Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

Sprawling. I think this one word fits Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games to a T. It’s a meticulously researched  and richly textured work, taking on multiple story arcs. The main arcs weave through the city of Mumbai with tendrils in Singapore, Southeast Asia, touching upon Pune and pre-Partition Punjab in the process.

However, all that research is incidental, since good research isn’t just about facts and places. Chandra’s research leads him into the heads and hearts of the characters he describes. Ostensibly, the book is about a policeman Sartaj Singh and the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. However, the book is much more than that. It delves into the psyches of characters, major and minor, drawing them out with breathtaking insight. The book feels “lived in”, in the sense that the author knows and understands these people well. He knows their lives, loves and everything in between. He could probably tell you their favorite colors if asked. 

For me, the sudden flashes of insight in this book came at different points. One of them was his sketch of Katekar, Sartaj’s loyal constable. A vivid description of his life in a slum in Mumbai brings him to breathing, swearing life. The use of the four letter Marathi swear word “jh*$” (the f-word) is a good example. I’ve never heard it used after leaving Pune, and seeing it used in the book was a surprise. Yes, a pleasant one. It indicates the author cared enough to find out the vernacular Katekar inhabited, and wanted to use it for effect.

Another personal favorite was when Sartaj asks Kamble “Are you Buddhist?”, bringing years of caste history into sharp relief in a single, careless sentence. (Dalits converted to Buddhism to escape discrimination, following the lead of respected leader Babasaheb Ambedkar). Kamble launches into a diatribe about why he’s not one. It’s a cauldron, bubbling away below the suave womanizing exterior of the whip-smart fast-rising officer.

A good way to look at this book is not as a cinematic arc( though it does have a great film in it). It’s a great mini-series on the city of Mumbai. A set of characters who inhabit that metropolis, their lives, their stories, their loves and betrayals. The tangents bring breathing life to incidental characters and provide insight to a teeming world lurking just out of sight.

The flip side is that all that detail makes it overlong. I guess it depends on what you expect from it.

To use another analogy, if you can get off the straight Mumbai-Pune Expressway and use the old highway to do that journey for the millionth time, there are unexpected riches for the taking.

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