The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Meet the author
An inscrutable success
Sanjay Austa

Photo by Subhash BhardwajWHO is the author of the bestselling Indian book? Amitabh Bachchan could well have asked this question on his popular TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati. And it wouldnít have been a surprise if no one on the hot-seat could answer the question correctly even after exhausting all three lifelines. For the names that come easily to mind are of famous Indian writers who create history of sorts receiving crores of rupees in book advance. Or one would rattle off the names of authors who have won prestigious literary awards abroad. The names could range anywhere from Vikram Seth to Arundhati Roy. But Anurag Mathur? His name wouldnít cross oneís mind by a long shot.

Yet it is Anurag Mathurís book The Inscrutable Americans that has created a record in Indian publishing history for not only being the most-sold Indian book but also for being the only book to feature on the bestseller list for 11 long years. The book was launched in 1991 and ever since it has doggedly stayed on the bestseller list, notwithstanding the media hype and success stories surrounding other books.

The success of The Inscrutable Americans has baffled publishers and critics alike for the book defies their aphorisms for a bestseller. Glamorous book release functions in five-star hotels, peppered by author-readings, book signing, cocktails for grey-haired intellectuals and page-three celebrities, is considered a must for the successful launch of any book these days. Every major Indian author has a literary agent, often from across the Atlantic, to herald his book to big publishing houses overseas. And then there are the hectic but compulsory Ďmeet the Pressí schedules. At the end of it every new book with a fat advance is touted as a potential Booker winner.


Mathurís book has defied all market parameters. There was no fancy do for Mathurís The Inscrutable Americans when it was brought out in 1991. Rupa and Co, the publishers of The Inscrutable Americans is a comparatively small publishing house with no big writers to boast of. The book won its author no award in India or abroad and consequently there were hardly any Press interviews. In short, the book came virtually unannounced into the world. But ever since then it has refused to budge from the readersí imagination. Ask Mathur about the secret formula and he smiles, "If I knew what made a best seller I would apply that formula to all my books", he says. Indeed, for Mathur has written three other books after The Inscrutable Americans, including the hilarious "Are all women leg spinners?" Asked the Stephenian and the recent, Making the Minister Smile, but they have made no mark on the bestseller list nor in the literary world.

"The story of The Inscrutable Americans is such that it sells", says the publishers. But what is the story that makes it so popular? To put it simply, the book is about a country bumpkinís adventures during his one year sojourn in America. This small-town-20-year-old has all sorts of illusions about Americans and this puts him through a series of comical situations. The tug-of-war between his inclination to keep his vow of abstinence from the "three evils" of wine, women and meat and his hunger to explore the alien world adds to his dilemma and the bookís hilarity. Nothing, one would say, to warrant a bestseller. However, the storyís success has its precedent in Vladimir Nabokovís highly successful book, Pnin. Like Mathurís The Inscrutable Americans, Nabokovís book also recounts the amusing experiences of a bewildered emigre in the USA. Pnin is considered Nobokovís most appealing book and the best introduction to his works.

Two other unique aspects of The Inscrutable Americans are that the book has never had a hardbound edition and it is not expensive at all. At Rs 80 the book is a steal.

"Yes the price could be one factor for its steady sale", says Mathur. According to him the book is popular with the youth as some of them identify with Gopal, the protagonist. "There are still a lot of people specially in the rural areas for whom America is a mystery", he says. Most of Gopalís illusions about America concern its women and sex life. Hasnít Mathur stereotyped America as a sex-crazy nation in the process? "America is a sex-crazy nation. It is a young nation where the focus and emphasis is on the youth. The youth are very much interested in sex there", says Mathur.

It was, perhaps, a matter of time before someone tried to make a movie out of The Inscrutable Americans. The screen version of the book was produced by a NRI doctor couple Srihari and Indira Malempati of Pikeville, Kentucky, and released in theatres the world over two years ago. The Malempatis financed this film themselves, and its production cost them more than half a million dollars.

Besides writing, Mathur also anchors programmes for television. He is, at present, in the midst of interviewing vernacular Indian writers. This is interesting since regional language writers never tire themselves of accusing English language writers like Anurag Mathur, of elitism and of failing to grasp the essence of the Ďrealí India.

"There are many Indias and they are all real. What I write about is the India I know best. The upper-class story has to be told too and their story is as real as anyone elseís", says Mathur.

Mathur also plans to bring out a collection of his poetry soon. But no matter what he does Mathur will always be know as the author of that one phenomenal book The Inscrutable Americans. Does that disappoint him as a writer. " No, it does not, for The Inscrutable Americans is my book too. If people know me only as its author, its fine", he says.