Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

Once upon a time there was a writer who lived in a world of great corruption and great hope, a world where everything glittered and only some of it was gold. He lived in a world where a dream shared by millions was turning sour even as it became real, where the small hopes of ordinary men were either flaring into great achievement or being cruelly snuffed out. And yet men dreamed, and believed in opportunity in a way they never had before, and yearned for things their parents or grandparents could never have imagined, and the frenzy of ambition was in every heart and no one was counting the cost.

And this man, this writer, decided to capture the spirit of that time by placing in its midst his most memorable character – a small-time crimefighter, a loner, a drinker, a realist, a man of few scruples and little ambition, not strictly law-abiding but honest, in his own way an idealist, even, perhaps a closet romantic. In this character’s strange blend of cynicism, street-smartness, ruthlessness and reluctant chivalry, in his capacity for both violence and wit, in his sense of irony matched with the bitterness of his grace, the writer created an iconic hero for his time, a man who contained within himself all the swirling contradictions of his age.

The writer I’m talking about is one Raymond Chandler, his creation, the unforgettable Philip Marlowe. And yet it could just as easily be Vikram Chandra.

Chandra’s Marlowe is called Sartaj Singh. In many ways he’s quite unlike Marlowe. He is a policeman, for one thing, and so is less of an outsider than Marlowe; he’s also far less hard-boiled and misogynistic, friendly, self-aware, a devoted son, a man more willing to show his vulnerabilities – overall, just a nicer person to know. And yet the similarities are too strong to be missed, and the comparison between the two characters is one of the subtler pleasures of reading Sacred Games.

We’ve met Sartaj Singh before, of course. He was the main protagonist of Chandra’s earlier book, Love & Longing in Bombay. But while in Love and Longing Sartaj was just an engaging character whose escapades one enjoyed, even laughed at, the Sartaj Singh of Sacred Games is a darker, more finely etched figure, a configuration of forces, a meta-character of the order of Saleem Sinai or Jack Ryan. There is no doubt that Sacred Games is by far the most ambitious thing that Chandra has ever attempted, a capacious opus of a book that attempts to capture all the complexity and contradictions of modern India in a single narrative.

And succeeds. As Sartaj Singh travels back and forth through Bombay conducting his various investigations we see it all – the poverty and the riches, the suffering and the excitement, the ambition and the resignation, the all-pervading corruption and the fundamental morality, the cinema-fed escapism and the daily heroics of survival, the ignorance and the wonder, the shrewdness and the naivete, the tolerance and the prejudice, the reality of the possibilities and the incredible odds against them – everything, in short, that makes Bombay horrifying, bewildering and heart-pulsingly dynamic.

Other writers have written about Bombay. There is the mythical wonderland of Rushdie or the quiet nostalgia of Mistry’s Firozsha Baag, but Chandra’s Bombay is vibrant and contemporary and stinkingly, delightfully messy. There’s a rough edge to Chandra’s Bombay – not just the rudeness of the language, but a more Darwinian indifference – this is a city that chews people up and spits them out, which is why to live and work and succeed here is to experience the full-throttled knowledge of being alive. This is Bombay’s unique energy, and it sings through every line that Chandra writes about the city, which is what makes this new instalment of Sartaj Singh’s escapades a mesmerising achievement.

So it’s a shame that Chandra, having found such a rich narrative vein, as well as the perfect character to exploit it, chooses to waste half of his novel on the life story of Ganesh Gaitonde, a big-time Bombay gangster who dies in the second chapter of the book, but whose life story, told in ghostly flashback, is intertwined with Sartaj Singh’s investigations into the circumstances of his death. This half of the novel reads like one of Jeffrey Archer’s less successful books. The story begins with flickers of initial interest, but pretty soon we’re firmly established in the territory of cliche. Gaitonde’s life story is described in rich detail, but it’s detail that will feel stultifyingly familiar to anyone whose seen even one of the dozen Ram Gopal Varma films on the subject. Chandra himself acknowledges this, having Gaitonde say, at one point “I was filmi, but I was also real.” But reality alone is not enough reason to subject the reader to 400 odd pages of the self-delusional ramblings of Gaitonde’s narrative voice. Oh, it’s a compelling portrait of megalomania, and a chilling description of a man who is both seriously deranged and seriously dangerous, but after a point it gets wearying. There is very little of dramatic interest here – Gaitonde’s life, seen from any perspective except his self-obsessed own, is a long series of repetitions, of variations on a theme. Passages of Gaitonde’s insecurity and loneliness, repeated cycles of killings, secret plans, meetings, bribes, danger, mayhem, lucky escapes, death of close associates, etc.  – all of which add up to one fairly boring read, so that by the middle of the book I found myself flipping impatiently through these long chapters, resenting this interruption of the Sartaj Singh story. Don’t get me wrong. Chandra has some interesting things to say here: many of the side-stories he tells here are insightful in the way they show how the dream of glamour, of a better life, spreads to the most obscure parts of the country, and the writing throughout is unexceptionable. It’s just that I don’t think he says anything that couldn’t have been said in 200 pages less. One leaves these chapters with the distinct impression that if Gaitonde had ever made these ‘revelations’ public, he would  have had to threaten his listeners with broken limbs to make them listen.

The fact is that as good as Chandra is at capturing the larger spirit of the times by reflecting and containing it within the microcosm of everyday human activity, he is extremely bad at writing grand fiction. Large swathes of the novel read like mediocre Tom Clancy rip-offs. Chandra’s big threat, his custard pie in the sky, is an imminent nuclear explosion that will wipe out Bombay. Chandra works very hard to make this prospect seem horrifying, but the sense of panic doesn’t really come through. After all, part of living in a major urban centre in a post-nuclear age is knowing that a nuclear explosion is always at least somewhat imminent, especially if the city you live in happens to be located within easy striking range of your foremost enemy. And something about this grand plot, this dreaded international conspiracy simply refuses to ring true. It seems too distant, too artificial, too much like fiction.

This may be Chandra’s curse – he’s so good at bringing the ordinary to life, that when he tries to write about the extraordinary it simply defies belief. Coincidences pile up too heavily. The characters seem overwrought. Chandra is a fine creator of nuanced protagonists, but he is not Rushdie and does not have half of Rushdie’s ability for myth-making. So when all these colourful characters get tossed in like confetti (an intelligence officer who knits to relieve tension, an unassuming basti dweller who is actually a dreaded Naxal terrorist in retirement) and plot lines intersect as if by magic the whole thing just seems contrived, and, which is worse, unnecessary. Chandra adds four insets to the book – little side stories by which he hopes, no doubt, to widen the scope of the novel – but they do little, in my opinion, but make an already overlong book longer, and break the narrative flow of the story making it even more frustrating to read.

Overall, then, Sacred Games is half a brilliant book. The chapters that lay out Sartaj Singh’s side of the story are some of the most powerful writing about contemporary India I’ve ever come across, a pitch-perfect performance that makes this book a must-read. Much of the rest of the novel is overwrought and tedious, though pleasant enough to skim through. If the entire book were like this other half, Sacred Games would be marginally worth reading. As it is, you’ll find yourself speeding through these chapters, trapped in the fever of wanting to know what happens to Sartaj Singh next. And that urgency, that sense of palpable excitement, is all a reader can ask for.