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Man, this Booker bait

September 25, 2008

A little after the Man Booker Prize long list was announced, I wrote a news feature for based on interviews with some of the South Asian authors – Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga and Mohammed Hanif. In it, I wondered if the Booker jury would disappoint us by swinging the short-list, predictably, in favour of Sir Salman Rushdie.

Sir Salman, via his publisher Random House, did not grant me an interview. But Ghosh and Adiga spoke to me, as did Hanif. Hanif and Rushdie are now out of the fray. With Ghosh and Adiga now on the short-list, it remains to be seen in whose favour the die will be cast.

Amitav Ghosh, of course, is the veteran on this list and Sea of Poppies is his first nomination to a Booker shortlist. Hanif’s excellent novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, explores a series of canards, some of them outright hilarious, surrounding the assassination of General Zia ul Haq. The White Tiger, Adiga’s novel, explores India underbelly up. He has been inventive with the form, which is a series of letters from his Indian protagonist to a visiting Chinese premier.

The Man Booker Prize is big bait for publishers. Penguin’s big boss in Canada, David Davidar (himself a published author), told me in an interview that it is one of the few prizes that has a direct relation, verifiably, to book sales. Case in point: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, the 2006 Booker Prize winner. Across geographies, Davidar said, “there was a significant difference in the sales of the book before it won the prize and after.”

Penguin is banking hard on Sea of Poppies. They have invested a great deal in it and Ghosh has reportedly been offered a stellar advance (running into several zeroes before the decimal point). It’s also a big transition for Ghosh, who has moved to Penguin for the first time after the death of publishing legend Ravi Dayal, who issued his earlier books in India. In an earlier interview, Ghosh referred to Dayal (some also know him as Khushwant Singh’s son-in-law) and his set-up as a “cottage industry”. “He was his own employee,” Ghosh said of him.

For Adiga, it’s a big moment. But he’s also in the fray with another first-timer – Australia’s Steve Toltz. When asked about his reaction to making the short-list, Ghosh only said, “The nice thing about being on this list is that I feel like I’ve won a prize already, so whatever happens next doesn’t really matter.”

Maybe it’s different for a first-time author. Fingernails are being chewed as we wait. May the author with the cleanest hands (and the shortest nails) win!

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