Monday, December 08, 2014

[Book Review] Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra


Raka reviews SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandra (Penguin, Viking, 2007)

At the heart of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is a crime thriller, but ultimately this is a book that is so much more.  The novel is set in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) and revolves around the central plot of a middle-aged Sikh police inspector, Sartraj Singh, who seeks to capture the illusive mob boss, Ganesh Gaitonde.  Although this story frames the novel, Chandra weaves in a multitude of other subplots and uses flashbacks to illuminate the lives of a number of secondary characters.  Coming in at 900 plus pages, Chandra creates a sprawling and tumultuous tale, reflecting the chaos of modern India itself.

Nominated for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, Chandra’s creation has been called Dickensian in its scope, “linguistically challenging,” a social novel, a noir novel, and a developing world thriller.  In one sense, it is a book about Indians for Indians.  Chandra takes for granted that the reader has knowledge of India’s past and present, and drops one down into a sea of Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu words. But not to fear, he also provides a handy glossary, which readers can turn to for further clarification.  For me, the glossary adds to the fun of this book, because as an Indian, I found myself intrigued by the range of idiomatic expressions and obscenities with which Chandra peppers the novel.  It is the stuff of every naughty schoolboy (or girl) and gave me a chance to acquaint (and reacquaint) myself with a range of colorful slang expressions.

Chandra’s love of India, and especially Mumbai, is evident in this book.  His descriptions of slums, police stations, the rich, and the poor, provide a vivid picture of a metropolis that the British aptly named “the gateway to India.” Chandra is also well versed in Indian history and the social, economic, and political issues that have framed this nation historically and in the present day.  One of the most poignant back stories of the novel and one that may stick with me long after Sartraj Singh and Gaitonde fade away, is his development of the character of Singh’s mother.  Chandra’s sensitive rendition of her experience of the Indian Partition is one that pulls on the heartstrings of anyone who has suffered loss at the hands of prejudice, hatred, and the inevitable cruelty of historical change.

Sacred Games scope and playfulness lends itself to comparisons to James Joyce’s Ulysses, but that novel’s iconic use of language is a somewhat awkward fit with the approachability (and sometimes delightful trashiness) of Chandra’s plot and prose.  Instead, I look to popular music to provide a better comparison.  Legendary double albums, like The White Album, Exile on Main Street, Songs in the Key of Life, Sign of the Times, or the multi-disc 69 Love Songs, provide a better guide to the achievement of Sacred Games.  Those albums were overly ambitious attempts to create music milestones and the artists throw in everything but the kitchen sink in the quest for greatness.  In the end, the albums may not have the artists’ greatest hits, and include several failed experiments (“Revolution 9” comes to mind), but the sheer hubris of the journey and the variety of musical experiences make these works perhaps the most admirable in their creators’ enviable catalogues.  Chandra’s novel strikes me as the same; an enormous undertaking that goes down several dangerous rabbit holes but leaves one gasping for breath at the end.
Raka, Central Library

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