SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandra. Harper Collins, January 2007. Hardcover, 928 pages. $27.95. www.harpercollins.com Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra has written yet another tour de force, which took him seven years. Sacred Games is a multi-layered work of fiction that defies definition. A spy thriller, a detective novel, an exploration of the Indian psyche? It is all of the above and an epic story about India’s most exciting city, Mumbai. At the end of the novel, Chandra sums up the lure of this seductive metropolis with its perpetual construction projects, and traffic jams that bring crowded buses, autos, and motorcycles to a screeching halt. Inspector Sartaj Singh is glad to be back from the countryside to feel the pulse of this frenetic city and enjoys even the “stench of exhaust and burning and heated tar.” Constable Katekar had said of Mumbai: “Once the air of this place touches you, you are useless for anywhere else.” The novel centers around a crime investigation of Ganesh Gaitonde, one of the most powerful dons of the Mumbai mafia, by Sartaj Singh, a police inspector reincarnated from a previous short story in Love and Longing in Bombay. “I’m hoping we’ve respectfully said goodbye to each other at the end of Sacred Games,” says Chandra of his creation. But this is not just a thriller in the manner of John Le Carr or Tom Clancy, but a monumental diving into the dark side of the Indian ethos, relieved by an irony that shows the darkness not as an unmitigated horror but as the weakness that goes with being human. Chandra acknowledges more than 50 people he interviewed in India as part of his extensive research into the activities of the underworld in Mumbai that has connections with terrorism both domestic and international. Politicians, the police, the intelligence establishment, and the movie industry collude with the Mumbai mafia, both Muslim and Hindu. Chandra also exposes the godmen of India who wield enormous power and legitimize the unethical and illegal actions of politicians and ganglords. There is a gurumania that grips Mumbai, spawning scam artists like Swami Shridhar Shukla aka Guruji. Chandra’s canvas stretches from the Partition to the terrorist activities of the 1990s that bred an apocalyptic angst in India. There were several bomb explosions in Mumbai during this period accompanied by a spate of killings, abductions, and extortion demands by organized crime bosses linked to Bollywood figures. The novel portrays a broad spectrum of life, from mobsters, politicians, the intelligence establishment, the police, ordinary middle-class people, as well as the poor who eke out a miserable existence in the slums of Bengali Bura. The novel builds up to a climax, with the expectation of a nuclear explosion that would destroy Mumbai, the financial capital of India. There are several intimations of this horror. The police and the central intelligence agency are all aware of the impending danger. Several versions of the apocalypse provide texture to the pervading mood of anxiety. Fringe groups, both secular and religious, claim to rid the world of the old corrupt order and usher in a purified new order. Maoist revolutionaries want a communist millennium, a university student-turned-revolutionary is out to destroy the current corrupt social order. Guruji wants to bring about Ramrajya. He masterminds a plot to blow up Mumbai and pin the blame on the Hizbuddeen, a fake Islamist terrorist front. The Muslims have their own vision of apocalypse. They urge their Muslim brethren to heed the signs of the Quayamat, the Islamic day of reckoning. Asked by a reporter from The Hindu who the hero of the novel is, Chandra says that like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Sacred Games has no hero, “only protagonists in the drama of their own lives.” Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde are these protagonists who are on opposite sides of the law. Chandra does not stereotype these characters but brings out their humanity. Sartaj Singh is a middle-aged police inspector, divorced, content to do his duty as a good cop without seeking fame and publicity. He is a realist who does not chase lofty goals of making the world safe from murder and mayhem. He deals with crime on a daily basis. He is tough on crime, yet fair and compassionate. He cares for people. He enjoys the simple pleasures of life, “luxuriating in the promise of the moment.” For him, being alive is enough. The tender relationship between Singh and his mother is brought out during their trip to Amritsar. He considers her an unsung heroine who had given so much of herself to him and his father. Gaitonde is just the opposite of Singh and yet they are also similar. He is an arrogant, merciless killer with enormous ambition. Gaitonde metamorphoses from a runaway teenager Kiran to a gangster in Mumbai, assuming the name Ganesh Gaitonde. He acquires power, money, and women. After his encounter with Guruji, he becomes a man with a mission, and is fed messianic fantasies by Guruji who names him Arjuna to signify his warrior status in preparation for rooting out Kaliyug. This ruthless gangster also has a tender side. Amoral as he is, he cannot consent to mass destruction. He takes good care of his employees. In spite of his wealth and power, Gaitonde feels empty and alone, especially after he loses his wife and son. He is a survivor, leading a charmed life on his yacht aptly named “Lucky Chance.” Fearful that the media will blacken his name after his death, Gaitonde picks Sartaj Singh, his nemesis, to tell his story to. It is the tragic protagonist’s ultimate delusion, of fame beyond the grave. Chandra uses multiple narrative perspectives: a third-person narrator for the most part, and a first-person narration of Gaitonde’s own story, often digressing into lyrical reflections. From my initial reaction of being intimidated by the length of the book, I ended up wanting more. I hope there is a sequel. Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.
- Community Stories
- Support Us!