Vikram Chandra, I read, was offered a million dollars by publishers for his 2008 book Sacred Games, his second novel. Every writer’s dream I suppose: now bring on the movie contract! The novel was anticipated to become a million seller, but it didn’t happen. On looking at what other people have written about the book I see that it was promoted as an addictive detective thriller, but that readers were off put both by the book’s size of 900 pages and by the complex narrative style.
I didn’t read any reviews before picking up the book. I was looking for something like A Suitable Boy, and this seemed like it. The setting in Bombay, and the depiction of its underworld, seemed an added attraction. After reading the book twice, my impression of it was, firstly, that Vikram Chandra is a great stylist whose English prose is a real pleasure to read, his book hard to put down. And secondly, that he excels in the creation of character, a skill not many 20th and 21st century authors seem to worry about any more. And thirdly, that Sacred Games is as far away from a detective thriller as you could get. James Ellroy fans will find familiar situations used for different purposes if they pick up the book.
I’m going to use the objections some readers made to the book to try to define what it actually is. Obviously, if you pick up a book expecting one thing, and find another, you’re going to be disappointed. Firstly, the length. The book comes from a culture that produced Valmiki and Vyasa. Valmiki was the fourth century BC gang leader who became a sage and wrote the Ramayana, and Vyasa produced the 200,000 verses of the Mahabharata. If Sacred Games is at all Indian, it is going to be long, complex, and have something to do with religion. Far from being too long, I found that the story of several characters had not been completed in the book, and I wanted to read more to discover more about them. So my reaction was, not long enough! I know it’s tough for the Facebook generation who lose interest after the second sentence. But the book is only about as long as most novels by Charles Dickens. Maybe the “too heavy” plaint could be erased by limbering up with the works of Dickens. Books like War and Peace, A Suitable Boy and Genji Monogatori are longer. The publisher, Harpers, has done a beautiful job on the book: designed by a typographer who knows his business, printed on acid free paper, bound by traditional methods, this is a fine product of American book publishing. And those with weak wrists can buy the ebook version, which is just as fine (though that does depend to a certain extent on your reader). I read the book a second time as an ebook.
Sacred Games is set in Bombay, or Mumbai, a city described by someone as the world’s biggest slum. It has 20 million people, and one percent of these are among the richest people in the world. The other 99% are struggling. People there are bound together in groups by fascination with technology, and by film, two interests that are common to groups in most other big cities in the world. In Bombay there is also caste, and religion, that help to form people into groups, and these are very Indian social factors. Groups, as elsewhere, have their own language, or slang, patois, argot. In Sacred Games many groups of characters speak Hindi argot or slang, and to avoid giving the book an appearance of being a scholarly work Chandra leaves the words untranslated. Also untranslated are the many song titles and verses from film music. But this is how it is. In the world Chandra is describing, film songs are a common language, and slang a factor binding groups together. Given the subject, the Hindi words are unavoidable. Chandra is confident the readers will unscramble it all. And they can. But to a non Hindi speaker it is unfamiliar. And readers object to that unfamiliarity.
Take aaiyejhavnaya, aaiyejhavnayi, masculine and feminine (I presume) for motherfucker. Chandra provides a glossary, and readers can look up unfamiliar words, but stop a minute. When you see the word motherfucker in a crime novel should you need to look that up too? Does it mean that the person called a motherfucker actually fucks his (or her) mother? Is mother/son (or daughter) incest really a social problem in inner city slums that the author is calling attention to? Probably not. My guess is that the word is used as an insult. When used towards a person who is present it shows contempt, and not too hidden aggression; when of a person not present, a belief they would do almost anything (a “mean motherfucker”). So when you see motherfucker you understand that aggression and contempt are being expressed. In Chandra’s book the context makes it plain that aaiyejhavnaya or aaiyejhavnayi are being used the same way.
Other words in Chandra’s glossary are acronyms, words for common foods, words for family relationships. Most of these I grasped from context, and didn’t need to look up. Bhai meaning brother, member of the family or underworld company, was pretty obvious from context. I didn’t consult the glossary till I was finished reading the book and came to no harm. When it came to the songs though I didn’t even try. I didn’t know them, and their relevance or not was something I could form no opinion on. But I accepted that characters would in fact converse by singing well known songs to one another. They do. Those silly Bollywood songs are actually known by heart by vast masses of the population, and people do compete with each other in veneration of particular film stars. It is part of the world Chandra is describing.
