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Vikram Chandra’s Great Indian Novel

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I know what you’re thinking. You took one look at that page count and thought: Do we really need another epic novel about India? What about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance? Great books create their own necessity, though, and if you can lift this tremendous story into your shopping cart, lug it home and read it, you’ll probably wonder how you got by so long without it.

Sacred Games tells the tale of a crime boss and a Sikh police inspector, and the ways their lives connect and overlap in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) and beyond during the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a terrific, brilliant, earthmover of a book, Crime and Punishment crossed with The Godfather, with some “Sopranos”-inspired irony thrown in to boot, and it has understandably made Chandra a bit famous back in India.

The question remains how it will be received here—and it’s not an idle one. Chandra has written a very Indian novel about a period when Mumbai began to resemble Chicago in the 1920s. Gangsters had a stranglehold on street crime, their riches so vast they could implant their own mythologies into Bollywood films, which Ganesh Gaitonde, the book’s crime boss, does with great gusto. Imagine if Al Capone had funded and micromanaged Frances Ford Coppola’s mafia trilogy and you’ll have an idea how bizarre the results would be.

To convey how this state of affairs came to be, Chandra has made the very 19th-century decision—the very Dickensian decision—to portray India from top to bottom, in all its social stratification. The narrative presence of a criminal element proves a boon to this project. Sartaj Singh, the novel’s hugely likable but down-on-his-luck 40-year-old police inspector, has the ability to come and go as he pleases at all levels of the caste system. He can look down from on high while wading knee-deep in the muck. His job allows for a fascinating vantage on recent-day India, and the view is potently topical during the so-called global war on extremism, highlighting the ways in which poverty and opportunism, as opposed to strict ideology, contribute to the spread of violence. The book’s antihero, the rags-to-riches gangster Gaitonde, narrates his life story to Sartaj first from a cornered bunker and then—here’s a leap of faith—from beyond the grave. It’s remarkable how much Gaitonde’s early pennilessness haunts him even more than his misdeeds; violence is simply a tool in getting what he wants, which is power. First he is paying off municipalities to steal land that should be offered to the public. Years later, for the right price, he is more than happy to be used by the government itself in proxy wars against their enemies.

Following Sartaj as he untangles his way through this world is not always a cakewalk. As he snakes back and forth, across Bombay and out into wider Asia, Sacred Games drops references to dozens of Bollywood films. There are place names and food titles and dozens upon dozens of localized details that will be foreign to many American readers. When Sartaj shows up at work and hears the “steady rasping of a jhadoo,” the reader had better have a dictionary handy. So, too, when an interrogation gets tough: “‘Why don’t we take them out behind the dhaba?’ Kamble said. ‘And give them a lathi up their gaand?’”

One of the miraculous things about Sacred Games is that such details, which look so foreign out of context, are actually a large part of the novel’s appeal. Chandra has decided to lure readers to a world only he can show, but there will be no translations.

Back in Mumbai, local customs are no more forgiving. Nothing happens in Mumbai without bribes, a temptation Sartaj could resist when he was married to an affluent woman. But with his marriage in the tank and his sights set on Gaitonde, such lofty incorruptibility is much harder to maintain.

And that’s how it starts, Chandra reveals. A city squeezes and squeezes its citizens together until they have no choice but to fight back or carom outward, making unholy alliances. In addition to Sartaj and Gaitonde, and the shadowy Muslim capo Suleiman Isa, there are dozens of characters here, all banging and bumping into each other. There are models and dames, and mothers who are very much in the dark about what their sons are up to in their spare time—until Sartaj comes around to investigate why the boys have gone missing.

Mumbai rises out of this thronging action as a vibrant, living metropolis where everything is connected to everything else. It feels like a relentless life force, rewarding the relentlessness of its toughest citizens and crushing the weak. Driving out of Mumbai one day, Sartaj turns to see “the city spreading, working itself out into the soil and through the earth.” Then he thinks: “Maybe there were still some tribals in those hills, hanging on to their little patches of land and quaint customs. These trucks would bring out cement and machines and money, and long legal documents, and the tribals would sign and sell, or be moved out. That’s how it worked.” And now we know.

arts@missoulanews.com

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