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The god of small things comes bearing large gifts

The god of small things comes bearing large gifts.

For Arundhati Roy, all of 37, her debut novel brought the 29th edition of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction, not to mention a cheque for 21,000 pounds that, coming on top of the nearly one million pound pre-publication advance she drew worldwide, should have her bank manager smiling as broadly as she is.

For former HarperCollins editor Pankaj Mishra, it brought vindication -- of his initial excitement on reading the document, of his personal efforts to have it published.

For the Booker jury, it brought one book in a year of mediocre offerings worth getting enthused about.

And for literary circles in Britain, it brought one more writer to shore up a continuing love affair with authors of Indian origin.

A versatile god, this -- all things to all people, as good gods are supposed to be.

The book of "extraordinary linguistic inventiveness" -- which is how Booker judges chairman Professor Gillian Beer described the work -- hangs from the childhood reminiscences of the author, and centres around a family tragedy rooted in class conflicts -- the whole viewed through the eyes of seven-year-old twins. And therein, apparently, lies the rub. "For me, this prize is about the past," says the winner. "Having written this, I have reverted to square one -- and I do not know if I will ever write another."

No matter -- the award puts Roy on the crest of a wave that began a year ago, when Mishra read the manuscript and was excited enough to wake up the author with a late night congratulatory phone call. Mishra then flew to London on his own volition, and his efforts resulted in the 280-page book being placed in the hands of literary agent David Goodwin.

Under Goodwin's aegis, six of the top British publishers participated in an auction that saw the UK rights going to Flamingo for over 150,000 pounds -- chickenfeed perhaps by the standards of commercial novels, but rare for a literary work.

The wave had begun and before you could say god of small things, American rights had been snapped by Random House (another 100,000 pounds), German and Italian publishers had grabbed for it with both hands, as had Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, France, Spain, Greece and Canada.

So many publishers from so many different countries could not be wrong. Or could they? Jason Cowley, one of the Booker judges, said before the official announcement that it had been a year of "levelling mediocrity", while Booker-winning (Possession) novelist A S Byatt believed the book was not only derivative of the style of Salman Rushdie, but was also guilty of being overwritten.

In fact, this year's Booker shortlist -- comprising Quarantine by Jim Crace, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty, Europa by Tim Parks, The Underground Man by Mick Jackson and The Essence of The Thing by Madeline St John -- have, literary circles believe, further fuelled the ongoing debate centering around the very validity of the Booker prize.

In these quarters, the thinking is that the award, which in its heyday generated not only much controversy and debate but also some very good samples of fiction writing, has of late oscillated more towards the mediocre. And the argument presented in this quarter centers around readership -- thus, while the likes of V S Naipaul and Paul Scott saw their books sell a further 100,000 copies on more merely on the announcement of their being shortlisted, all six works on this year's short list sold a combined of under 5,000 copies in the two weeks following the announcement.

Further criticism stems from the thinking in some quarters that the Booker Prize -- limited as it is to Britain and the Commonwealth -- does not produce the kind of fiction that can compare in qualititaive terms with what the Americans produce.

Professor Lisa Jardine, chairman of this year's Orange Prize jury, in fact lashed out at the Booker, and, leading on from there, of British writing in general. Naming such figures as Martin Amis, Graham Swift (winner of the 1996 Booker for Last Orders), Pat Barker and Julian Barnes, Jardine said, "We are a small country, and I think the horizons of many writers here tend to be too parochial, meaningless to a wider audience."

While the argument is moot, there seems to be consensus that writers of Indian origin are on a roll on the British bookshelves. V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Rohinton Mistry, Amitav Ghosh and Amitav Chaudhuri rank high in the best-selling lists and the thinking is that the award will see a further spurt in demand for The God...

Not to mention an increased interest in its author. For Roy, architect turned screenwriter (whose credits include the Channel 4 film Electric Moon), the aftermath is slated to be a round of interviews, after-dinner speeches and incessant questions about her book and its people.

And oh yes, perhaps even an odd court appearance or three -- thanks to a suit that has been filed against her in Kerala for obscenity, pegged on a passage that describes an erotic encounter that breaches caste taboos.

"I have appealed to have the case stopped from coming to the courts," Roy said after accepting her award.

Booker for Arundhati

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