When I read A Suitable Boy I was charmed and fascinated by the depiction of different cultural groups and languages. India has 12 major languages, and another 12 not so widely spoken. I enjoyed the exoticism of reading about festivals of Hinduism and Islam and differing religious customs and ceremonies. Sacred Games has the same exoticism. It’s a different world, in some ways more familiar than Seth’s but just as exotic. And the great triumph of both books is that both authors can make these different ways and customs so understandable. Both authors bridge gaps that often keep us apart. When it comes to Hindi words, I think the reader should just follow their sense of what the scene is about, and they will get an approximation of what the words mean. That’s better than looking for an exact translation.
Sacred Games (what could that title mean?) is the story of a Mumbai police inspector, a Sikh called Sartaj Singh, son of a famous policeman. We see him on the job with his constable Katekar, and later with another policeman, Kamble, and with his supervisor Parulkar, a deputy Commissioner. We learn about his failed marriage, and his involvement with another woman, Mary Mascarenas. We meet his mother, Prabhjot Kaur, and discover how her life has unfolded. This is done by a device Chandra calls an inset, a passage usually set in the past which interrupts the main narrative flow and gives it added perspective and depth. If this was a film it would be called a flashback. These insets or flashbacks seem to worry some readers used to following the King of Hearts’ advice to Alice, “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Hey, it’s just a flashback.
As it turns out, the story of Prabhjot (or Nikki, a reference to her small size) and her two sisters and two brothers is the story of Partition. In 1947 Muslims in India moved to Pakistan, and Hindus in Pakistan to India. As many as 20 million people moved, in great disorganisation, and with a suspected one million fatalities, as groups were often robbed and killed during the confusion. Instead of two opposing religious factions, what emerged were two nuclear armed nations in fierce competition with each other, and much of the rest of Chandra’s novel deals with this development. Prabhjot lost her beloved eldest sister Navneet when her family moved, kidnapped when the family car was ambushed. Chandra succeeds beautifully in depicting the world from the viewpoint of a young teenage girl, exploring what such a loss under such circumstances at such a vulnerable age might mean. Later, towards the end of the book, he adopts the same viewpoint to explain what happened to Navneet, who became a Muslim and was called Daddi by all, and never found her own family again. Her family also was partitioned. With superb economy Chandra strengthens our awareness of Sartaj’s family environment while illuminating future political developments that affected all of India and the world, and with which Sartaj must cope to do his job.
I read this particular inset with tears in my eyes. When I was seven years old my family moved from our home and in the process broke apart. I never saw some of my family ever again. I felt Chandra had depicted with great fidelity a child’s point of view of this traumatic experience.
Another major character in Chandra’s novel is a gangster called Ganesh Gaitonde, a peasant who runs away from his family when a child, joins with thieves, murders one of his gang and steals some gold and from there works his way by extortion and murder to be leader of one of the two or three main Bombay gangs, or companies. He ends up in competition with another company run by Suleiman Isa, a Muslim. Gaitonde is meant to stand for the common man I would imagine, who has no choice but to be exploited till he starves to death, or, if he’s violent enough, to kill and steal his way to prosperity. In a society where corruption is universal, this is often the only way to success.
Gaitonde has a number of company members and bodyguards, such as one called Bundy, who are devoted to him. He is a don as they were once in Sicily, looking after and caring for his dependants and righting wrongs inside the lives of his gang members. Gaitonde has a good friend called Jojo, Juliet Mascarenas, Mary’s sister, who works as a talent scout and procuress. He also gets involved with Bollywood, and writes and directs, or tries to, a film starring one of his mistresses, Zoya Mirza. Both patronise a Chinese plastic surgeon who transforms them. Indeed the sections of Chandra’s book about Gaitonde involve transformation to a great degree, the need to change or alter things, often for mere survival. Another contact of Gaitonde is KD Yadav, an Intelligence officer who creates an espionage ring mainly directed at Pakistan, and whom is succeeded by an officer called Kulkarni. So Gaitonde joins the Great Game. He is also recruited by Bipin Bhonsle, a Hindu fundamentalist and politician. Slowly he becomes a Hindu don, when he started as an agnostic employing men from all religions. Gaitonde is also involved with Shridhar Shukla, a world famous spiritual leader who becomes his Guru-ji. Shukla is attempting to start a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, to clean the world and enable it to start afresh.
It’s the fear of nuclear war that drives Gaitonde over the edge into paranoia and madness. He is slowly being devoured by delusions of grandeur from his success, not only as a criminal but as a player in the political game and as an undercover agent for the Intelligence service. Gaitonde as a company boss is quite believable. But as a figure of national importance with links to the government, National Security services, and Bollywood and a world famous guru he became a bit hard for me to accept. At times in his story I felt I had switched novels and was reading one by Salman Rushdie, an author whose style I really dislike. Generally speaking, I thought Chandra’s Bollywood and Fundamentalist worlds and the nuclear threat don’t work as well as his other worlds, of Intelligence and espionage or depiction of the Bombay slums and the incursions in them of policemen, of ashrams and gurus and of political corruption.
