Adecade ago Vikram Chandra was one of the golden boys of Indian lit, his short fiction appearing in The New Yorker, his massive first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), published to strong acclaim. Red Earth and Pouring Rain seemed to conform to what Western publishers and readers were craving from India at the time; like one of John Barth’s big novels from the 1960s, it was a wild and exotic romp that spanned centuries and continents with a typewriting monkey protagonist. Hailed as a "magic-realist blockbuster," the novel invited the usual comparisons with Salman Rushdie–one critic even suggested Chandra was "leapfrogging Rushdie."
But while Chandra displayed no shortage of talent and imagination, one’s vision around this time began to blur amid the proliferation of outsize novels coming from the subcontinent–books that seemed "as big as India," as one writer remarked of Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Another reviewer quipped: "Entire forests have gone to blade in the past decade or so to make way for the current crop of Indian novelists writing in English." Void of the slight note of condescension, these sentiments were echoed by Bengali novelist Amit Chaudhuri, who fretted that the big, bustling novels of Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth were overshadowing the equally strong traditions of short story and novella writing in India. The assumption, Chaudhuri argued, "is the tautological idea that since India is a huge baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well." Red Earth and Pouring Rain was, for all its pleasures, one of those "baggy monsters," and one craved simplicity and more control.
One found that in abundance in Chandra’s next book, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), a jewel of a short story collection. There his prose cascaded through his beloved city like Christopher Doyle’s freewheeling camera in Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Chandra seemed more at ease with the long-form short story, which played to his gifts as a storyteller yet held his youthful verbosity in check. Love and Longing in Bombay also succeeded as an enduring portrait of Bombay’s naughty ’90s, reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s interwar tales. There was raw romantic agony and an unbridled sexual hunger in these stories. (The story "Kama" is justly celebrated for its eight-page sex scene, one of the most bittersweet break-up fucks in modern letters.)
Chandra also deftly incorporated elements of Indian popular culture, along with B-genres–romance, mystery, ghost stories, soldier stories, gangster stories–in a manner unique for Indian fiction at the time. It wasn’t just his knowledge of popular culture that struck the reader; it was the lack of condescension or Rushdie-style parody. Perhaps the secret of Chandra’s success could be explained by his close relationship to the city’s film industry. While many Indian writers have Bollywood in their blood, Chandra has it in his bones, too. His mother has written scripts for some of the most popular Hindi movies; his sister Tanuja is an emerging director in the same industry; another sister, Anupama, is a seasoned film journalist; and his brother-in-law is Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose film Parinda is hands down the most powerful and influential Hindi gangster film of the last two decades, admired and quoted by Bombay’s dons for its authenticity. Chandra, too, has dabbled in the industry; he is a co-writer of Chopra’s film Mission Kashmir, with Suketu Mehta, whose nonfiction paean to Bombay, Maximum City, raised the bar, too high perhaps, for others writing about this city.
But after Love and Longing Chandra went quiet on us for almost a decade, which is a daring thing for any writer to do these days, especially since the book industry seems to be suffering from long-term memory loss. The world–and India’s place in it–has changed greatly since the publication of his story collection: His subject and themes are far more visible globally, and Bombay has undergone a far more intense literary mapping, courtesy of Mehta but also, among others, Gregory David Roberts, author of the international bestseller Shantaram. That new world is, in many respects, Chandra’s theme in his epic crime novel Sacred Games, an infernal history of Bombay and India in the last decade.
Like a typical police procedural, Sacred Games begins with a day in the life of a cop named Sartaj Singh, whom readers of Love and Longing will remember as one half of that eight-page coupling in "Kama." Sartaj is a tough guy who has what it takes to work the streets as a detective, but he stands out in his milieu for his chivalry, his religion (Sikh) and, not least, for not being quite as on the take as his colleagues–or as his corrupt and politically influential boss, Parulkar, a protégé of Sartaj’s father, who was a legend on the Bombay police force.
