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Sacred Games: A Novelby Vikram Chandra
"Sacred Games is a brilliant crime epic, which impressively balances a literary detective and gangster story with a cinematically violent tale of contemporary Bombay. One of Chandra's most remarkable achievements amidst this novel of marvels is his ability to turn mundane moments into extraordinary ones; a father's lovingly ritualized inquiries into his sons' hygiene are just as compelling as far higher octane scenes of crime and gang wars. The overall effect for the reader is to have the breadth and depth of Bombay's peoples exposed and made immediate, highlighting the manner in which the city's impressive violence touches all in Chandra's perfect circle."
Synopses & Reviews
Seven years in the making, Sacred Games is an epic of exceptional richness and power. Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh — and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.
Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But "the silky Sikh" is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he's determined that he'll be the one to collect the prize.
Vikram Chandra's keenly anticipated new novel is a magnificent story of friendship and betrayal, of terrible violence, of an astonishing modern city and its dark side. Drawing inspiration from the classics of nineteenth-century fiction, mystery novels, Bollywood movies and Chandra's own life and research on the streets of Mumbai, Sacred Games evokes with devastating realism the way we live now but resonates with the intelligence and emotional depth of the best of literature.
"Mumbai in all its seedy glory is at the center of Vikram Chandra's episodic novel, which follows the fortunes of two opposing characters: the jaded Sikh policeman, Sartaj Singh, who first appeared in the story 'Kama,' and Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous Hindu Bhai who 'dallied with bejewelled starlets, bankrolled politicians' and whose 'daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes.' Sartaj, still handsome and impeccably turned out, is now divorced, weary and resigned to his post, complicit in the bribes and police brutality that oil the workings of his city. Sartaj is ambivalent about his choices, but Gaitone is hungry for position and wealth from the moment he commits his first murder as a young man. A confrontation between the two men opens the novel, with Gaitonde taunting Sartaj from inside the protection of his strange shell-like bunker. Gaitonde is the more riveting character, and his first-person narrative voice lulls the reader with his intuitive understanding of human nature and the 1,001 tales of his rise to power, as he collects men, money and fame; creates and falls in love with a movie star; infiltrates Bollywood; works for Indian intelligence; matches wits with his Muslim rival, Suleiman Isa; and searches for fulfillment with the wily Guru Shridhar Shukla. Sartaj traces Gaitonde's movements and motivations, while taking on cases of murder, blackmail and neighborhood quarrels. The two men ruminate on the meaning of life and death, and Chandra connects them as he connects all the big themes of the subcontinent: the animosity of caste and religion, the poverty, the prostitution and mainly, the criminal elite, who organize themselves on the model of corporations and control their fiefdoms from outside the country. Chandra, who's won prizes and praise for his two previous books, Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay, spent seven years writing this 900-page epic of organized crime and the corruption that spins out from Mumbai into the world of international counterfeiting and terrorism, and it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ('You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran,' Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The enthusiasm with which the venerable firm of HarperCollins is promoting this massive deadweight of a novel, and the money that it's putting where its mouth is, leaves one to ponder once again the eternally mysterious ways of the book-publishing industry. Certainly, Vikram Chandra is a writer of some talent, and he has a couple of British Commonwealth prizes to show for it, yet how is one to explain... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the ballyhoo with which advance proofs of 'Sacred Games' were accompanied — they actually came in a gold slipcase! — or the $300,000 that the publisher says it will spend on a campaign to market the novel? It is almost inconceivable to me that American readers will rush to buy this novel, much less keep on reading it after, say, the first 50 pages, yet HarperCollins is so convinced they will that it is betting the house on 'Sacred Games.' Just for the record, I came to 'Sacred Games' with a mind not merely wide open but full of anticipation. In part this was because of my admiration for two novels of immense length also set in India — Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy' and Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' — in part because of similar feelings about Shashi Tharoor's tidier novel about the Indian film industry, 'Show Business,' in part because of lingering affection for E.M. Forster's superb 'A Passage to India.' The great nation of the Asian subcontinent produced, or was the subject of, some of the best literature