There are more than a half-dozen subplots to be enjoyed, but the main events take place between Inspector Sartaj Singh, a Sikh member of the Mumbai police force, and Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India. It is no accident that Ganesh is named for the Hindu god of success, the elephant god much revered by Hindus everywhere. By the world's standards he has made a huge success of his life: he has everything he wants. But soon after the novel begins he is holed up in a bomb shelter from which there is no escape, and Sartaj is right outside the door. Ganesh and Sartaj trade barbs, discuss the meaning of good and evil, hold desultory conversations alternating with heated exchanges, and, finally, Singh bulldozes the building to the ground. He finds Ganesh dead of a gunshot wound, and an unknown woman dead in the bunker along with him.
How did it come to this? Of course, Singh has wanted to capture this prize for years, but why now and why in this way? The chapters that follow tell both their stories, but especially chronicle Gaitonde's rise to power. He is a clever devil, to be sure, and his tales are as captivating as those of Scheherezade. Like her he spins them out one by one and often saves part of the story for the reader--or Sartaj--to figure out. He is involved in every racket in India, corrupt to the core, but even he is afraid of Swami Shridlar Shukla, his Hindu guru and adviser. In the story Gaitonde shares with Singh and countless other characters, Vikram Chandra has written a fabulous tale of treachery, a thriller, and a tour of the mean streets of India, complete with street slang. --Valerie Ryan
Questions for Vikram Chandra
After writing his first two, critically acclaimed books, Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra set off on what became, seven years later, an epic story of crime and punishment in modern Mumbai, Sacred Games. Chandra splits his time between Berkeley, where he teaches at the University of California, and Mumbai, the vast city that becomes a character in its own right in Sacred Games. We asked him a few questions about his new book.
Amazon.com: Did you imagine your book would become such an epic when you began it?
Vikram Chandra: No, not at all. When I began, I imagined a conventional crime story which began with a dead body or two, proceeded along a linear path, and ended 300 pages later with a neatly-wrapped solution. But when I began to actually investigate the particular kind of crime that I was interested in, a series of connections revealed themselves. Organized crime is of course connected to politics, both local and national, but if you're interested in political activity in India today--and elsewhere in the world--you are of course going to have to address the role of religion. These realms, in turn, intersect with the workings of the film and television industries. And all of this exists within the context of the "Great Game," the struggle between nation-states for power and dominance; some of the criminal organizations have mutually-beneficial relationships with intelligence agencies. So, I became really interested in this mesh of interlocking lives and organizations and historical forces. I began to trace how ordinary people were thrown about and forced to make choices by events and actors very far away; how disparate lives can cross each other--sometimes unknowingly--and change profoundly as a result. The form of the novel grew from this thematic interest, in an attempt to form a representation of this intricate web. The reader will, I hope, by the end of the novel see how the connections fall together and weave through each other. The individual characters, of course, see only a fragmented, partial version of this whole.
Amazon.com: You interviewed many gangsters, high and low, to research your story. How did you get introductions to them? What did they think of someone writing their life?
Chandra: When I was writing my last book, Love and Longing in Bombay (in which Sartaj Singh first appears), I had contacted some police officers and crime journalists. I stayed in touch with a few of them, and when I began to think seriously about this project I asked them to introduce me to anyone who could tell me something about organized crime. Amongst the people I met in this way were some people from the "underworld," which turns out not to be an underworld at all. It's the same world we live in, inhabited by human beings who are very much like the rest of us, even in their distinctiveness. For the most part, they were as curious about me and what I was doing as I was about them. They're not big novel readers, but they had very certain opinions about representations of their lives they had seen on the big screen: "Such-and-such film got it all wrong"--they would tell me--"don't do that." And, "This was correct, that was not." So I listened, and I hope I got it mostly right.
Amazon.com: For most American readers--like me--your story is full of slang and cultural references that we can't hope to follow. For me that's part of the charm--I feel like I'm immersed in a world I don't fully understand. Were you thinking of a particular audience as you wrote?
Chandra: I wanted to use the English that we actually speak in India, the language that I would use to tell this story if I were sitting in a bar in Mumbai talking to a friend. This English would be sprinkled with words from many Indian languages, and we would share a universe of cultural referents and facts that a reader from another country wouldn't recognize instantly. This, of course, is an experience that all of us have in a very various world. I remember reading British children's stories as a kid, and having long discussions with friends about what "crumpets" and "clotted cream" could possibly be. An Indian reader reading a novel about Arizona by an American writer might have no idea what a "pueblo" was, or why you went to a "Circle-K" to get a bottle of milk. But the context tells you something about what is being referred to, and there is a distinct delight in discovering a new world and figuring out its nuances. This is one of the great gifts of reading, that it can transport you into foreign landscapes. It's one of the reasons I read books from other cultures and places, and I hope American readers will share in this pleasure.
Amazon.com: Your book has dozens of characters who could live in books of their own. Aside from your two main figures, the policeman Sartaj Singh and the criminal Ganesh Gaitone, which was your favorite character to write?
Chandra: That would have to be Sartaj's mother, Prabhjot Kaur, as a young girl in pre-Partition India, I think. She's curious, innocent, and passionate; writing that chapter was hard and exhilarating.
Amazon.com: The movies of Bollywood (and Hollywood) are everywhere in your story, and many in your family (and you yourself) have been screenwriters and directors. For someone new to Indian film, what are some of your favorites you'd recommend?
Chandra: A very small sampling from the '50s onwards might be: Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957); Kaagaz ke Phool ("Paper Flowers," 1959); Mughal-e-Azam ("The Great Mughal," 1960); Sholay ("Embers," 1975); Parinda ("Bird," 1989); Satya (1998); Lagaan ("Land Tax," 2001); Lage Raho Munnabha ("Keep at it, Munnabhai," 2006).
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