Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sacred Games: a review

Sacred Games is Vikram Chandra's third work of fiction, published in early 2007. It is a large novel, both physically as well as in scope and ambition. Judging by its 900 pages, it doesn't appear that the author was slacking off during the seven years that it took him to complete it . The book is set in turn-of -the-century Bombay and has as its central characters a mafia don, Ganesh Gaitonde, and a police inspector, Sartaj Singh. The broad plot could be straight out of a thousand thrillers: a nuclear device is about to be set off in Bombay. The intention is to make it appear to be the handiwork of Muslims, in order to ensure all manner of mayhem. The don Gaitonde has unwittingly helped in the importation of nuclear material, but panics after realizing this. He builds a bunker in the middle of Bombay to try and survive the nuclear explosions. For some reason, he then commits suicide, but not before tipping off the police inspector to his presence there.

The book has the police procedural and popular detective fiction as its templates, but these are merely structural frames. Chandra's real skill is as a weaver of stories. Much of the book is devoted to the career of Ganesh Gaitonde, narrated in the first person: his rise from a small-time crook to a major don, his criminal exploits, his going international, his living on a yacht in Thailand, and his spiritual awakening and involvement with a guru. This narrative is interleaved with the present, where Sartaj Singh is involved in other police work. In addition, there are so-called “insets” in which Chandra brings in additional stories, of characters who impinge upon the lives of Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh. Here is where Chandra's remarkable skill as a teller of stories is revealed. In particular, his account of the traumas of Sartaj Singh's mother's family during the partition of India is very well done. This inset has little to do with the main plot, but adds immeasurably to the reader's experience. Indeed, this kind of loving attention is lavished upon almost all of the characters in the book. This is really what sets this book apart. Even if you are not particularly impressed with the detective work or titillated by the Pulp Fiction type of gangster narrative, you can soak in the warmth of knowing the characters intimately.

The characters themselves are swept up by circumstances beyond their control. While their stories begin very far apart from each other, they are eventually linked with each other. In one inset, we are told about K. D. Yadav, the intelligence operative, who kills two people involved in the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s or early 1970s somewhere in eastern India. In another inset very late in the book, the son of one of these people recruits a struggling but educated Muslim youth called Adil. After a career as a revolutionary, Adil becomes disillusioned and escapes to Bombay, where he organizes small robberies. We then realize that this ties up with an encounter described earlier in the book, where Sartaj Singh's partner, constable Katekar, is killed. Sartaj Singh has to report upon his progress in the Gaitonde suicide investigation to Anjali Mathur, K. D. Yadav's protege in the intelligence establishment. This is but one of the intricate connections in the book. This common literary conceit, of stories tied together, runs the risk of becoming too obvious and predictable. Chandra's success can be gauged by the fact that the reader never loses interest in the characters or their stories. His dexterity at tying the various strands together is remarkable – the metaphor of a delicately woven carpet comes to mind.

While Mumbai is the setting for much of the action in the book, this novel is not about the city. Nevertheless, it does capture much of the ambience and the lingo, down to the mandatory cussing in Hindi. As far as the cussing goes (and it does go quite far), one does not expect any less in a gangsters-and-policemen saga. I do think though that Chandra's experiment integrating Hindi cuss-words with English is largely successful. The words are not italicised, some of them are used in their verb forms, and the glossary at the end, while reasonable, is not exhaustive. Judging by reader reactions on Amazon.com, this does not seem to be much of a stumbling block for people unfamiliar with Hindi or with the Mumbai variant of it.

Although the tale is told from several perspectives, Chandra is quite sympathetic to the enforcers of the law, be they lowly constables and police inspectors or the cloak-and-dagger types from RAW or IB, India's spy agencies. The regular violence and the petty and middling corruption of the police are depicted in a very matter-of-fact manner. Yet, the policemen turn out to be quite competent, street smart, and on the whole, good guys. The intelligence agencies are shown to be on top of everything. These are the parts that strain credulity, but do not detract much from the book. As with most fiction, we have to allow the author his or her premises, and watch what he or she builds from them. Vikram Chandra builds a very readable novel, but what stays with the reader long after the lurid details are forgotten, are the embedded nuggets of the smaller stories.

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