Friday, March 16, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Games (2006)

What is common between a petty gold smuggler, a Maharashtrian "bhai", the right arm of right-wing Hindu outfit, a "secular Don", a Bollywood film producer, a world famous godman's devotee, a bedder of starlets, and RAW's man off the coast of Thailand? In Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra's recent whale of a novel -- nine hundred pages flat -- they are all the same person, that is to say they have all at one time or another been the man who calls himself Ganesh Gaitonde.

Yet this book is a lot more than the fictionalized biography of Gaitonde: its ambition is to give us Mumbai itself, and the many worlds and Indias that make the city, ranging from Naxalites on the run from Bihar, Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, Lucknavi girls out to make it big in Bollywood, a Dalit cop with a taste for dance bar girls, a right-wing Hindu politician with an abiding hatred of Muslims, a Muslim "social activist" who isn't above a little dadagiri and corruption of his own, a smalltime TV producer who pimps girls to anyone who'll pay, a transcendent swami in Guruji Shukla, an adulterous flight attendant who has to cope with a dead dog and blackmail, and of course the bhais: Suleiman Isa (clearly modeled on Dawood Ibrahim), Gaitonde himself, and countless others, ranging from Salim Kaka, Chota Badriya, and the oddly named Bunty.

And did I mention Mumbai's only Sikh senior inspector, Sartaj Singh? I should have: along with Gaitonde, Sartaj is the closest Sacred Games comes to a "hero." And this "hero" has to figure out why Ganesh Gaitonde -- one of Mumbai's preeminent bhais, in self-imposed exile in South-East Asia for years -- returned to the city, holed up in an odd-looking cube of a house in Kailashpada; why Sartaj was alerted of his presence, and why Gaitonde killed himself. There's more: for the mystery the reader must solve is: if Gaitonde is dead, who is the "I" speaking of Gaitonde's life as his own, taking us through his life from rags to riches to espionage to terror?

Chandra has a sure hand, and navigates the reader through his vast cast of characters with great authority, without ever seeming to rush, and without ever shaking the reader out of a conviction that everyone and everything is somehow connected, that it all will add up in the end. The artifice, more accurately the seductive power of this artifice, the need to make sense, afflicts many of the book's characters, and it takes an alert reader to avoid falling into the trap. The trap of wholeness, of a reality that makes sense if you simply know enough, such that once you have accounted for all the facts you can see the truth of this reality, feel it like an object as it were. The delusion is perhaps necessary for police work, and (as Gaitonde learns) essential if one is to think of oneself as a self -- but that doesn't make it any less of a trap. For taken to its larger, cosmic conclusion, one might be left with the delusion that if everything is connected into a coherent whole, then there may be a comprehensive, "total" solution for that which ails the whole. And it is here that the horror -- on a scale larger than the "merely" human -- begins (though there's plenty of "merely" human-sized horror in this book too, some of it of the stomach churning kind). That Chandra chooses the relationship between Guruji and Gaitonde to explore this worldview demonstrates -- very subtly -- his firm understanding of classical Hinduism, and -- less subtly -- his political sympathies. The two are not unconnected: Chandra clearly wishes to draw a distinction between a "traditionally" dharmic view, and that offered by those who peddle religion for consumption, who speak of a totalizing consciousness but cannot abide life's messiness, who dream of the peaceful order of the graveyard.

Sacred Games is in a sense the great Bollywood novel I have long been waiting for. Not because this is a novel set in the film industry (it isn't for the most part), but because its overarching structure appears to be borrowed from that of Bollywood's masala genius, Manmohan Desai. But not merely "borrowed"; Chandra is far more suspicious of tying up loose ends than Desai was, and so I should add that the Desaiesque schema is refracted here, giving us a rich and strange terrain that is nothing if not twisted, yet oddly, affectingly, humane at the end of it all. Everything is connected, as in Amar Akbar Anthony, but banish the thought of neat resolution at the end of it all: no-one, no single person can ever know the random ways in which we are thrown against those we have never met, those to whom we are inextricably bound. The novel is also Bollywood to the core in its assimilation of every manner of gangster film (and even -- don't laugh -- Qayamat) into a narrative that is far more through, far more persuasive, and far less glamorous than anything the likes of Ram Gopal Verma have essayed.

And then, finally, there are the songs: snatches of songs and film references punctuate this book, from Gaata Rahe Mera Dil to Gabbar Singh to DDLJ to Dev Anand, Amitabh, Aamir, Shah Rukh, and yes, even Chandrachur and Fardeen Khan, to a host of Rafi and Kishore songs. This book, like the best Bollywood films, has a rollicking soundtrack. And yes, the only Tamil film mentioned is Nayakan.

The plot? Sorry folks, beyond what I've said there really isn't much I can say without giving the book away. The writing is often overwrought and indulgent, one can't really decide if one is reading a masala potboiler or a profound discourse on life and the meaning of it all, and Chandra is sometimes tripped up by political correctness (would have been nice to see some nasty Muslim bigots too in addition to the Hindu ones), but by the end of its nine hundred pages none of that will matter. Its unforgettable: read it.


Preyas Hathi said...

Hey Qalandar,
Nice review: i've been reading A Fine Balance, and I was thinking of the same thing: so much of literature really reads like Bollywood (or maybe I've seen too many Hindi films growing up), and my wife was quick to add this: our novels are as long as our films:)

Anonymous said...

Q-bhai - Appetizing review. Wants me to read it all the more inspite of the size.

warm regards,

Anonymous said...

oops...i did want to say "makes me want to read it all the more, inspite of the size"...blame it on....fatigue, laziness...what have you...