Sacred Games

Sacred Games

by Vikram Chandra

Publisher: Harper Collins

Hardcover, $27.95

928 pages

They wanted jobs, and justice, and blessings. I gave them all that, and water, and electricity over wires pulled from the lines near the main road. I lived in a pucca house at the foot of Gopalmath hill, we had built it with two bedrooms and a big central hall, and on the steps outside every morning a crowd gathered, seekers, supplicants, applicants and yes, devotees. They came to ask for things and lower their heads. “We just wanted your darshan, Ganesh Bhai,” some said, so I gave it to them, and they gazed and folded their hands and retreated, storing goodwill against certain disasters of the future. And their blessings came to me, and money, cash from the shopkeepers and traders and garage owners and dhaba-owners of the area, and we kept them and their establishments safe. Businessmen caught up in quarrels and wrangling came to me, and I listened to all sides of the case, and gave a decision, a fair and fast ruling that would be enforced by my boys, with force if necessary, and for this mandvali and for being able to avoid the endless and useless law courts, all the disputants paid me a percentage of the contested value as fee. Money came in and went out. -Ganesh Gaitonde

Reading Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is an experience akin to watching a huge Bollywood blockbuster unfurl across your retina, replete with color, confusion, noise, sex, violence, and hyperbole. It has less the feel of a novel, and more of reading an enormous film script, with the explosions and special effects and the works. The author’s breadth is dizzying – the story goes from the murky world of the Mumbai mafia-style underworld, to international terrorism, to the workings of the Indian bureaucracy, and the intelligence services investigating Islamic fundamentalism, to the traumas of the Partition, to the inside workings of Bollywood, the complex and violent strife for survival. As the story unfolds with surprising twists at every turn, the great game takes shape, confounding all expectations. Winning is an illusion, and all are pawns struggling to regain control of their destinies.

And now he was shitting twelve times a day, and he said he was very afraid he was going to keep huggoing until he died on this bhenchod white throne in this maderchod Malyali city in this harami cesspool of a country.

Chandra’s extensive use of Bombay street slang, incorporating several dialects including English, and liberally sprinkled with cussing and swearing is powerful, colorful and overpowering. To readers who are not of Indian ethnicity, translation will afford difficulty as well as reduce the scope of amusement, and appreciation of the sheer vitality and attitude of the language.

Sacred Games follows the fortunes of two opposing characters, the jaded Inspector Sartaj Singh, and Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous don. A confrontation between the two opens the novel, with Gaitonde taunting Sartaj from inside the protection of his strange bunker. When they break into the bunker, the police find Gaitonde dead, with the body of an unidentified young woman. The course of the investigation is promptly taken over by RAW, and Sartaj struggles to trace Gaitonde’s movements and motivations through a complicated web of intrigue, while taking on cases of murder, blackmail and neighborhood quarrels. It throws up unlikely cross-connections between Gaitonde, his friend Jojo the madam who supplies aspiring starlets, Zoya Mirza, successful film star, politicians of the ruling party, and Sridhar Shukla, the wily guru with an international following and a sinister plan.

Sartaj is divorced, weary and resigned to his post, complicit in the bribes and police brutality that oil the workings of his city.

He knew now that he wasn’t going to be the hero of any film, even the film of his own life. He had once been the promising young up and comer, marked for advancement. Even the fact that he was Sikh in a department full of Marathas had been an advantage as well as a burden, a marker of his separateness… journalists loved to write about the handsome inspector. But the years had worn away the shine, and he had become just like a thousand other time-servers in the department.

Gaitonde relates the riveting tale of his rise to fame and power, and we come to an understanding of this fearsome don of G Company, ravager of women, taker of boys, recruit of the Indian Intelligence, the maker and lover of a movie star, the self-taught street fighter, “whose daily skim from Bombay’s various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes.”

I had no future, no life, no retirement, no easy old age…a bullet would find me first. But I would lie like a king. I would fight this life, this bitch that sentences us to death, and I would eat her up, consume her every minute of every day. So I walked my streets like a lord of mankind, flanked by my boys.

And so I maintained my grip, my reign. Fear was part of it… The truth is human beings like to be ruled. They will talk and talk about freedom, but they are afraid of it. Overpowered by me, they were safe and happy. Fear of me taught them where they could live, it made them a fence, inside which was home. And I was good to them. I was fair, and didn’t ask for so much money that it hurt, and I taught my boys restraint, and above all, I was generous… my name was known in my raj, and there were many who blessed it.

The two men ruminate on the meaning of life and death, and Chandra connects them as he connects all the big themes of the subcontinent – the animosity towards Muslims, towards other castes and the outsider and the immigrant, the poverty, the prostitution and mainly, the criminal elite who control their fiefdoms from outside the country.

Far too many authors today sacrifice an honest description of prejudice on the altar of political correctness. It is to Chandra’s credit that he gives his characters free reign to make remarks about caste or religion that will illuminate their beliefs, hate or prejudice. Bipin Bhosle, the radical Rakshak politician says of Muslims, “We’re going to show these landya bastards. The order came from the very top top. Show these maderchods, so we’re showing them.” Later, Sartaj’s assistant Kamble, a Dalit had things to say about OBCs and Marathas and Brahmins.

