Sunday, February 7, 2010

43. “Sacred Games” by Vikram Chandra

Year of first publication: 2006
Genre: novel, (not quite a) detective story, (not quite a) crime thriller
Country: India

In italiano: Giochi Sacri di Vikram Chandra, edito da Mondadori (2008), € 14

Plot: In the chaotic city of Bombay, detective Sartaj Singh is about to arrest the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, who’s mysteriously closed in a bunker, a white cube suddenly appeared in the still-developing area of Kailashpada. When he finally manages to open the door, he finds that Gaitonde has just blown his brains out with a gun and has also killed a woman called Jojo Mascarenas, a model co-ordinator who apparently has no connection with him. The inspector then starts to investigate into the deaths, while the story of how Ganesh Gaitonde came to power is told in flashbacks through alternating chapters. While we enter in the daily routine of a Bombay police inspector, we also discover the criminal underworld of the city. This capacious novel is a sort of huge mosaic of the city of Bombay, constructed through the life of the many people who enter the lives of Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde.

Some thoughts: From the plot above you might have gathered that this is a detective story or maybe a crime thriller, but you’re wrong: this novel has the frame of a crime thriller, but it’s much more than that. At 900-odd pages, Sacred Games is reminiscent of a three-and-a-half-hours Bollywood movie, but unlike Bollywood movies it is meticulously researched and realistic. This novel explores how a city and a whole nation changed in recent years, without forgetting the human side of the story: friendship, love and family ties are all important themes of the novel. In a whirlwind of labyrinthine plots and subplots, the author gives life to characters that look so authentic that you keep thinking of them even after the end of the book. The “star” of the novel is of course the protagonist, a Sikh police inspector, honest in an unusual way in a city where every policeman is corrupted (Chandra defines his as “romantic” with regards to his job). He is not at all perfect (he’s getting old, he’s sometimes clumsy and not that cocky with women), but very charming all the same (his profile was once featured in a women’s magazine as one of the most best-looking bachelors in Bombay). Gaitonde’s life is also interesting and engaging, but the chapters concerning the inspector are the ones you’re constantly waiting for. Chandra builds a complicated story, packed with details and subplots. Digressions are recurrent: the in-set chapters, for instance, could give life to another interesting novel about inspector Singh’s mother and the loss of a sister during Partition or about K. D. Yadav, a former Indian intelligence officer who’s now suffering from brain cancer. These chapters don’t add up to the story, but they’re wonderfully written, proving that Chandra can cope with all sorts of different settings and not only with “cops and robbers”. I recently discovered why Indian fiction (and cinema) often feature digressions (which is something that is likely to result annoying for western readers): epic sagas like the Mahabharata are full of this kind of digressions, because they are, among other things, a collection of oral traditions and beliefs on varied subjects, from yoga to war craft. Keeping this in mind, you can understand why in Sacred Games everything is involved, from India-Pakistan relations to Bollywood starlets, without forgetting Partition and Hindu nationalists. The author uses the template of a detective story as a sort of excuse to touch on the same topics of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, another great book about Bombay.
One of the strengths of this novel are the convincing dialogues in Hindi-influenced English as it is spoken in the streets of Bombay, with many vernacular words and swearwords (on this full-blooded lesson on Hindi curses, Kevin Rushby of The Guardian wrote: “next time some maderchod Mumbai tapori tries to cheat me, he'd better watch out. My tongue is gonna be sharper than one of Ma Singh's lime pickles”)!
Another feature that is important in the novel, as it is for the city of Mumbai, is Bollywood. The characters of the novel often sing verses from Bollywood movies and discuss about their favourite film stars. Moreover, Ganesh Gaitonde loves to watch Bollywood gangster movies, while his archi-rival Suleiman Isa keeps on watching The Godfather over and over again. At a certain point in the novel, Gaitonde even produces his own action movie, suggesting that there are sometimes connections between Bollywood and the criminal underworld of Mumbai. The irony is that a film critic writes that the makers of Gaitonde’s movie have never dealt with real-life gangsters (and the film critic gets beaten up by Gaitonde’s boys). This sounds a bit like a funny warning for the reader: are we allowed to think that the portrayal of Indian dons in the book is not realistic enough? Incidentally, some think it’s too much Bond-style, with all those women following Gaitonde everywhere, first of all his protégée, Zoya Mirza, destined to become Miss India and a film star. Contrary to that, I think that Chandra has done a great job of research on the life of Bombay gangsters, resulting in a multi-faceted character like Ganesh Gaitonde: a megalomaniac who’s sometimes ridiculous and ingenuous (think of the exercises to enlarge his penis or of his relationship with the Hindu guru), but who’s also looking for true love (albeit from the wrong woman, the “completely redone” Miss India he helped to create and whose plastic surgery he used to pay).
The book came out only four years ago, in 2006, but that was before Slumdog Millionaire won 8 Oscars. Since then, stories about life in the slums, rascals, religious intolerance and corruption in the subcontinent have saturated the market (or haven’t they?). It’s like a never-ending circle: once you’re fed up of reading about spirituality and non-violence in the subcontinent, you need to look for something about the dark side of India and then back again to dharma and meditation. Even if you’re fed up of these topics, though, you might want to make an exception for this engrossing, larger than life, page-turner of a novel.

