Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

You know how you read this enormous book and when you’re finally done, you still don’t want to put it down? I went back and re-read my favourite parts, savouring them just as much, all over again. Very few books have that effect on me.

Set in the criminal underworld of Mumbai, the book is the story of the intertwining lives of Marathi gangster, later dubbed the ‘Hindu don’, Ganesh Gaitonde and Sikh inspector Sartaj Singh. The book opens with Sartaj Singh, who has only ever heard of Gaitonde and the G-Company getting an anonymous tip-off of Gaitonde’s current location. On reaching there, Singh finds Gaitonde in an inaccessible bunker. After a quick chat, as Sartaj tries to get inside, Ganesh Gaitonde kills himself. Inside the bunker, the police find, along with the dead man, a woman, also shot. The investigation that follows is led by Sartaj Singh, who has to report to a mysteriously large national-international agency. The narrative is divided into the current investigation, led by Singh and the gangster-spy Gaitonde telling his own story. It’s not just the story of these two men, that the writer provides, but a full and intricate world, with stories and back-stories for a every character and a unique voice for most. In various inset chapters, the writer develops stories for seemingly minor characters; making me look at them not as characters but as people. Which makes me say: Sacred Games not just a book, it is so much more. There are a few things that I realized could have been better: the fact that there wasn’t a glossary present (but, I mean, really, how hard is it to figure out slang!), not to mention, the sheer size of the book (800 pages and counting.) The cheesy “the game always wins” tagline on the back cover didn’t help. Things could have been edited out, of course, some of the insets didn’t add up to much, but almost like with a Stephen King book, though I had to slog through the dull parts a bit, I barely recall having done so in the end. It just doesn’t matter!

Here’s what I liked. The book is honest. It gives a real, no-holds-barred picture of India, dirty slums and corruption included. But it does so with the eye of an insider; with Katekar complaining about the population, the police letting a few crimes go to catch a few bigger criminals, the successful bribing of all the cops, the squatters, the beggars expertly targeting the helpless foreigners, the addiction with Bollywood fame and the garbled Hindi-Marathi-English of Mumbai, not to mention, Gaitonde killing people with an unsettling ease. It has a lot of violence, swearing, all made realistic by putting them into a historical contest. It has the offensive religious debates and discrimination characteristic of the country. It has as much social criticism as the ever-so-famous, Booker winning White Tiger, except it rings true. My problem with White Tiger is this: it is impossible to imagine a man who’s part of the system look at it from such a strikingly objective view. In Sacred Games, the social critique hits you even harder as the characters are more convincing. The book makes you think of Mumbai as a living being with a disease, instead of providing you with the text-book knowledge of the rift between the rich and the poor and other problems faced by the country.

It is a good picture of India, for whoever’s interested. Not only because it shows the evil, the kind that can make you tremendously queasy; but because it shows you the truly good things about India. It captures the spirit of the place; I could imagine myself strolling through the city with all the descriptions of people humming old Kishore Kumar-Dev Anand songs, car-radios blaring, the fashion, the typical Mumbai chai and food, and the descriptions of the sea-side. I have noticed many Indian authors using native words in italics, carefully explained by footnotes, most likely to create an exotic atmosphere. What I loved with Sacred Games is that the author has incorporated the typical English words and phrases you’d regularly hear here: people casually deflecting thank yous with a “Mention not.”, declaring a movie too ‘filmi’, describing someone as wearing a ‘checked shirt’ and the moderately fancy restaurants having ‘rexine sofas’. There’s a lot of Hindi swearing, though, but I don’t see how the book could have done without that, a bunch of Mumbai gangsters saying ‘bastard’ won’t quite have the same effect.

Ultimately the book is a Bollywood movie, a good one, anyway, which is something I never thought I’d use as a compliment; in that, it’s classic and just stereotypical enough to work really well. It makes a point, and gives you an at once funny, thrilling, touching time. If you expect a book with a clean linear plot, with a start, a middle and an end; this book, not being very organized, may disappoint you. Read the book expressly to be entertained, shocked and surprised and I’m sure, you will be.

8 thoughts on “Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra”

  1. Wow.. I would love to read it. Just last day I finished Dongri to Dubai, a detailed history of Mumbai Mafia.


  2. Oh, I think I've heard of that! Wasn't it turned into some movie? I'll see if I can find the book. Sacred Games is certainly worth the read!


  3. "You know how you read this enormous book and when you're finally done, you still don't want to put it down?"

    yes! i love books like that. i'm unfamiliar with this author but will be on the lookout for him. thx for the heads up.


  4. mel u – I can imagine that! However, it is the sort of book that you can read in bits and pieces without losing track, so don't let the size intimidate you too much!


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