“I am learning, Sardar-ji, I am learning from people like Parulkar only… Parulkar Saab is my guru, even if he does not know it. I am like Eklavya, except that I am going to keep my thumb and my lauda and every other maderchod thing.”

Perhaps the greatest impact Chandra has is not only in humanizing the criminal, but also in depicting how the law enforcer is equally criminal under the skin. Commissioner Parulkar has climbed his way to the top on the backs of several corpses, making shady deals with opposing gangs, betraying friends, defecting from camp to camp due to political expediency. Police inspectors not only bleed the citizenry dry, same as the bhais, but brutal execution of prisoners in “encounters” is all in a day’s work. The saving grace of the police force is apparently the do-gooder cop’s soul – sadly, too deeply buried for most, except in rare individuals like Katekar and Sartaj.

The money was welcome, of course, but there was also the desire to serve the public. Yes, really, Sadrakshanaay Khalnigrahaniya. Katekar knew he could never confess this urge to Vishnu, because fancy talk of protecting the good and destroying evil would elicit only laughter. Even among colleagues, this was never to be spoken about. But it was there, however buried it may be under grimy layers of cynicism.

However, in the end, the entire stratum of law-enforcers is steeped in corruption, and complicit in violence and illegal raking of money.

Mumbai in all its sprawling, seedy glory is at the center of Chandra’s novel. It nurtures and nourishes its many economic immigrants, and individuals live crowded uneasily together distrusting the stranger, despising the immigrant and constantly aware of caste and social standing. On a yacht in Thai waters, Gaitonde muses,

Their bodies missed Bombay. I know because after an year away from Mumbai I still got attacks of yearning, I craved the spittle-strewn streets of that great whore of a city, while waking up I felt that pungent prickling of exhaust and burning rubbish at the back of my nostrils… when you are far away from the jammed jumble of cars, and the thicket of slums, and the long loops of rail, and the swarms of people, and the radio music in the bazaars, you could ache for the city.

Bollywood plays a huge role in this book. From the aspiring actress, Zoya Mirza’s rise through body altering plastic surgery to Gaitonde’s boys discussing what a Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and a Kishore Kumar ditty stands for, to the Indian penchant of humming a tune for every situation. The connection with the film industry is not imaginary. Chandra co-authored his brother-in-law Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir with Suketu Mehta. Chandra’s mother, Kamna Chandra scripted a number of Hindi films and his sister Tanuja Chandra is a director and screenwriter. Another sister, Anupama Chopra (who is married to Vidhu Vinod) is an authoritative film critic for India Today, and author of Sholay: The Making of a Classic, arguably the best movie book published out of India.

Vikram Chandra’s first novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. His collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Eurasia Region and was a New York Times Notable Book. But one cannot help admiring the author whose audaciousness is matched with charm, as he makes Gaitonde say,

Writers are pathetically susceptible to praise. I have worked with gangsters and holy men, and let me tell you, none of these can compare with a writer for mountainous inflations of ego and mouse-like insecurities of the soul.

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12 Responses to “Sacred Games”

  1. Anocturne! What a splendid, splendid, review! You really make me want to read this book, all 928 pages of it, but realistically speaking, with Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City” and “Shantaram” on my plate, I don’t know if I could do this book any justice. I wonder if the audio version is out yet, I would be tempted to buy it. Will look into it.

    Again, thanks for a marvellous review!

  2. Thanks, Lotus. here’s a bit of gossip I unearthed. Suketu Mehta and Chandra have some bad blood between them. Both of them collaborated on the script of Mission Kashmir, and then Mehta is supposed to have said uncomplimentary things about Vidhu Vinod in his Maximum City, and the Chandras are none too pleased about it, as you can imagine.

    Both Maximum City and Shantaram are about Bombay too… such amazing people, the Mumbaikars. Am a fan, and the fandom seems to be justified every single day. [Heads up Extempore, Nishant, Parth, Niranjan]

  3. Besides this being a fantastic review, as usual, I think the movie Sarkar by Ram Gopal Verma was based on this book.

  4. you know, Star face, i kept wishing Ramgopal Verma would rip this script and make it into a movie to end all Bombay underworld movies. it has so many shades of Satya and Vaastav and all that. I haven’t watched Sarkar yet, but will keep an eye out. Thanks for the pointer.

  5. It’s a powerful movie. With Amitabh and Abhishek playing father and son. It’s powerful. That’s the only word that comes to mind when I think of it.

  6. Nice review! Even Maximum City has oodles on the cop vs underworld topic, and profiles a no-nonsense cop – a real life figure but name changed. Interesting tidbit- that these two authors worked together on Mission Kashmir.

  7. Hi Niranjan, hope that new year rolled in brightly! yes, i heard Max City features Commissioner Rakesh Marias. Am quite looking forward to Lotus’ review.

  8. The “Sacred Games” is getting a lot of coverage this week in the NYT. You might want to take a look. Ahhhh, who knows when I will get to “Maximum City”….did I tell you I met the author, Suketu Mehta, recently? Apparently, he’s got a book about New York City in the works at the moment.

  9. @Sitara: baap re, i finished watching Sarkar, and i’ve got issues with it, man.

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