Share Your Thoughts

Is the novel a relevant literary form to portray adequately the complex reality of our world? This issue was raised by Rachel Donaldio in her interview in 2005 with Nobel prizewinner V.S. Naipaul, who expressed the view that the novel’s time was over. “Only non-fiction could capture the complexities of today’s world,” he said. Others have expressed similar doubts in earlier times. T.S. Eliot, in his essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” famously said of James Joyce’s Ulysses that it is not a novel because “the novel is a form which will no longer serve; it is because the novel, instead of being a form, was simply the expression of an age which had not sufficiently lost all form to feel the need of something stricter.” Eliot says that the novel ended with Flaubert and with [Henry] James. “It is because, Mr. Joyce and Mr. [Lewis] Windham, being ‘in advance’ of their time, felt a conscious or probably unconscious dissatisfaction with the form, that their novels are more formless than those of a dozen clever writers who are unaware of its obsolescence.” I put the same question to Vikram Chandra, author of Sacred Games, who was gracious enough to answer this and other questions. Did you find the conventional novel too restricted a form to express your vast subject matter in Sacred Games? Whenever I hear people talking about the “end of the novel” I wonder exactly which novel they’re talking about. Every time I get on a plane I see dozens of people reading novels which follow the tenets of realism as practiced in 19th-century Europe. I don’t think aesthetic forms necessarily “end” or die or disappear; writers continue to use them, and readers continue to read with enthusiasm and pleasure despite literary people making pronouncements. That said, Sacred Games is a narrative particularly concerned with form. Ganesh Gaitonde’s guru asks him, “Can you see the patterns of the world …?” The patterns that Sacred Games makes—I hope—have something to do with the themes that wind through the book. Which is to say, the form grew from the content (and vice versa), not so much from a rejection of an older form. Reading Flaubert is still an urgently relevant experience for me; maybe in the future I’ll use something I learnt from him. Sacred Games is a tour de force, confusingly complex and yet simple in its portrayal of humanity, and a riveting book, in spite of its length. The epic scale of the novel suggests that it could very well be the great Indian novel, not unlike Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, a satiric parallel of the Mahabharata. Did you intend (notwithstanding W.K. Wimsatt’s caveat about the “intentional fallacy”), to write an epic about Mumbai, a witness to the violence of criminal activities with national and international ramifications, home-grown terrorism, as well as the touching tenderness of human relationships? When I began, I had no idea that it was going to be a big book. Living in the city at the time, you had the sense that the underworld was increasingly a part of all our lives. And for me, it came very close to home—I knew people who had been threatened, shot at, wounded. So the book began out of curiosity, as a kind of investigation of the landscape I was living in. I thought I was writing a very local book, about the crime down my street, and that it was going to be of average length, maybe 250 pages. But then all the connections started to emerge, and I started to understand that what I thought of as local was actually part of a much larger mesh, a network of people and events and historical forces. So the book grew, both in size and thematic range. I think trying to intentionally write an epic would be pretty paralyzing. I tried to follow the characters and their lives, and ended up with a long book. The use of Hindi slang, particularly Bombay Hindi, no doubt presented Bombay in all its raw vitality and promiscuity. But it did impede the fast flow of the narrative when it became necessary to refer constantly to the glossary provided by the publisher. Is this to enrich the English language just as “mulligatawny” has become assimilated into Engish? No, I didn’t have any such large-scale purpose. The language in the book reflects what is already a fact—that English in India is spoken with a variety of other languages mixed in. If I was telling the story to a group of friends in Bombay, this is the language I would use, and that’s the language I tried to use in the text. I don’t think the reader really needs to look up words; in fact, in India and the U.K., the book was published without a glossary. When you read a book from another place, another culture, you absorb some or most of the unfamiliar language and references through the context, and the rest—well, you let it go, and maybe you get it later in the book. Anybody who grew up in India, for instance, would be familiar with the experience. I remember reading Enid Blyton as a kid and wondering what macaroons and crumpets were. I’ve been traveling back and forth between India and the U.S. for a long time now, and still, when I read an American book, sometimes a local reference escapes me. It’s just part of being a human being in a very various world. The novel ends where it began, Sartaj Singh’s life as a cop. The narrative is circular and not linear. Any special significance other than the depiction of the Hindu worldview as cyclic rather than linear? The circular movement of the narrative makes a part of the form of the book. I wouldn’t want to explain too much—that’s a bad habit for a writer to fall into—but in my mind, the overarching figure for the novel was a mandala, which presents a vision of the world and often has a central narrative, but also includes other landscapes seemingly distanced by time or causal connection. The novel has apocalyptic overtones. But like all apocalypses, as Frank Kermode points out in A Sense of an Ending, Gaitonde’s dream of a new age as well as Aadil’s dream of a communist new order never materialize. Is the novel a satire on the mistaken messianism of contemporary leaders as well as the con game of godmen who exploit this messianism by giving it a religious twist? Apocalypse, and the paradoxical longing for it, is a part of narratives across cultures, and has been through recorded history. Narrative forms order the world and produce meaning, and these forms demand a climax, as Gaitonde’s guru points out. Religious narratives and certain versions of history share this desire for order and an ending, which is thought to necessarily preclude a new beginning. Since stories and storytelling are such a deep-rooted human urge, the very way we see the world, I think, produces this perception, this longing. I don’t think it’s just leaders and godmen; Sartaj, even as he tries to stave off disaster, wonders whether the world he lives in is worth saving. I hope Shridhar Shukla—the guru—is very persuasive on this score in the book, that it’s necessary to bring about the final calamity, just as messiahs are in the real world. The last question that Gaitonde asks Sartaj is, “Do you believe in God?” and that question hangs over the entirety of Sacred Games. The reader will see form or formlessness in this narrative itself, which is analogous, I think, to what people do with the real world. We try to read it, and find order or chaos.