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Washington Post Book World
Friday, January 12th, 2007
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Sacred Games: A Novel

by Vikram Chandra

A Police Inspector and India's Most Notorious Gangster Collide in a Strange Relationship

A review by Jonathan Yardley

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 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.


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