Vikram Chandra is a hot new Indian writer whose latest novel, Sacred Games, has won some critical plaudits, so I decided to take a look and found an accomplished author with some unique approaches. Sacred Games is a literary novel disguised as a detective/thriller. Chandra’s protagonist detective is a Sikh in a police department dominated almost entirely by Hindus, and so becomes a sort of litmus for all the fragmented racial, ethnic, and class elements that apparently make up modern Indian society. There are your basic Moslem-Hindu-Christian conflicts plus a long list of others I’d never heard of. There are also an amazing number of languages involved–Hindi, English, Magahi, Maithili, Urdu. In addition to the detective Sartaj, there’s a first person narrative by the novel’s primary antagonist–a street urchin cum crime lord who tells his story post-mortem. Since we already know the fact and manner of his death, it’s not a question of whodunit, but of how they done it as the detective and gangster work their ways to the collision point.
That part of the story was intriguing, even spellbinding. However, there is a host of other characters (there’s a character list at the beginning of the book) and the number of languages often broke the spell and left me puzzling about who was speaking and what they were saying. I consider myself good at picking up definitions in context and not letting the unfamiliar interrupt my “fictive dream,” but often Sacred Games got the best of me.
The little Maderchod has not even smelt a Ferrari in bhenchod district Begu Sarai. They don’t even have Chutiya roads there which are worthy of being called roads. … There was one ruptured road winding through the fields, and muddy little kachcha lanes leading off to the clumps of huts and houses.
Obviously there’s some cursing going on here, but it’s so heavy that you want to know some definitions. The book is heavily glossed, but only three of the four expletives in this passage appear in the glossary. Besides, having to look up that many words in such a short space of time makes for more work than even this well-written book is worth.
Too, I think the book could have used a Maxwell Perkins to trim things down a bit. It comes to nine-hundred pages as it is, which includes two “insets,” which turned out to be short stories (quite good ones) about characters who are not in the novel, but whose circumstances resemble and reflect upon the situations of the man narrative. Well and good, but the main narrative speaks quite nicely itself (though there’s still rather too much of it) and these insets could have nicely gone on to have a life of their own, and Sacred Games would have been better in the end.
Despite all the clutter, though, Chandra’s book is a rewarding read. the book’s characters are all trapped in one way or another–in their jobs, their religions, their marriages, their pasts–and they all try at one point or another to make a break. They have varying degrees of success, but none of them is able to spring out completely. In the end, Chandra seems to imply, the best thing is not just to make the best of things, but to embrace and find the goodness in them–whatever they are. Therein lies some measure of happiness, even if you can’t seem to escape from a place as nasty, smelly, and filthy as Mumbai (Bombay).