Vikram Chandra

"Sacred Games"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 16, 2007)

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Ever since the likes of Indian authors such as Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry started making waves in fiction in English there has been a debate about exactly how to present the particular brand of subcontinent English to the outside world. Another aspect of the debate centers on exactly what parts of foreign words to translate and which ones to leave out. Sacred Games, touted as an epic by Indian author Vikram Chandra, dives into everything headlong: “I’ll wait here only,” a character says in a phrase that almost every English-speaking Indian will recognize. And Chandra translates practically none of the street speak that the characters use. Which is probably just as well, because it’s the kind of language that would have had our mothers swill our mouths out with soap.

Read ExcerptThe glut of foreign language (and the crudeness of it for those in the know) might seem overwhelming at first but there are enough other things happening for the reader to keep going on. In fact, this is arguably Chandra’s greatest achievement with Sacred Games. That he manages to hold the attention of the reader for the better part of 900 pages is no mean feat.

Sacred Games defies easy classification but if one could pin it down as a cops-and-robbers story, the cop is a 40-something divorced, handsome Sikh, Sartaj Singh, a policeman who makes do in Mumbai, and who is mildly corrupt. Toward the beginning of the book, Sartaj is summoned to an innocuous looking building in Mumbai’s Kailashpada district to arrest one of India’s biggest dons -- Ganesh Gaitonde. In a matter of just a few more pages, Gaitonde is dead. From here the story moves in two opposing directions. In one part, Gaitonde slowly narrates his rise to fame, as it were, starting as a boy in a small Indian village, while Sartaj Singh must figure out why exactly Gaitonde spent his last minutes in what turns out to be a nuclear shelter.

Chandra showers each of his characters with generous attention painting them in the most vivid of details. Even as he is unearthing a potentially mind-blowing conspiracy, Sartaj must attend to his daily more mundane police duties -- solving a murder in a Mumbai slum, helping a beautiful victim of blackmail and carrying out routine raids of local bars.

There is a bit of everything -- greed, lust, romance, power, even India’s famous Bollywood, in Sacred Games but at times it can get to be as oppressive as the Mumbai summers. Gaitonde drops philosophical nuggets (“Cash creates beauty, cash gives freedom, cash makes morality possible") at the drop of a hat, waxes eloquent in chapter after chapter and leaves behind a deadly trail, but his endless navel-gazing starts getting annoying after a while. Ludicrously enough, for almost three whole pages, Gaitonde even talks about how he got “bigger” for his girlfriend, Bollywood actress, Zoya Mirza. If this was supposed to be an exercise in sarcasm (considering Gaitonde finally opts for an Internet penis-enlargement promise) it falls flat.

Move away from Gaitonde though, and there is enough beautiful prose (and stories) to enjoy. Chandra is at his best in his observation of the subtlest of class interactions and descriptions. The portrait he paints of Sartaj’s deputy -- constable Katekar is beautifully done. India’s legendary contradictions: “Farmers who carried mobile phones and murdered their daughters and sons for marrying out of caste, bottles of mineral water served by “bare-footed chokras whose arms were covered with ringworm” are on full display here. Chandra also effectively distills the essence of Mumbai. “Once the air of this place touches you, you will be useless for anywhere else,” Katekar says. Sacred Games tells us why, and for many readers, just this will be enough.

For all its ambition and scope, the problem with Sacred Games is that its central story is just not complex and meaty enough. Sure there are powerful descriptions of Bombay life, of street gangs, of Bollywood stars and life in the teeming metropolis. But the story that drives the book forward, with sufficient suspense one might add, is just not rewarding enough to unearth. A book of this ambitious a scope does not deliver all the goods. It is good, but not good enough. Or as they would say in Mumbai time pass hai yaar but ekdum jhakaas it is not.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 41 reviews

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About the Author:

Vikram ChandraVikram Chandra was born in New Delhi. He completed most of his secondary education at Mayo College, a boarding school in Ajmer, Rajasthan. After a short stay at St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, Vikram came to the United States as an undergraduate student. In 1984, he graduated from Pomona College in California with a BA in English, with a concentration in creative writing. He then attended the Film School at Columbia University in New York, but left to work on a novel. He obtained an MA at Johns Hopkins and an MFA at the University of Houston.

His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. His collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book (Eurasia Region) and was a New York Times Notable Book. His work has been translated into eleven languages. After a bidding war, Chandra sold his third book, Sacred Games, for a rumored $1 million to HarperCollins.

He has also co-written Mission Kashmir, an Indian feature film released internationally in late October, 2000.

Vikram Chandra currently divides his time between Mumbai and Berkeley, California, where he teaches creative writing at the University of California.  He lives with his wife Melanie Abrams, who is also a novelist. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014