[A slightly different version of this review of Vikram Chandra's novel Sacred Games appears today in the Scotsman.]
THE CITY OF BOMBAY (or Mumbai, as it is now called, and even there lies a story) is a case study both in dysfunctionality and the power of the human will. Almost everything about it is made to break the spirit, and yet it pulses alarmingly with life. Its 15 million citizens know it well - indeed, they are never allowed to forget it - as both dreamland and shanty town, a hustler pushing them ever closer and hurrying them on ever quicker, and a theatre of stirring scenes and nightmare grotesquerie. Like all great cities it has a distinctive social and moral temper, mores that bewilder the uninitiated, air smoggy as if with milling human hopes, a colourful bastardised tongue, and a secret order behind the chaos. Nothing is as it appears at first glance, and this is one reason it is so attractive to writers.
"If you want to live in this city you have to think ahead three turns, and look behind a lie to see the truth, and then behind that truth to see the lie," declares a character in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. Chandra's novel itself might be thought of as an attempt, through the entirely appropriate genre of the cops-and-robbers tale, to explore what it means to survive and succeed in India's great metropolis, and to unravel its elaborate network of truths and lies.
Sacred Games is set in the Bombay of the 1990s, when the city's underworld and police played out intricate games of war and peace. It throws together the stories of the notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, one of the city's self-appointed potentates, and the dashing police inspector Sartaj Singh, who, although he works in a police force full of preening egos and greedy dreams, thinks of himself as only a small player. Some readers will remember Sartaj from Chandra's 1997 book Love and Longing in Bombay; he appears there in "Kama", a story in which his collapsing inner life as he faces a divorce is revealed with astonishing richness. The Sartaj who appears here is older and more weary, his self-image shrunken, and his language coarser, as if from the snuffing out of his family life.
Chandra is very curious, and very thorough. In its documentary impulse - its continuous mapping of links and connections, and its curiosity about the methods and motivations of people inhabiting a liminal world - Sacred Games is reminiscent of a recent work of non-fiction about Bombay, Suketu Mehta's wide-ranging and widely praised Maximum City. (Indeed, Chandra appears in one scene in Mehta's book as "my friend Vikram, who is writing a novel about the underworld".) For instance, both books have a long description of the code words Bombay gangsters use, rich with metaphorical associations, for guns, cash and women. But in Sacred Games the journalistic is a pathway to the novelistic. The book's wealth of real-world detail is always refracted through the consciousness of the two protagonists, Gaitonde and Sartaj.
The Gaitonde sections are the brightest flares in this book: there is a continuous hum in the air of these long passages. Gaitonde's story can in fact be read as a classic Bildungsroman, the story of an individual's development and his gradual integration into society. He recounts how, as an alienated youth, he began as hired help to a small-time gangster, bumped him off and stole his gold, set out in business himself, full of doubts and fears, and moved upwards step by step, knocking each new obstacle out of his way, noting and learning all the time. "I felt my force extending across Bombay like electricity," he exults, "because of me women and men were talking, running moving in patterns I had set in motion, I had thrown the net of my self wide."
Gaitonde's account records, as powerfully as anything in contemporary fiction, the excited surge of the self, its growing awareness of its power and strength, the heat given off by its clenched resolve and adversarial hunger. When he is caught and jailed, Chandra is inspired to provide a magnificent account of life in prison and its memories of lost freedom.
And juxtaposed against Gaitonde's swelling self is a crumbling self: the figure of Sartaj, in physical decline, lonely, weary of his burdens, and rueful as he contemplates the past. Gaitonde thrills at the prospect of power: "The truth is that 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." For Sartaj, all things spill out of control: "Every action flew down the tangled web of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again. There was no escaping the reactions to your actions, and no respite from the responsibility."
"I am quite useless, Sartaj thought, and felt very bleak." That is the characteristic register of Chandra's precisely tuned English (in his sentences the word "and" always does a great deal of work, serving often to build, not merely to connect). But that register, the narrator's register, is supplemented in Sacred Games by the more novel sound of languages casually mixing, which is supplied by the protagonists and is often revelatory of character. "Under the grey sky they walked up and down, counting, and while this ginti was going, I discussed my plan with my two controllers." Readers tired of the familiar cusses of gangster-speak will also be relieved to find that, here, Chandra has chosen instead to deploy Hindi's sonorous roster of swear words. Some sections of this novel - especially the "Insets" that fan out into the lives of secondary characters, as if in search of an even greater amplitude - can be heavy going, and some plot turns are not entirely persuasive. But the book is rooted in something unmistakably powerful.
At one point Gaitonde watches a gangster movie by one of India's top directors and declares, "It was true, just like life" (notice that he does not simply say that it was true to life). Sacred Games might be said through its great labours to have earned just that very compliment.
And here is Chandra's long essay in the Boston Review early in 2000, "The Cult of Authenticity", which touches on several important issues relating to Indian writing in English. Chandra talks about the writing of Sacred Games in a good long interview with Jai Arjun Singh here.