A modern take on an ancient Indian drama

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Arundhati Roy's victory at last night's Booker Prize ceremony rounds off one of the most amazing stories in modern publishing. At the start of the decade, Roy - an architecture graduate born in 1960 in the Syrian Christian community of Kerala in India's deep south - gave up her work as a screenwriter and designer in the Indian film business to concentrate on her first novel. At that stage, she had no agent, no publisher and no advance.

Last year, the completed manuscript reached Pankaj Mishra in Delhi, now a dynamic agent but then an editor with the local branch of HarperCollins. Indian rights to The God of Small Things were sold for pounds 2500, a sum that sounds pitiable by Western standards, but set a record for a subcontinental novel. Delhi newspapers developed an obsessive interest in Roy's looks, her background, her attitudes. The sometimes scary self-belief of this slight but formidable woman was quickly tested.

The British agent, David Godwin, had read the manuscript at last year's Frankfurt book fair. Immediately, he flew out to Delhi to find Roy. Soon he had secured a British advance of pounds 150,000 from Harper Collins's Flamingo imprint. Before long, overseas deals had trebled that sum.

Soon after the Booker shortlist was announced, Roy the newcomer emerged as favourite ahead of three distinguished mid-career novelists: Bernard MacLaverty, Jim Crace and Tim Parks. Last night (for once) the ante-post tip did come out in front.

Does The God of Small Things deserve all the fuss? Certainly, although fans of the conventionally picturesque Indian novel in English have not always found it it to their Raj-trained taste. Yes, it deals with the tragic upshot of a cross-cultural liaison between a Christian woman, Ammu, and a low-caste Hindu man in the lush, watery - and Communist-run - state of Kerala. But the sharp and shrewd wit and wordplay of Ammu's twins Rahel and Estha - with their doomed half-English cousin, Sophie Mol - drag this landscape into an unsettling new world of pop songs, radio jingles and advertising slogans. Meanwhile, the priapic pickle-factory mogul Chacko spouts Marxist dogma, chases women and makes money.

The God of Small Things is an ancient drama played out against an unmistakably modern backdrop. It turns the clash of tongues and histories in Kerala into the motor of its comedy, its lyricism and its fine intelligence. And, in doing so, it makes the remarkable Suzanna Arundhati Roy a fitting standard-bearer for the immensely rich literature of India today.