you can find my review of Vikram Chandra’s remarkable new novel, SACRED GAMES – a book already previewed in earlier entries on this blog.
By its very length and weight, not to mention its well-publicised USD 1 m publishers’ advance, Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra’s third work of fiction, seemed even before its release well on course to contend for the title of the Great Indian Novel. Its author has already been definitively established as a major practitioner of Indian Writing in English by his two previous books, the epic magic-realist novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) and the short-story collection Love and Longing in Bombay (1997). Now, Chandra affirms his credentials as Indian novelist with his longest and most ambitious work so far, a book whose Indianness is placed beyond all doubt by a number of factors: its location in Mumbai/Bombay (the two toponyms are used interchangeably), albeit fanning out to elsewhere in India (the Punjab, Bihar) and to Thailand, Singapore and Germany; its intensive concentration on eminently Indian institutions and counter-institutions, above all the police and the underworld; and its highly specific deployment of an Indian English which, while fully comprehensible to the international reader, is in many ways as Indian as it is English. Here it may be added that this novel’s Hindi and Marathi translations are already on the way.
In its length and complexity, Sacred Games might be compared as aspirant Great Indian Novel to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Certainly, it seems based on the assumption that fiction can bring out the latent interrelations in society, that all is linked to all – the world and India are an ‘enormous network of connections’ (550), ‘a tangled net of links’ (740). However, the canvas is narrower than in Seth’s novel, with one city at the tale’s heart and the narrative concentrated mainly on the law-enforcement machinery and the mafia apparatus that doubles it. The two central characters are policeman and gangster: Sartaj Singh, the police inspector of Punjabi Sikh extraction already familiar to Chandra’s readers from one of the Love and Longing stories; and his opposite number Ganesh Gaitonde, the feared mafia don. The narrative register may be described as classical realist, allowing for one key exception that is structural in nature: the main story alternates between the third-person account of Sartaj’s investigations and the first-person tale of Gaitonde himself, told from beyond the grave as if by the gangster’s spectre (he is dead soon after the novel begins). Allowing, however, for that one non-realist device, suggesting both the autochthonous Indian ghost-story tradition and the conventions of the Anglo-American/European Gothic genre, the tale is told using, on the one hand, the standard conventions of narrative realism, and, on the other, those of the detective/thriller genre, albeit appropriated for specifically Indian ends.
Sacred Games activates the conventions of the thriller genre only to deconstruct them. Almost from the outset, the reader, like Sartaj, knows that Gaitonde has killed himself in his bunker in the suburb of Kailashpada, having phoned the inspector and, in effect, invited him to take cognisance of his last moments. Dead by his side is found Jojo Mascarenas, a well-known Bombay madame. The enigma thus concerns not what happened but why; and yet all Sartaj’s best efforts to solve the puzzle, even with the assistance of Anjali Mathur, a hyper-brilliant JNU woman graduate and rising star in India’s intelligence apparatus, come to naught. Or: they come to naught for Sartaj, but not for the reader. For, thanks to the novel’s device of alternating narrations, the reader – but not Sartaj – in the end comes to know how and why Gaitonde eliminated both himself and Jojo. The detective conventions are thus, at one and the same time, both flouted and fulfilled.
Note added 22 Dec 2009: This review has now been published in:
Indian Journal of Postcolonial Literatures Thodupuzha, India), Vol. 9, No. 2, December 2009, pp. 236-239 –
– see entry on this blog for 21 Dec 09