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Tales from the underworld

By Vikram Chandra
Last updated on: August 08, 2006 18:25 IST
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Vikram Chandra took seven years to complete Sacred Games, an epic 900-page novel of love and betrayal. It is a massive work that deserves to be read, not merely for Chandra's widely respected ability to create fine prose, but also for the amount of research it demands.

Born in New Delhi, Chandra is the author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain (winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1995) and Love and Longing in Bombay (winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book in 1997).

We present an excerpt from Sacred Games that reflects this balance of research and creative writing. We enter the narrative at the point when good cop Sartaj Singh is about to capture ganglord Ganesh Gaitonde. Who wins? To find out, stop by your nearest bookstore:

With the sleek little television remote in his hand, Sartaj flicked fast from a car race in Detroit to a dubbed American show about women detectives to a slug, slick and brown, in some huge winding river and then to a filmi countdown show. Two heroines in red miniskirts, smiling and curvy and neither more than eighteen, danced on top of the arches of the vine-wrapped ruin of a palace.

Sartaj clicked again. Against a trembling background of news-file clips cut fast, a blonde VJ chattered fast about a bhangra singer from London and his new album. The VJ was Indian, but her name was Kit and her glittering blonde hair hung to her bare shoulders. She thrust a hand at the camera and now suddenly she was in a huge mirrored room filled from end to end with dancers moving together and happy. Kit laughed and the camera moved close to her face and Sartaj saw the lovely angular planes of her face and felt the delicious contentment of her slim legs. He snapped off the television and stood up.

Sartaj walked stiffly to the window. Beyond the fizzing yellow lamps in the compound of the neighbouring building, there was the darkness of the sea, and far ahead, a sprinkling of bright blue and orange that was Bandra (a suburb in northwest Mumbai). With a good pair of binoculars, you could even see Nariman Point (in Mumbai's business district), not so far across the sea but at least an hour away on empty night-time roads, and very far from Zone 13 (a police district of Mumbai). Sartaj felt a sudden ache in his chest. It was as if two blunt stones were grinding against each other, creating not fire but a dull, steady grow, a persistent and unquiet desire. It rose into his throat and his decision was made.

Twelve minutes of fast driving took him through the underpass and on to the highway. The open stretches of road and the wheel slipping easily through his fingers were exhilarating, and he laughed at the speed. But in Tardeo (in southcentral Mumbai) the traffic was backed up between the brightly-lit shops, and Sartaj was suddenly angry at himself, and wanted to turn around and go back.

The question came to him with the drumming of his fingers on the dashboard: What are you doing? What are you doing? Where are you going in your ex-wife's car, which she left you out of kindness, which might fall to pieces under your gaand (your behind) on this pitted horror of a road? But it was too late, the journey half-done even though the first glad momentum was gone, and he drove on. By the time he pulled up, parked and walked to the Cave, it was almost one and now he was very tired. But here he was and he could see the crowd around the back door, which was the one open after closing time at eleven-thirty.

They parted for him and let him through. He was older, yes, maybe even much older, but there was no reason for the curious stares and the silence as he stepped through. They were dressed in loose shiny shirts, shorter dresses than he had even seen, and they made him very nervous. He fumbled at the door, and finally a girl with a silver ring through her lower lip reached out and held it open for him. By the time it occurred to him that he should thank her, he as already inside and the door was closing. He squared his shoulders and found a corner at the bar.

With a draught beer in his hand, he had something to do, and so he turned to face the room. He was hedged in close, and it was hard to see more than a few feet, and everywhere they were talking animatedly, leaning close to each other and shouting against the music. He drank his beer quickly, as if he were interested in it. Then his mug was empty and he ordered another one. There were women on all sides, and he looked at each in turn, trying to imagine himself with each one. No, that was too far ahead, so he tried to think of what he would say to any one of them.

Hello. No, Hi. Hi, I'm Sartaj. Try to speak English only. And with a smile. Then what? He tried to listen to the conversation on his left. They were talking about music, an American band that he had never heard of, but that was only to be expected, and a girl with her back to Sartaj said, 'The last cut was too slow,' and Sartaj lost the response from the pony tailed boy facing her, but the other girl with the small upturned nose said, 'It was cool, bitch.' Sartaj upended his mug and wiped his mouth. The desire that had brought him across the city had vanished suddenly, leaving a dark residue of bitterness. It was very late and he was finished.