About the author: Vikram Chandra was born in New Delhi in 1961. His mother and one of his sisters work in the film industry as screenwriters. His first novel was Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), which was inspired by the autobiography of James Skinner, the nineteenth-century Anglo-Indian soldier famous for raising two cavalry regiments in the British Indian Army. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. His collection of short stories Love and Longing in Bombay (1997) is the first featuring inspector Sartaj Singh. In 2000 he co-wrote the Bollywood movie Mission Kashmir with Suketu Mehta, the author of Maximum City. His most-recent novel to date is Sacred Games, which came out in 2006 and it was highly anticipated, to the point that publishers in the UK and in the US fought to have it.


  1. Been on my shelf for more than two years now, I recently read an article by Chandra that really encouraged me to read the novel and I'm looking forward to reading it soon. For now though I'm in the middle of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry...

  2. I know the size of the novel is not exactly encouraging , but once you've started it's really impossible to put down.

    I haven't read "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. I've never read anything by Mistry, actually. The list of Indian authors I want to read gets longer and longer each day! :-)

  3. Well, my beloved Sartaj is one of the best characters I've met in my readings in the last 2 years maybe!

    Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A (then adapted into the Slumdog Millionaire) was out before Sacred games, in 2005: I think there is a real need of telling this kind of stories. And I agree with you: even if you are fed up with those situations, Sacred games is much more than that, as it is much more than a detective story.

    Mistry is definitely worth-reading, even if totally different from Chandra. In order to make your list even longer, I also suggest Mistry's Such a long journey (and the 2 other books by Chandra as well!).

  4. @Silvia: Yes, I think the movie caused this saturation for the public and not the book, which had come out a few years before and passed almost unnoticed. I'm sure that there is a need for these stories and I have nothing against them, but I don't like that the market made it the only topic worth speaking of concerning the subcontinent, when there are many more realities worth being told. It's the same with the Arab world in this period: the sumission of the women is the subject of the great majority of books you see around. But there's a lot more than that in literature in Arabic.

  5. I am also waiting for something else now... as I start to be a bit fed up myself!

    What would you suggest me in Arabic that is not about the submission of women?

  6. thanks for this. It's a long time since I had been on this blog or on blogspot in general. My reading has dipped drastically because I now have a lot of work to do. Hmmm!

  7. @Silvia: I haven't read much about Arabic literature myself. I quite enjoyed Nagib Mahfouz's "Miramar" (I think I already told you) and also 'Ala Al-Aswani is not that bad (read here: Coming from the Arab world but not writing in Arabic: Tahar Ben Jelloun! He comes from a country that fascinates me a lot: Morocco. He often writes about strong women, not at all discouraged by the chauvinism of Moroccan society.

    @Nana: I've noticed you haven't been writing on your blog or commenting my posts. Everybody has periods with lot of work. I hope the new job is going on well for you and I hope to see you back on the net very soon!

  8. Yes, you told me about Miramar!
    I read a book by Nagib Mahfouz (which I loved) and a book by Tahar Ben Jelloun (the most famous one: Racism Explained to My Daughter).
    I will give a try to Chigago then!

  9. A proposito di libri arabi, ho visto che è uscito questo libro, Azazel di Youssef Ziedan:

    Sembra interessante!

  10. Già, molto interessante. Sicuramente non parla (solo) della sottomissione della donna... Se lo trovo lo prendo!