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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Fear and loathing in Bombay: Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games"

Hold on to your horses people: This is it. The Big One, The Big Book, call it what you will.......Vikram Chandra, hidden for seven years from the public eye, has come up with his magnum opus.For Sacred Games is every bit the Great Indian Novel. When you have stopped gasping over the much-hyped but strangely bland Bombay of "Shantaram", come see the real McCoy through the eyes and ears of Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde, two amazing and unforgettable characters who are at the helm of this sprawling, wildly ambitious novel packaged as a cops-and-robbers romp.

From the hilariously grotesque opening sequence through the length of its 900 pages, Chandra guides us with the assurance and sweeping style of a master.In Sartaj Singh, he has created one of the most complex and intriguing characters I have seen.As the weather-beaten, been-there-seen that, yet often strangely empathetic cop, he captures the imagination(and attention) instantly. And what do you say about Ganesh Gaitonde? As the rags-to-riches underworld Don, who chops limbs with a sword , and then quietly goes to sleep after "having a little sabudana khichdi" ; as the terrible acts of brutality are mixed with strange spiritual leanings, he will shock you, enthrall you and display above all, his frightening humanity.Through Sartaj Singh's pursuit of Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India, and his subsequent trail on Gaitonde's life and exploits, an unforgettable portrait of Bombay unfolds.....

The book is structured as a (SPOILER ALERT) howdunit in parts, the main narrative interspersed with portions titled "Inset" which showcase the oblique connections of cause and effect, and the consequences of some of the main characters' actions. It also gives us a background into Sartaj's family where Chandra masterfully captures the horrors of Partition. In a pretty candid interview, Chandra admitted that he would lose a few readers because of the "Inset" portions, but he chose to go ahead with them anyway. I think I know why- the inset portions added depth to the main narrative and were a fitting metaphor to the infinite threads of action and consequence in our lives, most of which pass us by.The end result is a delightfully polyphonic achievement.

There are some darkly funny vignettes along the way: An air-hostess being blackmailed about her adultery, a film-critic punished for blasting Ganesh Gaitonde's film, Sartaj conducting "raids" on a bar whose owner is a regular contributor to the "police fund". One of the many remarkable achievements of this novel is that it is just as sympathetic to Gaitonde as it is to Sartaj, we are almost led to believe that they both are but two sides of the same, sprawling melting-pot of a city.This is further accentuated by the somewhat gaudy cover of the book, which has the faces of Sartaj and Gaitonde sharing an eye.

Vikram Chandra has set the bar very high indeed for the Indian novel.It can be favourably compared to the atmospheric works of Don DeLillo or , to hark back to Victorian times, Dickens. Go grab your copy: beg , borrow or steal your 900 pages of fun! It will be well worth your effort and time.

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