Seven years in the making, Sacred Games is an epic of exceptional richness and power. Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh--and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.
Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But "the silky Sikh" is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he's determined that he'll be the one to collect the prize.
Mumbai in all its seedy glory is at the center of Vikram Chandra's episodic novel, which follows the fortunes of two opposing characters: the jaded Sikh policeman, Sartaj Singh, who first appeared in the story "Kama," and Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous Hindu Bhai who "dallied with bejewelled starlets, bankrolled politicians" and whose "daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes." Sartaj, still handsome and impeccably turned out, is now divorced, weary and resigned to his post, complicit in the bribes and police brutality that oil the workings of his city. Sartaj is ambivalent about his choices, but Gaitone is hungry for position and wealth from the moment he commits his first murder as a young man. A confrontation between the two men opens the novel, with Gaitonde taunting Sartaj from inside the protection of his strange shell-like bunker. Gaitonde is the more riveting character, and his first-person narrative voice lulls the reader with his intuitive understanding of human nature and the 1,001 tales of his rise to power, as he collects men, money and fame; creates and falls in love with a movie star; infiltrates Bollywood; works for Indian intelligence; matches wits with his Muslim rival, Suleiman Isa; and searches for fulfillment with the wily Guru Shridhar Shukla. Sartaj traces Gaitonde's movements and motivations, while taking on cases of murder, blackmail and neighborhood quarrels. 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 of caste and religion, the poverty, the prostitution and mainly, the criminal elite, who organize themselves on the model of corporations and control their fiefdoms from outside the country. Chandra, who's won prizes and praise for his two previous books, Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay, spent seven years writing this 900-page epic of organized crime and the corruption that spins out from Mumbai into the world of international counterfeiting and terrorism, and it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ("You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran," Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive. (Jan.)
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January 09, 2007
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Excerpt from Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter's scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam, bounced off the bonnet of a Cielo, and skidded to a halt near the rank of schoolgirls waiting for the St Mary's Convent bus. There was remarkably little blood, but the sight of Fluffy's brains did send the conventeers into hysterics, and meanwhile, above, the man who had swung Fluffy around his head by one leg, who had slung Fluffy into the void, one Mr Mahesh Pandey of Mirage Textiles, that man was leaning on his windowsill and laughing. Mrs Kamala Pandey, who in talking to Fluffy always spoke of herself as 'Mummy', now staggered and ran to her kitchen and plucked from the magnetic holder a knife nine inches long and two wide. When Sartaj and Katekar broke open the door to apartment 502, Mrs Pandey was standing in front of the bedroom door, looking intensely at a dense circle of two-inch-long wounds in the wood, about chest-high. As Sartaj watched, she sighed, raised her hand and stabbed the door again. She had to struggle with both hands on the handle to get the knife out.
'Mrs Pandey,' Sartaj said.
She turned to them, the knife still in a double-handed grip, held high. She had a pale, tear-stained face and tiny bare feet under her white nightie.