Friday, April 17, 2009

Sacred Games - By Vikram Chandra

Let me get the obvious out of the way first. Sacred Games is a long novel. At over 900 pages, it literally requires effort to pick the book up. But here is the good news - the book is as difficult to put down as it is to pick up.

Vikram Chandra has written two other books before this, both of which I have thoroughly enjoyed. If you aren't quite sure whether his writing would be to your taste, I would suggest not starting with Sacred Games. His second book Love and Longing in Bombay is a phenomenal little collection of short stories. That is where I would suggest you start. There you will find some of the pieces Chandra is best at - his intimate feel for the pulse of Bombay, his sympathy for characters not always lovable, his experiments with narrative technique. And it has the other plus of first introducing Sartaj Singh, the protagonist of Sacred Games. (Though it isn't by any means necessary to read L&L to appreciate Sacred Games).

Sartaj Singh: The only Sikh police inspector in Bombay. Tall and fiercely handsome in his time. Divorced. Soft, too soft. Not above getting his palms greased if the situation arises. Unambitious. Just wants to do his job.

Not quite the hero.

And that is what leads to the most endearing thing about Sacred Games - The unflinching, yet sympathetic portrayal of the bumbling, corrupt, underpaid, underarmed force that is the Indian police. It is all there, up close, warts and all. Sartaj Singh is no hero. And Chandra takes the reader along on a journey with with this non-hero. He tells tales of corruption that pervades every action, of fake raids on dance bars and secret Swiss bank accounts, of policemen turned blackmailers and pickpockets turned partners. And along this sordid journey, Chandra accomplishes something truly remarkable - he makes the reader see the policeman's side of the story.

Then there is Ganesh Gaitonde. The Hindu Don. Ruthless gangster. Serial womanizer. Fixer of elections. The king of Kailashpada.

A character that only Bombay could support. He is the voice of the most rousing passages in Sacred Games. He is the character that will live with me months after reading this book. When he is done ("Bas. Enough."), you will miss him.

Finally, there is Bombay. The real heroine of the book. Bombay is everywhere in Sacred Games. Reading the book is to travel through the lanes of Bombay. The crowded, filthy lanes, not the swank roads of Cuffe Parade and Kolaba.

Sacred Games is pitch perfect in terms of tone. Chandra's grasp on narrative technique is perfect.

One note of warning: The language in Sacred Games is extremely strong. If you flinch at the sound of a bhenchod or a chutiya, this book is not for you. Suffice to say that if you take the swearwords out, the book would probably be half in length. And a third in believability. And a fourth in its appeal.

1 comment:

  1. yeah, totally agree. Sartaj and GG really get under your skin. This was a totally unputtdownable book when I read it. Couldn't quite figure out who the Swamiji in the book was...Dhirendra Brahmachari crossed with Chandra Swami? The Swami was the most unconvincing character of the book.

    BTW, just finished The White Tiger. Not a great book but eminently readable in a "gotta scratch a mosquito bite" irritating sort of way. Like Sartaj, Balram Halwai will stick with for a while. Unlike Sartaj, who is likeable, Balram is totally fascinating yet vile.

    Also read a totally cool book by Christopher Isherwood -- Ramakrishna and his disciples. Offbeat and certainly not something that I believe you would stumble upon. But a very lovingly written hagiography. See if you can put it on your list.

    DTop denizen in a college town