of the 20th century; a new novel set there at the end of that century and the beginning of the next seemed to promise glories of the same kind, especially since India is now poised to become one of the world's strongest and most diverse economies. Perhaps my biorhythms simply were off during the full work week it took me to wade through 'Sacred Games,' but I think not. Though the novel does have its moments and a couple of intermittently interesting central characters, mainly it just wanders aimlessly along, written in a droning monotone and peppered with Indian colloquialisms that are sure to put off all but the best-informed American readers. It masquerades as tough-minded about all the bloody, sordid business with which it is preoccupied, but its heart is little more than sentimental mush. It is heavily influenced by the films of India and elsewhere — 'Beat him,' characters say a couple of times in an obvious bow to 'Lawrence of Arabia' — but it is difficult to imagine that any filmmaker will be eager to adapt this novel, with its misshapen plots and subplots and its interminable length. Chandra, a native of New Delhi who now lives in India and California, knows his mother country well, with all its religious, racial and ethnic rivalries, its dangerous relations with Pakistan, its 'enormous bustle of millions on the move,' its obsession with movies and movie stars, its splendid but endangered natural glories. In 'Sacred Games' he clearly has tried to gather the entire country within the pages of a single book — as Faulkner said, 'to put it all on the head of a pin' — and in the very limited sense that the novel is indisputably a grab bag, perhaps he has succeeded. But ambition alone isn't enough; believable characters are required and a coherent narrative and powerful prose and large, important themes, and on all these counts 'Sacred Games' comes up short. The two characters who most arrest the reader's attention are Sartaj Singh, a Sikh of Mumbai, 'past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects,' and Ganesh Gaitonde, also of Mumbai, though in recent years an exile, a powerful gangster, larger than life, who runs 'the essential trades of drugs, matka (gambling), smuggling and construction.' As the novel opens, Sartaj and other cops have started to track down Ganesh to an unlikely location, a heavily reinforced concrete building that appears to be a bomb shelter. After negotiations fail to persuade him to come out, Sartaj orders a bulldozer operator to demolish the structure. When this is done, police find the dead bodies of Ganesh and an unknown woman. Telling you this spills no secrets. Ganesh is found dead on page 44 of a 900-page novel. Such suspense as the remaining pages contain mainly has to do with revealing how Ganesh and Sartaj reach this moment. In part, this is told by Ganesh himself, speaking to Sartaj from beyond the grave in chapters of reminiscence and defiant self-justification that alternate with chapters in which Sartaj pursues petty cases and finds himself drawn into the 'great danger to national security' that intelligence operatives believe Ganesh's activities to entail. One of the operatives, an old man on his deathbed, summarizes it all: 'The world is shot through with crime, riddled with it, rotted by it. The Pakistanis and the Afghans run a twenty-billion-dollar trade in heroin, which is partly routed through India, through Delhi and Bombay, to Turkey and Europe and the United States. ... The criminals provide logistical support, moving men and money and weapons across the borders. The politicians provide protection to the criminals, the criminals provide muscle and money to the politicians. That's how it goes. The (enemy) agency recruits a disaffected Indian criminal, Suleiman Isa, to plant bombs in the city of his birth, makes him a major player in the endless war. To fight their criminal, we need our own criminal. Steel cuts steel. Criminals have good intelligence on their rivals. It is necessary to deal with Gaitonde, for the greater good.' Minutes later the dying operative thinks, 'The game lasts, the game is eternal, the game cannot be stopped, the game gives birth to itself.' Or, as Ganesh somewhat obliquely puts it in a conversation with Sartaj minutes before he dies in the bomb shelter: 'Build it big or small, there is no house that is safe. To win is to lose everything, and the game always wins.' This seems to be a cynical, world-weary variation on the old sportswriter Grantland Rice's maxim: 'It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.' Well, the game played by just about everyone in this novel is deadly, and bodies fall in far greater numbers than one can hope to count. This is especially true of Swami Shridlar Shukla, the Hindu guru who becomes Ganesh's spiritual adviser. When Ganesh says to him, 'People who are truly spiritually advanced are peaceful. They are against violence,' the guru coldly replies: 'Have not holy men fought before? Have they not urged warriors to battles? Does spiritual advancement mean that you should not take up weapons when confronted by evil?' As that may suggest, the guru has big plans. 'We are approaching a time of great change,' he tells Ganesh. 