Literature is a sustained coincidence between imagination and reality mediated by language. Imagination and reality in indo-anglian fiction, brewed from history, ideology, and myth, are poured into those epic tuns that sell so well in our literary bazaars. Buttressing them is the belief of critic and novelist Amit Chaudhuri that “since India is a baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well.”
Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games qualifies as one of the baggier monsters on view. At over 900 pages and a 16-page glossary, Chandra’s third book comes with its own epic weight and attendant myths. “This book has everything,” claims Adam Mars Jones in The Independent, as if the novel were a Borgesian encyclopedia. Seven years in the writing, like Desai’s Booker Prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss, with a seven-figure advance and a huge publicity budget, Sacred Games has pushed Chandra into the realms of celebrity. A heady brew for an immensely gifted, thoughtful writer and academic.
Not all baggy monsters from India are as easy to read as Vikram Seth’s works. Chandra’s first novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which placed storytelling as its main conceit, was more of an omnium gatherum than Sacred Games. One-third less bulky than Games, it featured a reincarnated monkey at the typewriter producing a tumult of stories with characters who ranged from various Hindu gods to Rajputs who emerged from ladoos to missionaries and adventurers like Sarthey and La Borgne, and Captain Skinner of Skinner’s Horse.
While there were nods to Rushdie and Indian epics, the book bore the imprimatur of John Barth, Chandra’s teacher at Johns Hopkins, whose metafictions were exhaustive composites of the chaos and detritus of 1960s America. However, unlike both Rushdie and Barth, Chandra’s language was spare and pointed, notwithstanding the exuberance and the pell-mell appearances of characters in this often bewildering array of tales.
Nowhere was Chandra’s pointillism more evident than in the subsequent Love and Longing in Bombay, which appeared in 1997. This collection of long short stories explored with humor, passion, and romance the high-and-low contradictions of life in the Bombay of the 1990s economic boom. As a disproof of Amit Chaudhuri’s latter-day fears of baggy monsters overwhelming shorter fictional forms, the stories were beautifully shaped, the prose polished, and the thinking mature.
One pungent episode in Love and Longing featuring Sartaj Singh, “past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects,” whose pursuit of Ganesh Gaitonde, “a charming, ruthless, selfish gang boss who purges people,” forms the locus of the action of Sacred Games. In Chandra’s latest work, Sartaj’s discovery of the corpses of the gangster Gaitonde and his moll in a nuclear bunker near stacks of newly counterfeited rupees sets off a chain of events. Through chance more than deduction, the investigation leads the police officer to the sinister Guruji who is plotting a nuclear holocaust in Bombay to be blamed on Indian Muslims and Pakistan, with inevitable consequences.
Although The Hindustan Times called Sacred Games “the greatest book on Bombay ever written,” Chandra denies that it is a Bombay book at all. Games does not have exactly the sprawl of the naturalistic 19th-century novel of Dickens or Wilkie Collins, who both tapped their cities. If anything, the Bombay in the pages of Sacred Games represents the seething side of Chandra’s “city of schisms” that we saw in Love and Longing. Sacred Games fixes on its locale the same gaze that Naipaul, Rushdie, and Suketu Mehta in Maximum City turned on the seamier aspects of Bombay life.
Chandra’s Bombay reflects the glamour and wealth that has attracted millions from the villages. On his travels, Sacred Games’s gang boss Gaitonde observes “farmers who carried mobile phones and murdered their daughters and sons for marrying out of caste.” It’s as if Chandra is challenging Shashi Tharoor’s humorous inversion that “India is not an underdeveloped country but a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” Chandra’s Bombay also reflects Pankaj Mishra’s observation that it has “become home to feral forms of capitalism . . . an intricate network of greed, envy, and lust which binds politicians, tycoons, and civil servants to mafia dons, Bollywood stars, and slumlords.” The book in the city is “shot through with crime, riddled with it, rotted by it.” Sartaj’s partner is on the take. Many gangsters turn respectable as businessmen or as politicians. Quite unironically, mafia families in Bombay are known as “companies” and are often used by Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Although Chandra lives and works in the U.S., nobody seems to question the right of overseas Indians to represent the India of their imaginations. Nayantara Sahgal’s defense of writing in India stresses that “home-grown writing of any country comes out of a home-grown sensibility” and that home-grown writers “are joined by the gut to the nitty gritty of this particular social and political environment.” Similarly, Vijay Tendulkar, India’s foremost playwright, notes that “if you are not rooted in this reality then writing about this reality is either sheer nostalgia or fiction. You may be able to impress the Booker Prize people but you cannot impress us.” To them, Rushdie’s claim that diasporic Indian writers “create fictions, not actual cities or villages but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind” is apparently not a persuasive argument for the pre-eminence of the non-resident Indian (NRI) novel in English among Indian cultural artifacts.
