to Vienna to spend a week with her friend, film-maker Aradhana Seth. While she was there, various British publishers flew to America for the Chicago book fair. All they could talk about was this amazing debut novel. This in turn led to a sudden surge of interest in America.

Godwin phoned Roy in Vienna. Did she have an American visa? She did? Good! Because they had to fly to New York immediately since American publishers were going berserk.

"By the time we got to New York,'' recalls Roy. ''I had got over the excitement of the book being so much in demand. I decided that this time I wouldn't go with the highest bidder. I would go with the publisher I felt best about. I am very proud of the fact that I went with Random House because I respected them even though another large publishing house offered me $ 150,000 more than the Random House bid.''

By June 1996, Roy was back in Delhi. Two months before she had wondered what she was going to do. Now, she had just made half a million pounds (roughly Rs 35 million).

It wasn't till September that news of Roy's massive advance -- virtually unprecedented for a literary book by an unpublished author -- hit the Indian media. She had taken a deliberate decision to keep quite about her success and she was not pleased by the new interest.

"I find that people want to do the same kind of stories about me," she says wryly, sitting cross-legged in the terrace house in New Delhi that she shares with her husband, film-maker Pradip Krishen (the acknowledgements to the book begin: 'Pradip Krishen, my most exacting critic, my closest friend, my love. Without you this book wouldn't have been this book). Already apprehensive about any kind of publicity, she has become even more uneasy after news of her advance hit the papers.

Pradip Krishen "The problem with profiles,'' Roy says, tentatively ''is that a journalist comes and meets you for an hour or two hours and then he goes away and writes what he says is your life. It is the absolute opposite of what I do. I mean, it's not like taking four years to put down experiences that you have observed in 37 years. I believe in economy. Personality journalism is the opposite: it is padding."

It is for this reason that she will not talk about her early life or about the circumstances that led her mother to inform her that she was not welcome back at home. "It is true that I was on the verge of being thrown out when I was at college in Delhi,'' she says. "But if I try and explain what the problem was then I will simplify it so much that it will caricature the whole thing. So it's better not to talk about it.''

Courtesy: Sunday magazine

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