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India tops the bill at world's largest book fair

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Tales from underworld gang wars and racy fare about a small-town girl in the big, bad world of Bollywood will be on show next week as India takes top billing at the world's largest book fair.

Around 70 writers including big names such as Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra and Shashi Tharoor -- who is in the race for the top job at the United Nations -- are expected to make an appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

India was invited as guest of honour to the five-day event starting October 4, with organisers saying they wanted to bring contemporary India to a wider international audience.

The special presence at Frankfurt is seen as an acknowledgement of an increasing interest in Indian writing and more broadly in its culture as the country's profile rises thanks to its booming economy.

Publishers have compared the renewed interest in Indian English writing to a similar wave nearly a decade ago when Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy made a splash with her debut novel "The God of Small Things."

"Indian writing is no longer considered exotica. It is now mainstream in the UK and the US," says Thomas Abraham, CEO of Penguin India, the country's largest general interest book publisher.

This year, the 45-year-old Chandra -- whose 900-page novel "Sacred Games" has been hailed as the biggest thing in literary circles here -- reportedly took a million-dollar advance from US publishers Harper Collins.

Chandra is one of the most celebrated among a generation of young India writers increasingly winning international acclaim. Others include Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri and British-born Rana Dasgupta whose debut novel "Tokyo, Cancelled" earned lavish praise last year.

"Sacred Games", a crime thriller set in Mumbai city's underworld, and "Tokyo Cancelled" -- about 13 Tokyo-bound passengers stranded at an airport -- are among the 55 books by Indians to be translated into European languages for the event.

"These writers are finally breaking the mould. These are voices with a rare confidence because they are not India-specific in content," says writer Shobhaa De, author of several racy relationship best sellers. "The hangover of the British school of classical writing is over.

"These writers have been bold enough to break away," says De, whose "Starry Nights" about a star in India's formulaic and prolific Bollywood film industry who is supported by an underworld boss will also feature at Frankfurt.

In a sign of the times, international publisher Random House set up shop in India last year. Penguin India ventured into publishing in Hindi and Marathi languages and plans to introduce more of the nearly two-dozen India's official languages with an eye on the expanding market for regional literature.

"Confidence in English writing is infusing better work in translations which do justice to the vast variety of Indian literature in other languages," said Geeta Dharmarajan, director of non-profit Katha, which promotes non-English literature.

While the book market in the West is estimated to be growing at around eight percent, the Indian market is growing at around 15 percent, says Thomas, whose company recorded a 20 percent growth last year.

Book publishing in India is estimated to generate 685 million dollars a year, according to the government-run publisher National Book Trust. With an annual 28,000 titles, India publishes the world's largest number of English books after the US and Britain.

Industry watchers, however, said India would take several years to catch up with Western countries in terms of both the variety of literature and the sales.

"The market is driven by education and text books. We are a generation away from non-fiction. There is still a world-class thriller to come out of India," says Penguin's Abraham.

But writer Namita Gokhale, one of the participants at the fair, said it was hard to ignore India any longer.

"India is a huge paradox -- both unchanged and unchanging, modern yet rooted in tradition -- and our literature has so much to say about this radical sense of change. It's a great moment in history," said Gokhale.



AFP 280145 GMT 09 06

COPYRIGHT 2006 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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