Monday, October 09, 2006

Book Review: Sacred Games

Sacred Games
Vikram Chandra
Penguin Books India
Rs 650, 900 pages



"You wanna talk rules? You wanna talk all that old-school bullshit? Then remember this rule: I am the m***f**-f*** one who calls the shots!" Tony Soprano Sr, in the hit TV series The Sopranos.

"If anything in this life is certain; if history has taught us anything, it's that you can kill anyone." Michael Corleone, in The Godfather Part II.

Five pages into Vikram Chandra's brick-sized opus, detective Sartaj Singh offers his own contribution to the Hall of Fame where tough-guy quotations are stored: "Love," he says softly, "is a murdering g****."

The first victim of passion in Sacred Games , mourned in this suitably filmi line, is a white Pomeranian who screams in her "little lap-dog voice" all five floors down to her death. Fluffy is the first in a series of memorable corpses: murdering and murdered dons, a wheelchair-bound gang member, a policeman who becomes collateral damage, a slickly efficient "model co-ordinator" turned procurer. Some tell their stories while they're still alive; others, like Sartaj Singh's alter ego, the "Hindu don" Ganesh Gaitonde, speak from beyond the grave.

The Sartaj of Sacred Games is older and more worn than the dapper, impassioned inspector whom we met first in Chandra's second book, Love and Longing in Bombay . The sardar is divorced; deprived of the cushion of his ex-wife's money, he has bent his principles and accepts bribes. He knows his way around the system, but despite the cynicism, he retains some of his old fire, some of his essential faith in justice. His colleague, Katekar, is a Bombay man to his bones, queueing up with but slightly apart from the other residents of his chawl for the bathroom in the morning. And Gaitonde may rule the underbelly of this mad city, but he has the village in his bones. The woman who becomes Gaitonde's friend and confessor, Jojo Mascarenhas, has the quintessential Bombay story of struggle, corruption and success behind her.

The narrative, shared between Sartaj and Gaitonde, is broad enough to encompass a Partition tale and a contemporary thriller involving nefarious plots and nuclear bombs. Chandra made it clear from his first novel, the remarkable Red Earth and Pouring Rain , that he was not a fan of minimalism. Like every Bollywood fan, he has a respect for the slow unspooling of the three-hour-long epic; his closest literary contemporary might be that other master of darkness and ambiguity, James Ellroy. Chandra and Ellroy write with the dirt of the underworld embedded in their fingernails; they prefer the loose, open-ended, character-packed story to the taut, pared-down drama. This can get tedious: a sub-plot concerning a wheeler-dealer godman is so interminable that it almost derails the story, and the intricate games played by Sartaj's bosses can be hard to follow.

But it's the relationship between don and policeman, two depressive cynics with a secret belief in innocence, that gives Sacred Games its energy. As with Gregory Roberts' Shantaram and Suketu Mehta's Maximum City , the detail rings true, from the small hissing noise that blood makes as it runs out of a bullet hole in someone's skull to the superstitions of tough ganglords. Mehta and Chandra researched their respective books around the same time, though the friendship didn't survive the writing. It is remarkable how closely paired Maximum City and Sacred Games are, how both books share a fascination with the extreme. Suketu's non-fiction often has the quality of fiction, while Chandra's fiction runs smoothly on the rails of fact, and both are massive books, struggling to contain the essence of Bombay between the covers.

It would be easy to suggest that Sacred Games could have been edited down, but that wouldn't have suited Chandra's narrative style. To him, it's all essential, from the mechanics of how to set fire to a slum, to the finer details of how a top film star might set about editing her body into bestseller status, to the Marxist visionary from Patna who becomes a warrior in a dirtier revolution. They all jostle for space along with Sartaj and Gaitonde in the world's most psychotic, most hypnotic, most schizophrenic city.

At its worst, Sacred Games reminds you of every Hindi film you've ever seen about the underworld, blending hard realism with maudlin sentimentality. At its best, this novel is a love letter to Bombay, scripted by a policeman and a gangster who have nothing in common but the remains of a once-shining faith. Either way, it's worth the nine hundred pages.[ends]

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