Nonetheless, Chandra’s roots are in Bombay and he stays connected to the city more than most diasporic writers. For this book, he investigated the underworld by talking directly to gangsters and cops. Gaitonde, for instance, seems to be a composite of the gangsters Arun Gawle, now a politician, and Chhota Rajan. According to him, “research has become important because we live in a confessional age.”
In an interview with Sonia Faleiro, Chandra notes that, as he was growing up, “English and Bombaiya Hindi [weren't] being represented” in his reading environment. As a response to criticism of the diasporic novel in English silencing vernacular literatures in India, Sacred Games invokes a lumpen milieu whose language teems with the violent and sexist argot of the bastis, where cosmopolitanism and English speakers are resented. “These Englishwallahs,” says one character in the book, “were always superior, as if the world they loved was some other one, far from my arrack, my streets, my home,” sentiments that have a long history in the peculiar growth of the city.
Bounded by the Arabian Sea, flanked by what is now Pakistan, and backed by Rajasthan’s deserts and the expanses of Madhya Pradesh, its major city reclaimed from islands and the sea, the former State of Bombay developed a beleaguered frontier consciousness early on. With the growth of maritime commerce, industry, and the movement of rural Indians to Bombay, a fully fledged ideology derived from European fascism and vaunted Aryan (that is, Hindu) and Marathi civilizations began to take root. The partition of the state along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1955 gave these myths of foundational identity a new currency in the form of epic myths that were actually distorted revisionist histories. This is the vision of a pristine India free of “invaders” that is espoused in Sacred Games by the nuclear-plotting Guruji and the right-wingers who enlist Gaitonde’s help.
In the Faleiro interview, Chandra deprecated this extreme “movement towards social censorship, towards an imagined idealism of a glorious past which never really existed; a fear of the foreign, and especially of women and of sex, of women’s sexuality expressed in virility and culture, is really distressing . . . it’s more like liberalism doesn’t necessarily reside in Bombay. Bombay is sometimes the most retrograde, tending towards fascism.” He noted Bombay’s “strange schizophrenia and purposeful blindness of one part of the city to another.” (Reflecting this schism, the city was renamed Mumbai by the lumpen right.)
Chandra’s apprehensions are not new or invented. A specter is haunting India. In Sacred Games, Guruji’s belief system refers to the recent rise of political Hinduism of the upper castes in India, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led a campaign that ended in the demolition of the old mosque Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, an act that sparked violence and ended in much soul searching among Indians. In Identity and Violence, the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen debunked the so-called clash of Hindu and Muslim civilizations that is routinely invoked to support the supremacy of a spurious monocultural Hindu identity. Salman Rushdie correctly flagged this debate over secularism as key to the democratic future of the country.
The armageddon that Guruji longs for in Sacred Games is an outgrowth of local histories, distorted into myth by bigotry and hatred. V.S. Naipaul wrote about the tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay, whose mafia dons were seen as protectors of their communities, and the gangster Bal Thackeray admitted to orchestrating the city’s 1992 post-Ayodhya riots in which thousands, mostly Muslims, were killed. Bombay was further bloodied by a series of retaliatory bombings, allegedly set off on the orders of Dawood Ibrahim, an expatriate don.
This reliance on myth in politics and literature in India is important for what it engenders. The NRI novel, written by Indians living in the U.K. and North America, sometimes consciously uses the form of a religious epic to recover a mythical, imaginary India. The first Indian novel in English to subsume an Indian epic that I know of was Shashi Tharoor’s often-comic graft of the religious epic on actual historical events, The Great Indian Novel (a literal translation of the title of the Indian epic, Mahabharata). In her speech to the Sahitya Akademi in February 2007, Nayantara Sahgal cited the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma who said that India had two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but that its third epic was the culture we call Indian, which she understood as a “composite, many-faceted culture” that has “remained open and assimilative,” an understanding that is often missing from the NRI novel.
It seems that Chandra has set his sights on just such an epic. Writing on Sacred Games in The New Yorker, Mishra found in Chandra’s “calm, Homeric objectivity” a “particularly Indian ambition to retool the novel as an epic form.” Yet for someone who wants to guide the Indian novel from its middle-class 19th-century English moorings to an epic place, Chandra’s project runs some risks. Surely, there are many epics, many syncretic cultures, experiences, voices, and myths that define this complex country.
To resolve some of those tensions, Chandra accommodates transgressive diversities in his plot and characterizations. Our lead cop Sartaj, for example, is a Sikh who is attracted to a relative of his dead colleague, a Hindu. The much more engaging criminal Gaitonde, a foul-mouthed, self-engrossed but eloquent Hindu gangster, has a Muslim girlfriend. He is a secularist at first but switches his allegiance to the religious right out of opportunism. “Becoming Ganesh Gaitonde, the Hindu Bhai,” he says, “was itself an act of murder, it was the murder of a thousand and one selves.”