'It is inevitable, it is necessary, it will happen and has to happen. And the signs of the change are all around us. Time and history are like a wave, like a building storm. We are approaching the crest, the outburst. ... Only after the explosion, we will find silence and a new world. This is sure. Do not doubt the future. I assure you, mankind will step into a golden age of love, of plenty, of peace. So do not be afraid.' But Ganesh is indeed afraid. He suspects, as do Indian intelligence agents and other law officers, that the guru and his henchmen hope to explode a nuclear device somewhere, causing incalculable devastation and provoking governments into setting off explosions of their own. The guru's talk about 'the end of the world' may, it is feared, be more than mere bluster. That's the main preoccupation of the novel, at least in its final three or four hundred pages, but zillions of other stories and characters clamor for the reader's attention: a flight attendant who's being blackmailed because of an affair she's having with a pilot; a teenaged boy whose dead body is found in one of the city's poorer areas; a mysterious madam who provides Ganesh with an endless supply of women whom he assumes to be virgins; her sister, to whom Sartaj finds himself attracted; a female intelligence agent who carefully leads Sartaj along the path to Ganesh; a mysterious organization called Hizbuddeen that may or may not be an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist operation; innumerable cops and others on the take, in a world where bribery is dull, quotidian reality. Et cetera, et cetera. It may sound exciting and engaging, but it isn't, and when the novel's climax finally occurs, it's the most anticlimactic climax I can recall. But it is, perhaps, a fitting climax to a book that, for all its ambition and intelligence, ends up going nowhere at all. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] riveting epic....Chandra has created a compulsively involving literary thriller by drawing on the Mahabharata and aiming for the amplitude of Victorian novels....A splendidly big, finely made book destined to dazzle a big audience." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Chandra's gangster world is dynamic, occasionally absurd, and replete with social commentary and philosophic observations....Chandra also imbues his characters with humanity and color, even if his plot and writing style could do with tighter editing. Recommended." Library Journal
"Chandra manages to forge an intimacy between the reader and the two often morally unattractive men who rage across these 900 pages....Sacred Games is both riveting and brilliantly vile." Time Out
"[A] ravishing, overexuberant stab at the Great Indian Novel, an extraordinary work of fiction that will reward you in full for your investment of time, though not without occasionally testing your patience. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"It's not everyday that one reads a 900-page tome that's this good." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"It is a terrific, brilliant, earthmover of a book...and it has understandably made Chandra quite a bit famous back in India." San Antonio Express-News
"One of the coolest things about Sacred Games is the crash course it offers in 21st century Indian society and especially the life of Mumbai....Chandra's genius is in the way he trusts his readers." Los Angeles Times
"[An] immense, demanding novel....The appeal of Sacred Games lies in its mix of several commercially reliable formulas...along with considerable helpings of sex and violence plus enough genre-bending twists to keep pulp aficionados off balance and intrigued." Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review
"Unstinting in its ambition...flourishing in its characters...[an] intriguing act of literary decolonization....Sacred Games is cinematic in scope." Newsweek (International Edition)
"It has shootouts, sexy sirens, cops and robbers, double-crossers and hardboiled gutter-pungent lingo. It's not for the squeamish. The violence is bone-crunching." San Francisco Chronicle
Set in present-day Mumbai, Sacred Games tells the story of a notorious Hindu gangster and a police inspector whose lives unfold and eventually intersect with cataclysmic consequences. Reaching back in time to Partition and bringing to vivid life a profusion of characters and milieus, Chandra's extraordinary work depicts India with an unsurpassed richness of detail: its complexity and violence, the worlds of the poor and the wealthy, the heroes of Bollywood movies and the striving of human beings from every walk of life. As the story unfolds with surprising twists at every turn, the great game takes shape, confounding everyone's expectations. Winning is an illusion, and characters powerful and humble find themselves mere pawns, struggling to regain control of their destinies.
Quintessentially Indian yet surprisingly universal, Chandra's book evokes brilliantly and with devastating realism the way we live now. A gripping epic saga, Sacred Games is filled with humour, tragedy and characters who prove to be all too human.
About the Author
Vikram Chandra was born in New Delhi. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. His collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book (Eurasia Region) and was a New York Times Notable Book. Vikram Chandra divides his time between Mumbai and Berkeley, where he teaches at the University of California. His work has been translated into eleven languages.
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