As we follow Sartaj on his travels, Chandra’s tone is light, ironical, rather like that of Carl Hiaasen. Sartaj is called to mediate a warring upper-middle-class couple’s dispute; he finds the wife wielding a knife at hubby after hubby has thrown her prized dog out the window. But as with any noir, the novel’s texture soon grows darker. A dead teenager’s body is found in a basti, a working-class area full of poor Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Someone needs roughing up in the station. And then a late night tip-off, but this time a once-in-your-career tip-off: "Do you want Ganesh Gaitonde?" For Sartaj, a "divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects," this is manna. Gaitonde, long rumored to have been in exile, is the head of one of Bombay’s most formidable "companies"–a common euphemism for the city’s crime families. In fact, Gaitonde is such a prize that Sartaj’s partner, Katekar–who talks of the bhai (mafia don) as if he were a film star–asks when they arrive at his suspected hide-out, "But you’re sure you want to make him yours? Why not wait for someone senior to arrive?"
Sartaj, however, perseveres. While he and his partner perspire in extreme heat, trying to talk the notorious bhai out of his redoubt, Gaitonde, basking in his air-conditioned bunker, passes the afternoon by goading them with insult and legend. Eventually a bulldozer is summoned. While the driver musters the courage to destroy the building, Sartaj begins to brood on questions that will ultimately lie at the heart of the novel’s mystery: "What was Gaitonde doing back in the city? Who was the informant who had given him to Sartaj?" Sartaj doesn’t get any of his answers that afternoon. When he and his men storm the bunker, they find Gaitonde dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound–and, in another room, the corpse of an unknown woman, probably the bhai‘s last moll, and a stash of new Indian currency. The mystery deepens when shadowy figures from the world of Indian intelligence continue to be intrigued by the dead bhai. Where did all that new currency come from? And why did Gaitonde’s final lair turn out to be a nuclear bunker? These questions are given an extra twist when we learn that Gaitonde "was connected to certain very important people, to events at a national level. Whatever brought him back here, that could have an effect on future events." So Sartaj stays on the case, as a proxy for figures from the upper echelons of India’s secret state.
Like a sculptor making small, delicate chips in stone, Chandra moves things along at a measured pace, building his characters, finding glorious little details in the minutiae of everyday Bombay life, yet remaining sharply focused on the main thrust of his detective story. Perhaps what is so compelling about the first third of Sacred Games is the way Chandra opens up the guts of the Bombay police department. Whole sections of the force seem subcontracted by the very gangsters from whom they are sworn to protect the public; class, caste and confessional resentments play out bitterly; and everyone in uniform, it seems, takes kickbacks and bribes, some, like Parulkar, for personal enrichment. Those who still take pride in the job, in a good day’s detective work, reinvest the ill-gotten gains in their poorly funded department.
This milieu has been portrayed vividly and unsparingly in Maximum City, where Mehta had a ringside seat at beatings meted out by Bombay’s finest, and in S. Hussain Zaidi’s true-crime Black Friday, a pioneering look at the massive police investigation into the March 12, 1993, bombings in Bombay. (Sacred Games is dedicated to Zaidi.) But Chandra’s is a first for Indian fiction, and in its realism, its torrents of cop banter and casual slurs, and moments of poignant ordinariness–Sartaj’s restless, lonely nights–one is reminded of Bertrand Tavernier’s gritty movie L.627, John Burdett’s Bangkok thrillers and even the world-weary law-enforcement heroes in the novels of Joseph Wambaugh and Richard Price.
Gaitonde’s story runs through all this like an expressway, a counterpoint to Sartaj’s attempt to piece together the mystery of Gaitonde’s life. Gaitonde’s voice has a ghostly inflection–"So, Sardar-ji, are you listening still? Are you somewhere in this world with me?"–and you wonder if this is coming from beyond the grave or from the demented last hours before he shot himself. (I’ll admit: I’m still not sure.) Just as Sartaj’s detective story follows obvious generic convention–he loses his buddy-partner and falls for the dead woman’s sister–so Gaitonde is a Hindi hybrid of Jay Gatsby and Scarface‘s Tony Montana, whose motto, "The world is yours," could be his own. Gaitonde’s story is the familiar one of the small-time hood who carves out enough territory to become a don with strong international connections, unassailable political contacts and film-star girlfriends. What breathes new life into this story is the pungently metaphorical voice Chandra gives Gaitonde, an alliterative and lyrical English blended with basti Hindi that makes him as engaging a narrator as Martin Amis’s John Self in Money.