Chandra’s even-handed treatment is also evident in the many “confessional” layers or backstories that problematize truth, history, and myth in this book. Each of the characters gets his or her equal “air time,” but, in the absence of balancing counter-narratives, some of these characters can betray their perspectives on history. For instance, the horrors experienced in 1947 by Sartaj’s family members who fled what became Pakistan (and who remain unconnected to the main action of the story) are recounted in a backstory towards the end of the novel. Certainly Chandra is following Jill Didur’s assertion that partition literature “serves a major function in the formation as well as the contestation of the nation” but why not let the history stand on its own instead of subordinating it to myths that theocrats have used to legitimize all kinds of excesses, such as Guruji’s nuclear misadventure? Also, critics like Mishra have noted that the many long backstories retard the dynamics of the main plot, and many have been dissatisfied with the book’s James Bond-like finale. Mishra goes on to lament that in the face of so much glorified violence the tone of moral inquiry “comes too late in the book.”
Ultimately, Sacred Games reflects the big Bombay dream, about making good against the odds in a crime-ridden city that’s depicted in the same way that Hammett and Chandler wrote about L.A. (but without an authorial slant). Readers are thrown into Chandra’s relentlessly violent and sexist world, forced to negotiate their way by themselves. Underneath the epic layer, the gritty texture of daily life and the very real violence can be felt. The book opens with a white Pomeranian named Fluffy being thrown out of a fifth-floor window, and things don’t let up much from there. In depicting all this, the sheer physicality of the language may be the book’s finest achievement. There are epic descriptions of lopping off of limbs that would have not been out of place in an Icelandic saga. Witness: “the sound of a finger breaking is not very large, but it is dry, sharper than you’d expect. It is a quiet, creaky sound, a small firecracker bursting.”
For his own part, Chandra admits that “Sacred Games is horribly violent.” Yet there seems to be a reason for all this violence. The mordant humor of it, as Carl Bromley observes in his thoughtful commentary on Sacred Games in The Nation, turns somber when violence becomes increasingly sacralized by myth. Further, Guruji notes that “life feeds on life . . . and the beginning of life is violence.”
It also must be said that, after all, this is Bombay, whose citizens despair of “aged-and-cured wickedness of the city, its piquant scandals, its bitter breakdowns, its ferociously musty unfairness.” Towards the end, Gaitonde thinks of this “crawling ants’ nest of a city eaten by fire, all of it crumpled and black and twisting and finally gone.” Sartaj imagines the “day it’ll just fall apart” and “there was a certain gratification in that thought. Let that maderchod blow.”
Yet there is a hint of hope. Characters rail: “What do these bastards have against Bombay? They don’t mention any other cities?” Gaitonde is shaken by the idea of the city’s “stinking corpses.” Appropriately, in his essay Bromley notes that “the two parallel narrative lines that Gaitonde and Sartaj inhabit become fused; across the thick of time and space the cop and the gangster become, in a sense, allies in their attempt to save Bombay from annihilation.”
Inspired by Don Quixote, Thornton Wilder had said that “all books live by the voice of the author, books are all personality.” Sacred Games does not damn the Bombay Dream the way Theodore Dreiser exposed the American grab-all approach to riches, as an authorial voice is absent for most of the book. Although Games does supply a gap in Indian crime fiction in English, it could have benefited from the critical distance that marks the slim works of Leonardo Sciascia, as well as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano, all of which expose the police, the church, mafiosi and the corrupt political apparatus of Sicily, or even those of James McClure’s Tromper and Zondi series set in apartheid South Africa. Sacred Games resembles less H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s gentle and frustrated style of detection than The Sopranos or Elmore Leonard, a writer Chandra admires. Moreover, the narrative logic of rationality required by crime fiction seems to be at odds with the epic novel form that Games aspires to.
Mishra distinguishes Games from the traditional novel about a “bourgeois individual who seeks self-knowledge and strives to establish his moral worth in a historically circumscribed society.” According to him, “Chandra believes that many Indians, pulled between tradition and modernity in a chaotically populous and poor country, have a less psychologically inhibited sense of self and a mythic, rather than a historical, sense of their place in their world.” He may be closest to the truth in describing the book as a masala novel with a mandala-like structure. In his opinion, the book owes much to Bollywood films which “capture flexible nature of non-bourgeois self-perceptions, moving away as they do from documentary naturalism to an epic mode of storytelling without getting bogged down in psychological realism.” The book refers to films at many points: Gaitonde’s moll Zoya Mirza says of her lover “He played the part of Ganesh Gaitonde even when he was alone with himself” and, in another place, “He was a short man trying to act like some hero.” Fittingly, the title of Bromley’s review in The Nation is “Bombay Confidential” and Mishra’s “Bombay Noir.”
Bromley’s and Mishra’s final verdict seems to be that Sacred Games has many strengths and that although its flaws are few they are perhaps fatal. This seems accurate to me. Size matters to a country bent on making it as a superpower, no matter what, and to its citizenry that is obsessed with having the best and the biggest to boast about. Yet perhaps size got the best of Chandra here. I expect great things from his next work, no matter what scale he chooses, particularly if the work is rooted in history rather than myth. I hope we won’t have to wait another seven long years to hear again from one of the finest writers of English prose.
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