I can see where the crime novel designation came in. A criminal mastermind with delusions of grandeur tries to start a nuclear war and is defeated by a determined and courageous policeman and truth and justice prevail. Well, that’s not this book. It seems like it, but that bit of the plot of good versus evil is over right at the start of the 900 pages. The evil Gaitonde is defeated, destroyed by his own hand, in chapter two. The rest examines the story of all the many individuals and groups who have had anything to do with Sartaj and Gaitonde.
Chandra is an author who creates characters. Every minor character in his book is fully detailed, and, even when the details aren’t given, I feel sure Chandra knows his or her life history, who their friends were, what their strong and weak points are and the kind of foods they eat. This extends to personal networks. Chandra knows a lot about networks. India is a great teacher. I was reminded of a book I read at College, Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution, which attempted to trace the bonds of family relationships and patronage that linked aristocratic Roman families in the first century BC and which affected the operation of Roman politics and the birth of the Empire. Chandra similarly charts how seemingly disconnected actions and people interact with each other to form the ‘plot’ of the book. His characters go on with their lives, one imagines, long after you have finished reading the book.
There’s the story of Kamala Pandey, whose case opens the book as Sartaj investigates it. We learn about her complicated relationship with her husband, her boyfriend who is not whom he seems, the prevalence of bribery and routine violence in the Bombay police force. Mrs Pandey is not just a plot device. She is a fully developed character, who learns from her mistakes, and who teaches Sartaj something about life. Mrs Pandey is that rare creature, a fully realised minor character.
There’s Aadil Ansari, an exceptionally intelligent peasant’s son who battles against extreme poverty and prejudice, a story told in one of the novel’s insets. He almost gains a PhD, is driven back into obscurity by poverty, takes to political terrorism and ends up as a gangster of sorts in Bombay, where he is driven to take the life of Katekar, Sartaj’s sidekick. As a result, Mohit, one of Katekar’s young sons, begins to hate Sartaj, thinking him responsible for his father’s death, and who takes to a life of crime which could well see him end the same way as Ansari, shot by policemen. Here it is the pattern that Chandra is interested in, and Ansari is not as fully realised a character as many others.
There is Anjali Mathur, a government Intelligence agent who employs Sartaj to investigate further what Gaitonde and his Guru-ji were up to. Another fascinating minor character, she is presented as a way of thought, which seeks to find linking connections between superficially unrelated events that may indicate a pattern, and hence a purpose which might be hostile. Yet her upbringing, her family, her training are given full treatment by Chandra, and she is quite a vibrant character. Her story is unfinished, and is one of the ones I would like to know more about. Her mentor, KD Yadav, is also a fascinating figure. One suspects there is a symbolical significance in these figure that is not fully bought out in this story, but which might surface in another, unwritten, one. Parallels to other Intelligence services are obvious, such as the co-operation between CIA and Mafia against so-called communist groups.
Shuklu the Guru is another character whose story is left unfinished. There is much to be said for examining politicised spirituality, especially in India. Guru-ji gives lectures which are very persuasive, but which preach destruction. Again and again we fall into the trap: we use words; words are just symbols. We can attach and detach any meaning we like to them. Shuklu has been crippled, we learn, while still a young man, in a motorcycle accident. Could this be a figure of revenge? We don’t learn any more about him. Another character awaiting his own novel.
And there is Daddi, Navneet, whom we meet at the end of the novel only to see her die, her story untold. Yet another unwritten novel, though we don’t really see Daddi, who by the time we meet her is senile and exists in snatches, glimpses of the past which animate her unexpectedly.
It is tempting to look beyond this rich collection of vibrant, believable characters for what patterns might emerge in the novel’s structure. The prevalence of corruption which joins government to organised crime and forces honest men into dishonesty. The straight jacket of caste that keeps men of ability where their talents are wasted. The danger of righteous indignation fuelled by religious intolerance when negotiating with nuclear weapons. Overall, the book celebrates diversity, even when it declines into chaos, over ordered, disciplined, planned and often misguided control of others.
It seems easy also to restrict these observations to India. Not, of course, to Bombay alone, but the whole country. But doesn’t India have the same problems that the United States of America, France, or Britain, or Iraq, have? Don’t all modern states have to deal with the fact that political survival calls for perpetuation of the status quo, no matter how unstable that situation may become? Could there be an allegory about political mankind hidden in these 900 pages? Let’s see what a third reading reveals.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.