Gaitonde is a nimble and accomplished gangster and, when need be, a cold-blooded killer; but he’s plagued by mortal thoughts and the discovery that not everything can be solved with a payoff or a hit. He may be able to steal an election or liquidate an adversary, but he cannot reverse the box-office failure of the first Hindi blockbuster film he produces, or even truly know the heart of his actress girlfriend, Zoya Mirza, whose career he bankrolled. Does Zoya fuck him because she loves him or because she fears him? As she tells Sartaj, "He played the part of Ganesh Gaitonde even when he was alone with himself…. He was a short man trying to act like some big hero." The struggle of Ganesh Gaitonde is often his interior struggle with his Bollywood legend.
Gaitonde’s mortal questions are compounded by the city itself, a caldron of financial corruption, ethno-religious fanaticism and relentless globalization where the shots are called by hoodlums more than by politicians (when they can be distinguished). Time really is out of joint here. The movies aren’t the same anymore, the political giants of the golden age of Indian nationalism have been replaced by "small men" who have renamed the city Mumbai. The city, as Sartaj complains to himself, is "too vast…impossible to know, or escape." (Even the crafty Parulkar looks like he’s about to be outpaced by the city’s new right-wing masters.) "If you want to live in the city," someone tells Gaitonde, "you have to think ahead three turns." Gaitonde embraces Bombay’s modernity; the sacred and the retrospective are mere artifice. Once, when asked where he’s from, he says it doesn’t matter–he’s cut his past "with a scalpel." He’s rather like any of the other thousands who try to reinvent themselves in Bombay’s City of Gold. But the life of a hard-living "secular don" creates a void that makes Gaitonde easy prey to the Gothic political forces scything through Bombay and India.
When the local Hindi fascists enlist Gaitonde’s services in stealing an election, he helps them out for the cash, but when they proceed to address him as a fellow Hindu, he resists their blandishments. A pseudo-Robin Hood figure, he takes pride in the multifaith basti he rules and the company he commands (a classic Hindi gangster film trope). And even when he helps to drive Muslim families from his territory during the 1992 riots, his incentives are "purely" financial rather than confessional. But in the atmosphere of post-riot Bombay, where communal tensions run high and the gangs start to fragment along religious lines, he is anointed (and takes advantage of becoming) a "true Hindu leader." And like his mother country, he moves from the secular to the postsecular and becomes entangled in a nuclear nightmare. Gaitonde is never quite at home with this new identity: "becoming Ganesh Gaitonde the Hindu bhai was itself an act of murder," he laments, "it was the murder of a thousand and one other selves." But it is for him a necessary death. His embrace of a Hindu identity propels him into the arms of a religious zealot, Guru-ji–who becomes the novel’s swami Moriarty–and into cosmic violence and mass murder, which culminates in the ultimate act of purification, the assassination of Bombay.
In Maximum City Suketu Mehta remembers the exact moment when he discovered that the romantic city of his youth had become a place of scam and violence. "This fucking city," he writes (channeling, perhaps, Travis Bickle). "The sea should rush in over these islands in one great tidal wave and obliterate it, cover it underwater. It should be bombed from the air." This is a common, visceral response. Many of the characters in Sacred Games fantasize the destruction of their own city, as if governed by a collective death wish. "Maybe one day it’ll all just fall apart," Sartaj muses, "and there was a certain gratification in that thought too. Let the maderchod"–motherfucker–"blow."
But this death wish reaches truly phantasmagoric proportions when Guru-ji plans to unleash nuclear fire on Bombay. And it is this prospect of nuclear annihilation that restores Sartaj’s affection for his city–as well as Chandra’s love and longing for it; Bombay, from now on, emerges more strongly as a metaphysical presence. Sartaj rages, "What do these bastards have against Bombay? They don’t mention any other cities?" Gaitonde, too, is shaken by the thought of Bombay being reduced to a million "stinking corpses," to the point of breaking with Guru-ji. Thus the two parallel narrative lines that Gaitonde and Sartaj inhabit become fused; across the thick of time and space the cop and the gangster become, in a sense, allies in their attempt to save Bombay from annihilation.
