THE Strand bookstore, in downtown Bombay, prides itself on carrying the city's largest selection of English-language books. The cramped shop is stuffed with books from around the world, but one title is noticeably absent: Salman Rushdie's latest novel, ''The Moor's Last Sigh.''
''If it was available, I would have easily sold it,'' says Narayan Shambagh, the owner.
Afraid of offending local political leaders lampooned in the book, the Indian distributor of Rushdie's book has withheld it. In fact, the book is not available anywhere in Bombay, Rushdie's hometown, although the local government insists it has not banned it.
The controversy stems from Rushdie's depiction of a fictitious political leader who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bal Thackeray. Mr. Thackeray is leader of the far right-wing Shiv Sena party, which came to power earlier this year in the state of Maharashtra. The character, Raman Fielding, is portrayed as corrupt and self-serving.
''I find it objectionable, very humiliating...'' says Promod Navalkar, the state minister of culture. ''Character assassination of any political leader will not be tolerated,'' he says, but conceded that he has not actually read the book.
A spokesman for Rupa and Company, the Indian distributor, called the situation in Bombay ''volatile'' and said the company decided to ''play it safe'' and withhold the book.
''The Moor's Last Sigh'' is still available in New Delhi and several other Indian cities, but last week customs officials in Delhi confiscated a shipment, leading to confusion over its status.
Federal officials insist the book is not banned but say customs officials are allowed to confiscate shipments while they determine if the book should be banned. Meanwhile, some bookstores in New Delhi say they have not been able to obtain fresh copies of the book.
Rushdie was born in Bombay and lived there until he was 14 years old, when he emigrated to Britain. However, India remains a fertile source of inspiration for him. ''The Moor's Last Sigh,'' which chronicles several generations of an Indian family, is one of five books nominated for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.
Most Indians have shown only sporadic public support for Rushdie, who is now a British citizen. At a demonstration last month in front of the Bombay offices of the book's Indian distributor, only 15 to 20 people showed up. Even those in Bombay who admire Rushdie's work believe he could have done a better job of camouflaging the jabs at Thackeray and his supporters. ''Rushdie personalized one or two chapters for no ... reason,'' says Shambagh. ''He could have taken up any topic in Bombay and done a wonderful job.''
But Rushdie has staunchly defended his latest book. ''I think it is a perfectly proper function of people who care about India and write about it to express their misgivings and fears, and I have those misgivings and fears,'' he told the news magazine India Today. The Shiv Sena, he said, has overreacted.
India prides itself on having a free and uncensored press, but it was the first country to ban Rushdie's earlier novel, the ''Satanic Verses.'' Then-Premier Rajiv Gandhi was concerned the book might inflame Hindu-Muslim tensions. The book angered Muslims worldwide, and Rushdie remains under a death sentence imposed by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeni for alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Some see the effective banning of Rushdie's latest book as part of a pattern of censorship begun by the right-wing alliance that came to power in Bombay - traditionally India's freewheeling commercial capital.
''They [Shiv Sena] have instilled a climate of fear which I am ashamed to say we are bowing under,'' says Adil Jussawalla, a poet and former literary editor of the Times of India. Since the Shiv Sena has came to power, its critics say, some magazines have been banned as ''pornographic,'' as have ''vulgar'' advertisements for sanitary napkins.
But despite the cold reception the book has received in his hometown, Rushdie says he is still fond of the city. ''I was born in Bombay and even now going to Bombay is the only time when I have the feeling of coming home,'' he told India Today.