Friday, January 05, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

“Do you like detective movies?” The main character in the audacious and sprawling Sacred Games asks another. “Only Hollywood movies. Our Indian ones are so badly made,” comes the answer. “But sometimes the Indian ones get things right also.”

That goes for novels as well. While there may be no hurrays for Bollywood forthcoming in Vikram Chandra’s newest work of masterfully crafted fiction, and though it may resemble, on the surface and in sense, an outsourced American-style police procedural, there is much more going on. The multi-layered strata of characters and details are only hinted at in the first drop-in-the-bucket chapters of this gritty and grounded epic, reminiscent of voluminous and character-rich nineteenth-century serial literature as much as modern day hardboiled crime capers.

Still, this tale of modern-day gumshoes and gurus is, in some regards, a departure for Chandra from the magical realism of his heralded 1995 debut, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. The A Thousand and One Nights-style storytelling -- 1997’s Love and Longing in Bombay collection of interconnected stories is framed by its own Scheherezade -- is pervaded with an impressionistic fusion of Indian myth, Hindu gods, fantasy and the workaday world. But Chandra has cast off any phantasmagoric flights of fancy in Sacred Games, retaining the nuanced intricacies, wide-ranging plotlines and high-definition characters in a cohesive and down-to-earth realization of Sacred Games’ kaleidoscopic and episodic style and structure.

In the book’s intertwining accounts of a seemingly jaded Sikh police inspector and a notorious Hindu gangster, it’s an all-encompassing realization, too, with ambiguities and events centering on a multitude of sins and incidents from cat-and-mouse games to a potentially catastrophic cloak-and-dagger gambit with no clean breaks or exit strategies. After all, as one Intelligence officer says on his deathbed, "The game lasts, the game is eternal, the game cannot be stopped, the game gives birth to itself."

The central game, the core storyline of Sacred Games, is set in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and unfolds with our introduction to detective Sartaj Singh, alternately cynical and romantic, past forty, divorced and world-weary. Moreover, because “Justice had sometimes to be manipulated into being properly blind,” he is resigned but still ambivalent to the system of institutionalized bribery and police brutality.

With such pragmatism -- or rationalization -- in tow, Sartaj gets an anonymous tip that leads to the hide-out of the notorious underworld gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, a Hindu Bhai who "dallied with bejeweled starlets, bankrolled politicians" and whose "daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes."

In a rather bizarre scene, Sartaj confronts Gaitonde as the mob boss sits inside an odd shell-like bunker, presumably impenetrable - that is until Sartaj, tired of chewing the philosophic fat and the back-and-forth taunting, calls for a huge bulldozer that doesn’t have a lot of problem gaining access. Gaitonde barely has time to commit suicide, after also killing a mysterious woman who was also, unknowingly to Sartaj, inside the bunker.

The mystery of the woman's identity has possible links to and sets in motion a long and at times meandering series of events with twists and turns that have their own twists and turns, and that ebb and flow along with disparate and sometimes relevant subplots. Meanwhile, Sartaj also juggles more mundane but personally profitable domestic disputes, blackmail, thievery, and other lesser crimes and misdemeanors.

But the actions of Gaitonde, detailed in interposed chapters, can’t remain too long on the back-burner - and the retelling of his power-grabbing ambitions and more benign and humanizing endeavors does more than fill in the narrative gaps. Gaitonde's rise within organized crime -- his arms dealing, infiltration of Bollywood and relationship with a movie star, his confrontations with his Muslim rival and associaton with a crafty guru bent on an apocalyptic calling -- all serve a larger purpose.

In addition to his bunker-mate’s feasible connection to “rabid extremists promising annihilation,” such undertakings also leave a trail that points to Gaitonde’s knowing, or unwitting, involvement with terrorist activity and big-scale bombing plans.

As Sartaj is pulled further into Indian Intelligence investigations of a portending disaster “that didn‘t announce itself and act in predictable ways,” so is the reader. Not only to the sequence of events and low-boil suspense -- Sacred Games is too expansive to be an all-nighter page-turning potboiler -- but also to the emotional and psychological toll taken on Sartaj as life, love, and career increasingly converge with a dead don’s plans that too slowly emerge at a rate outpaced by the race-against-time dread and apprehension.

“In this Gaitonde affair,” Chandra writes, “there would be no justice, no redemption. There was only a hope for some partial explanation of what had happened, and this creeping fear. Sartaj was afraid now, he truly was.”

And really, the attempts at solution and accounts of free-floating trepidation barely scratches the surface of a full-bodied and multifaceted story. With 900-pages (in need of some discerning editing), Sacred Games is a story with a lot of breathing room for the capaciousness of well-considered and deliberated delineations and subtleties, replete with uncertainty and doubt, happenstance and hope. Such breadth and depth allows Chandra to link the novel to a wide array of societal issues and philosophic observations, including the inextricable relationships to caste and religion, poverty, and the entrenched criminal element.

It’s also a true-to-life complexity reflecting, as Chandra declares in an interview, the author’s emphasis on “the grey areas between ‘good’ and ‘bad’” and his interest in “the incidentals, in the texture and mood that is revealed when somebody is narrating his or her own life as they see it. Often the lies they tell us are as revealing as the truths they are willing to reveal to you.”

In regards to characterization, Chandra also perceives the intriguing and often paradoxical Sartaj Singh, the detective who first made an appearance in one of Love and Longing’s stories, in such an extensively dimensional fashion, as a vehicle for further exploration and insight. “He’s cynical and reflective and yet hopeful,” the author says, “And a policeman is an interesting protagonist; he allows you to move across a culture sideways and vertically.”

Such novelistic latitude and attention to detail is not only employed to flesh out the warts-and-all characterization of Sartaj and the not-all-warts depiction of Gaitonde. While the conscientious care Chandra takes in Sacred Games may be business as usual in the aim to explicate the complexities of the main characters -- the poignancy of the once-dashing Sartaj’s regrets and sense of lost opportunities is effectively conveyed -- it is more unusual for that same craftsmanship to be applied to the many secondary characters. Going beyond any shorthand stereotyping or safe-target caricatures, Chandra presents, for example, an ultimately sympathetic portrayal of an affluent, pampered wife cheating on her husband. And the outward animosity displayed toward Sartaj by the son of his slain partner is unflinching, Sartaj's rumination unsparing.

Not that Chandra -- with the resonance and elegance and, at times, economy of his writing -- needs to belabor or expend too many words to put across the full vulnerability and humanity of his characters, and the challenges of the lives they lead. At one point, Sartaj thinks about “how uncanny an animal this life was, that you had to seize it and let go of it at the same time, that you had to enjoy it but also plan, live every minute and die every moment.”

Actions may speak louder from time to time, but Chandra’s words cut to the heart of many matters as they, too, “get things right.”

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