Vikram Chandra's scintillating portrait of modern-day India
Nine hundred pages? What was Vikram Chandra thinking? Quite a lot it turns out, as readers of Chandra's exhilaratingly ambitious and entertaining novel, Sacred Games, will soon discover.
Set mostly in contemporary Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), where Chandra and his wife, novelist Melanie Abrams, spend half the year, Sacred Games is, on the surface, a police procedural novel. In alternating chapters the lives of Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police inspector, and Ganesh Gaitonde, a Hindu crime lord, converge and diverge as a story of international criminal intrigue unfolds. But, as any suspecting reader would surely conclude after hefting its door-stopper bulk, Sacred Games is about much more than its attractively polished surfaces.
"When I started, I thought I was writing a pretty conventional 250-page crime something or other. You know, the type of thing that starts with a dead body on the first page and then at the most 300 pages later ends up with everything figured out and fixed," Chandra says during a call to his home in Berkeley, California. Chandra and Abrams have been teaching in UC Berkeley's creative writing program since leaving Washington, D.C., about a year ago, which is also roughly the length of time the couple has been married.
Soon after beginning the novel eight years ago, however, Chandra's research among Indian policemen, crime reporters and even Indian gangsters and mob bosses led him to conclude that what seemed like a local crime "had all these connections to politics and religion and the ongoing struggles between nation-states in the region. I got this sense of this huge web of events, people, organizations and forces at work that were affecting people's lives and linking them together. Then the structure of the book became more and more clear to me, and it started to grow in size and thematic concerns. At some point I realized, damn, this is going to be big."
Big it is. And rollicking and provocative and frightening and moving . . . and more. Chandra, who says British Victorian novelists are among his favorite writers, displays a Dickensian verve for character and event, with a decidedly Indian twist, of course. The small bribes and favors that come Inspector Singh's way, for example, induce no cynicism and hold no real corrupting power over the redoubtable policeman and are often the hinges for small, comic turns in the plot. And the murderous Ganesh Gaitonde runs one of the biggest crime cartels in the country and at the same time tries to both produce popular movies and pursue a serious, if deluded, religious quest as a follower of the elusive Swami Shridhar Shukla.
This yoking of seeming opposites within a single person creates an often-unexpected empathy for the novel's characters that Chandra says is one of his main goals here. "It became very important to me that Ganesh Gaitonde, for instance, be somebody that the reader really engages with, that if you don't feel, and in some sense participate, in his desire, then the book didn't work. So when the book was finished, Melanie was the first to read it. After she'd been reading it for a couple of days, she marched out of her study and told me she hated how much I made her like this guy. That was a very happy moment."
Still, Sacred Games seethes with the racial and ethnic conflicts that have repeatedly brought death and destruction in India and throughout the subcontinent over the past half century. "I wanted very much to treat those events," Chandra says, "because . . . things that happened 50 years ago in a sense wrote divisions physically into the geography of the region, but also into people's bodies and minds. Those events continue to have very clear impacts on our lives today. And I wanted to get at least the feeling of that and not shy away from its ugliness. The propensity for violence that coexists with all those other feelings was something I wanted to deal with."
If the terrifying brutality of the violence in some sections of Sacred Games is not exactly redeemed, it is a least sensibly situated within Chandra's vivid portrait of the clash and jangle and excitement of modern-day Mumbai - and India, in general - and within the flavorful hybrid of English he uses to tell his tale. Chandra, who reads Hindi and some Punjabi and understands several other regional languages, purposefully spices his tale with linguistic borrowings.
"Bombay is full of immigrants," Chandra explains. "The language that people actually use on the street tends to be sprinkled with all these words from different regions. If I was sitting in a bar in Bombay telling these stories to my friends, I would use an English that has all of these words from other tongues in it. It is so much a part of the texture of life in India now and of Bombay in particular that I just wanted to get that on paper as fluidly as I could."
Not surprisingly, that hybrid language reflects the technological powerhouse that India is becoming. It also reflects an unexpected part of Chandra's own personality. While studying fiction writing in graduate school in Houston, he earned a living as a computer programmer. He thinks computer programming and fiction writing are not so very different, since both require "constructing a sort of self-contained world in which various components must interact with each other." In conversation Chandra refers to himself as "a computer geek" and admits that his writing studio is filled with gear and gadgets, screens and speakers, whereas Abrams' studio next door is "a much calmer place."
By Chandra's account, he and Abrams have an unusually close working relationship, exchanging ideas, working through plot problems, acting as sounding boards for each other. So when, after eight years of writing 400 words a day, six days a week, Chandra completed a considerably longer version of Sacred Games, he and Abrams spent several months together editing down the manuscript. Now, Chandra says, "In my mind, at least, it is as short as it could possibly be."
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland.