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Book Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Posted by anandrr on January 27, 2009

My relationship with Vikram Chandra goes way back. Back when he was a young novelist who had just completed his debut novel and I a callow youth, I read about Red Earth and Pouring Rain and knew that I had to read it. Unfortunately I was but a college student low on funds, so I had to wait around until I won a gift certificate to the local book store and then I pounced. My expectations were sky high, the reviews had been glowing, they were sent higher still by the fact that I was spending precious book store gift coupon currency for which I had had to win an inter-college quiz competition or some such and they were sent into the stratosphere by the fact that I count among my prized possessions a copy of the Panchatantra (translated by Ryder) gifted to my brother and I by our parents and that translation of the Panchatantra had taught me that the Amar Chitra Katha variant of the Panchatantra was a sham, a mere trifle, and the Panchatantra far from being a mere Indian version of Aesop’s fables were much much more, a massive work of art and literature. From those sky high expectations, there was only one direction: down. And Red Earth disappointed me. It had started off strong, I had loved the way it moved, but somewhere along the way he lost me and I lost him. And that was that as far as Chandra and I were concerned.

Until 2007, when he wrote Sacred Games. This time I had a secret weapon. Bookmarks magazine (Bookmarks review of Sacred Games) gets truck-loads of books every year and surely this had to be among them. It was, and I was saved. Risk-free Vikram Chandra enjoyment. I started in on it right away, but my return to India interrupted my reading. At 900 pages, a hardbound edition took up too much valuable space and weight to make the top list of things that returned with me. So it sat (marked at page 150 or so by a sad letter from State Farm telling me that it was my fault not their customer’s that my car had a dent (it was entirely his fault, you jerks, and you can’t even spell my name right, so what kind of investigation did you do anyway?)) in storage patiently awaiting its turn. Which turn came on my last trip stateside, so as soon as I was done with our new President, I was ready to continue where I left off.

Sacred Games appears to be a companion volume to Maximum City. But that is doing Maximum City too many favours, and Sacred Games a grave disservice. Games is the book that Maximum City should have been, indeed could have been, but thank God for Games, it does Bombay credit. Chandra is still playing with form, half the book moves forward in time, the other half is told in flashback by a man who kills himself in the first chapter, both stories moving forwards of course, but interwoven beautifully without making it seem like a gimmick, and there are insets: little bits of back story, seemingly without much relevance to the story, a little gimmicky but you sense Tarantino beaming in approval.

Ganesh Gaitonde is the mafia don found dead, of apparent suicide, early in the book by police inspector Sartaj Singh (whom Gaitonde has called to his hideout), this death precipitated by Singh’s decision to take Gaitonde’s nuclear-bunker-like building by force. The rest of the book chronicles the story of Gaitonde’s rise from a small-time assistant on a smuggling boat to the man who runs the G-company, Bombay’s biggest mob. This is the first thread, narrated by an omniscient Gaitonde in first person. The second thread is a police procedural as it follows Singh, an unambitious cop in Bombay, investigate Gaitonde’s death (and that of a woman found dead with him) and why he was in the bunker. The investigation is mostly above his pay-grade, there are forces operating here over which he has no control and sometimes even less understanding, but he is diligent and eventually ends up wanting to do the right thing.

Gaitonde appears truthful to a fault, a dead man has nothing to lose; Singh has his vices, he is not above an occasional bribe, and will happily beat up innocent people if it will further his investigation. But between the two of them, Chandra has written up a terrific piece, L.A. Confidential can suck it. It has the grandeur of an epic: the partition and the Indo-China war get a look-in as do the ’93 Bombay riots. It has the elements of a pot-boiler: plenty of sex via aspiring Bollywood starlets, plenty of blood, and sudden and incongruous twists that suddenly tie up loose ends. Religious tensions simmer, the ISI is of course involved, and a sadhu does the Indian rope trick. But like a well-made Bollywood thriller (ha!), when Bombay is your backdrop anything will work!

Every story about Bombay (shout out to Slumdog), has to revel in its extremes and Games gets it just right. But the other finely calibrated thing in Games is the language. When Rushdie writes, he captures a certain English that belongs to the English-speaking classes of India, a Hinglish that is not so much a mixture of Hindi and English as a direct translation from Hindi. When we speak informally among brothers and cousins we affect an English that traslates directly from our mother tongue and yields a language at once funny and inventive, the language comes alive as you listen to it. Chandra goes in a different direction, but it is just as effective. He is also translating, but not with a wink and a nudge, but quite truthfully. And the untranslateable words are, well, not translated. The result is that as you read, you can hear the characters say it in the original Bambaiya Hindi down to the mandatory curse word.

The book isn’t unputdownable: both its size and scope demand that you put it down every now and then and take a rest. From the way the flow sometimes ebbs, one senses that Chandra did the same as he wrote it. And it does have a fault: I was promised the end of the world in the last chapter, I did not get it, what’s worse some villains got their just desserts at the end but by handling that backstage, the climax left one feeling a little limp.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra”

  1. car games said

    Thanks for sharing the review. It is fantastic.

  2. astvkr said

    True genius of Vikram Chandra briefly appeared in a compendium of short stories called “Love and longing in Bombay” — Sartaj from Sacred Games gets his start in this book. It has been downhill ever since for Vikram Chandra.

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