Sacred Games quakes with seismic historical shocks, as if Chandra were intent on blasting open India’s historically amnesiac present, a time when India (or at least its media and its political class) is intoxicated by its glorious future. Chandra telescopes the past through the present with a series of historical insets into the narrative, reminding readers, as if he were an adept in palmistry, that "the shape of the future" lies "in the lines of the past." The effect of these insets is intrusive and not always satisfactory–they include the story of Sartaj’s mother’s experience during partition and an oddly moving narrative about Maoist rebels in the countryside–as they clog the novel’s narrative pace. But one of these insets, "The Great Game," is exemplary. "The Great Game"–which ostensibly recounts the attempts of Anjali, Sartaj’s handler from Indian intelligence, to prize from her dying mentor the real story of the Indian secret state’s associations with Gaitonde–is a journey into the splinters of Indian history, a secret index, one might say, of postcolonial India, the creation of its intelligence wings, its secret and not-so-secret wars with Pakistan, China and itself. What we get here is an occult history worthy of Borges. The dying mentor boasts that Anjali "has no choice but to be a realist. I trained her, I taught her tradecraft, analysis, recognition, action. I drew her into the secret world, into our troubles, into the web of secret causes." Readers may never quite recover from these historical depth charges; when we return to the novel’s main thread it’s as if we can hear the historical tectonic plates shifting beneath Sartaj’s and Gaitonde’s feet.
Borges, it could be argued, invented Indian detective fiction in Ficciones, in an imaginary review of an imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, whose imaginary publisher declares it "the first detective novel written by a native of Bombay City." Borges’s forte was the fantastique: His short stories, even when they followed the rationalist schema of the detective story, were wormholes into an infinite cosmos of parallels, labyrinths and doubles. The traces of the Argentine fabulist’s influence in Sacred Games are almost too many to enumerate. Gaitonde’s final words to Sartaj, "To win is to lose everything, and the game always wins," have such a haunting, metaphysical resonance that you can imagine them coming from the mouth of Dandy Red Scharlach, the gunman in Borges’s "Death and the Compass." But it’s not just the Borgesian affinities that leap out at the reader of Sacred Games; it’s that seven decades had to go by before someone wrote the novel that Borges prophesied in his seven-page tale.
Perhaps that explains why the novel is more than 100 times longer than Borges’s story: It’s making up for lost time. While Bollywood has produced some of the finest gangster films in recent memory, as stylish and earthy as their American and Hong Kong counterparts (notably Ram Gopal Varma’s films Company and Satya and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool and Omkara), Bombay has suffered an acute shortage of homegrown crime fiction. It’s as if (almost all) Bombay’s writers have shunned this city of sprawling crime empires, crowded jails and political hucksters of religious and secular stripes. Whatever the reasons, crime fiction with a Bombay or Indian setting was until recently dominated by foreigners like H.R.F. Keating–who didn’t visit Bombay until after he wrote the eighth in his delightful series of Inspector Ghote mysteries–and Peter Mann, or the late Bengali director Satyajit Ray, who dabbled in detective fiction for youngsters. Sacred Games, a hulking fusion of gangland epic, roman policier and mystery thriller, involves a massive mobilization of literary talent and ambition, as if to compensate for India’s marginal status in the world of crime fiction.
Despite its intimidating length, Sacred Games is not the "baggy monster" that Red Earth and Pouring Rain was. Chandra is a much better writer now. Still, a novel of 916 pages (and 1,001 subplots) can’t help but fatigue the reader. Even a wonderful Runyonesque figure like Ganesh Gaitonde can end up sounding like a gasbag. And because Sartaj finds himself retracing Gaitonde’s steps, the repetition can be wearying. Sometimes the effect of reading the last third of this often brilliant novel is similar to watching the familiar resolution of a James Bond movie. I found myself wishing Chandra had dared to follow the novel’s apocalyptic themes to a more apocalyptic conclusion. But even then Chandra pulls off some extraordinary writing. The last hours of Gaitonde’s life–his final dialogue with the murdered woman before their deaths, the last of a series of fabulous exchanges between them–are electrifying, a baroque distillation of all that has gone on before. Sacred Games‘s legacy might prove similar to that of Chandra’s brother-in-law’s film Parinda: By extending the territory of Indian literary fiction, it will allow others to tell crime stories of their own. Chandra’s ultimate achievement is both as a genre novelist and as a novelist who uses genre elements. Solving the crime is important, but he also hands us the keys to the city and reveals its sordid mysteries.