Inspector takes on the Violent India Underworld
Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games" is 900 pages long. But he wastes absolutely no time in setting the pace. The book begins with the passage, "A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna." Fluffy's untimely demise is a harbinger of much of what the next 899 pages have to offer: the surrealism of life in Mumbai; an explosive cocktail of power, money and violence; and how a man's best friend today might suddenly end up being stabbed in the back (or tossed out of the window) tomorrow.
Sartaj Singh, a middle-aged, stuck-in-his-career inspector, comes to investigate the domestic dispute that led to Fluffy's free fall. But he is soon embroiled in a far bigger story with a reach involving the infernal affairs of Mumbai's powerful underworld and its rival gangs. The book is about the rise of the underworld, and how it sweeps up politicians, godmen, movie stars, police chiefs and even weapons of mass destruction.
"Sacred Games" pits Singh against an underworld don named Ganesh Gaitonde. Gaitonde pops up in a seemingly impregnable white cube in the heart of Mumbai and Singh goes to nab him. By the time the bulldozers break in, though, Gaitonde has killed himself. From that point, the plot shoots off in opposite directions. The dead Gaitonde goes back in time, telling his story of his makeover from a 19-year-old petty hoodlum to kingpin. Meanwhile, Singh races against time as he tries to ferret out why Gaitonde was holed up in what could be a nuclear fallout shelter.
Make no mistake, "Sacred Games" is a thriller. It has shootouts, sexy sirens, cops and robbers, double-crossers and hardboiled gutter-pungent lingo. It's not for the squeamish. The violence is bone-crunching. "I had the sword up again, and with the second stroke I separated his arm away from his body. The boy holding his right wrist fell backwards, and there was an immediate thick jet of black blood into the jiggling light."
But "Sacred Games" is also a cocky experiment with the conventions of a thriller, breaking every rule a film director tells Gaitonde is needed for a successful formula film. Chandra adds long insets that break up the narrative to go into the backstories of peripheral characters, including Singh's mother, who fled to India from Pakistan during the 1947 Partition of the Subcontinent, a scar that still flares up angrily in contemporary politics. Unlike a whodunit, Chandra's plot is hydra-headed, dealing with issues of religious nationalism and the growing communalisation of politics, as well as the lives and fantasies of the millions who come into cities such as Mumbai seeking a shot at fame, fortune or at least "a television set and a gas range and a pressure cooker."
It does all this without explaining itself. Many Indian writers have found acclaim in the West, but they have been accused of playing tour guides to exotic cultures. The white man's gaze has become the brown writer's burden as novelists try to explain themselves in a way the West can digest -- and market.
"Sacred Games" is sweaty, bloody and unapologetically melodramatic. It's raucous -- its glossary a puny defense against its juggernaut of slang-driven Mumbai-speak. It's comic -- Gaitonde, when he is not offing his rivals, counsels his "boys" on marriage and social obligations. It even has, like many Hindi movies, a wise and loving mother -- "a good mother makes (a character) good, even if he's bad." But then, in a ruthless twist no Bollywood producer would countenance, Chandra unexpectedly kills off vital characters less than halfway through the book.
A novel this sprawling will falter somewhere or other. Some readers might find the insets distracting. When Gaitonde becomes a big don and leaves Mumbai to live on a yacht, the tension drains away and he turns into a CEO of crime, mastering computers on his yacht, watching over his empire like a stockbroker watching the market and working on penis-expanding exercises. It is as if taking him out of Mumbai leaches him of blood.
In the end, the book is about this city, the dream factory of India, which remakes everyone and where no one is what he seems. Singh, an honourable police officer, takes bribes but tries not to be too greedy.
Parulkar, his crusading boss, strikes deals with gangsters. Gaitonde is a ruthless killer who also thinks of himself as a patriot at heart, the "Hindu don." Six-foot-tall Bollywood queen Zoya Mirza is actually 5 feet 10 1/2. In those few inches that separate the myth from the reality, Chandra gives a startling, blood-pumping fallible humanity to his characters.
Ultimately, we sympathise with them all, hero or villain, because none of them is innocent. Except, perhaps, poor Fluffy.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007