He paid quickly and left. There was a different lot near the door now, but again with the same silence, the same stares, the same beaded necklaces and piercings and practiced dishevelment, and he understood that his elegant blue trousers marked him fatally as an outsider. By the time he reached the end of the lane he had no confidence in his white shirt with the button-down collar either. He navigated the right turn on to the main road carefully, stepping over two boys sleeping on the pavement, and walked towards the Crossroads mall, where he had parked. His feet fell soundlessly on the littered pavement and the shuttered shop doors loomed above. I can't be this drunk on two beers, he thought, but the lampposts seemed very far away and he wanted very much to shut his eyes.

Sartaj went home. He fell into his bed. Now he was able to sleep, it slid heavily on to his shoulders like a choking black landslide. And then instantly it was morning and the shrill grinding of the telephone was in his ear. He groped his way to it.

'Sartaj Singh?' The voice was a man's, peremptory and commanding.

'Yes?'

'Do you want Ganesh Gaitonde?'

Chapter: Siege in Kailashpada

'You're never going to get in here,' the voice of Gaitonde said over the speaker after they had been working on the door for three hours. They had tried a cold chisel on the lock first, but what had looked like brown wood from a few feet away was in fact some kind of painted metal, and although it turned white under the blade and rang like a sharp temple bell, the door didn't give. Then they had moved to the lintels with tools borrowed from a road crew, but even when the road men took over, wielding the sledgehammers with long, expert swings and huffing breaths, the concrete bounced their blows off blithely, and the Sony speaker next to the door laughed at them. 'You are behind the times,' Gaitonde crackled.

'I'm not getting in, you're not getting out,' Sartaj said.

'What? I can't hear you.'

Sartaj stepped up to the door. The building was precise cube, white with green windows, on a large plot of land in Kailashpada, which was on the still-developing northern edge of Zone 13. Here, among the heavy machinery groping at swamp, edging Bombay out farther and wider, Sartaj had come to arrest the great Ganesh Gaitonde, gangster, boss of the G-company and wily and eternal survivor.

'How long are you going to stay in there, Gaitonde?' Sartaj said, craning his neck up. The deep, round video eye of the camera above the door swivelled from side to side and then settled on him.

'You're looking tired, Sardar-ji,' Gaitonde said.

'I am tired,' Sartaj said.

'It's very hot today,' Gaitonde said sympathetically. 'I don't know how you sardars (Sikh men) manage under those turbans.'

There were two Sikh commissioners on the force, but Sartaj was the only Sikh inspector in the whole city, and so was used to being identified by his turban and beard. He was known also for the cut of his pants, which he had tailored at a very film-starry boutique in Bandra, and also for his profile, which had once been featured by Modern Woman magazine in 'The City's Best-Looking Bachelors'. Katekar, on the other hand, had a large paunch that sat on top of his belt like a suitcase, and a perfectly square face and very thick hands, and now he came around the corner of the building and stood wide-legged, with his hands in his pockets. He shook his head.

'Where are you going, Sardar-ji?' Gaitonde said.

'Just some matters I have to take care of,' Sartaj said. He and Katekar walked to the corner together, and now Sartaj could see the ladder they had going up to the ventilator.

'That's not a ventilator,' Katekar said. 'It only looks like one. There's just concrete behind it. All the windows are like that. What is this place, sir?'

'I don't know,' Sartaj said. It was somehow deeply satisfying that even Katekar, Mumbai native and practitioner of a very superior Bhuleswar-bred cynicism, was startled by an impregnable white cube suddenly grown in Kailashpada, with a black, swivel-mounted Sony video camera above the door. 'I don't know. And he sounds very strange, you know. Sad almost.'

'What I have heard about him, he enjoys life. Good food, lots of women.'

'Today he's sad.'

'But what's he doing here in Kailashpada?'

Sartaj shrugged. The Gaitonde they had read about in police reports and in the newspapers dallied with bejewelled starlets, bankrolled politicians and bought them and sold them -- his daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas(businesses) was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes, and his name was used to frighten the recalcitrant. Gaitonde Bhai(brother) said so, you said, and the stubborn saw reason, and all roads were smoothed, and there was peace.

But he had been in exile for many years -- on the Indonesian coast in a gilded yacht, it was rumoured -- far but only a phone call away. Which meant that he might as well have been next door, or as it turned out, amazingly enough, industry Kailashpada. The early-morning man with the tip-of had hung up abruptly, and Sartaj had jumped out of bed and called the station while pulling on his pants, and the police party had come roaring to Kailashpada in a  hasty caravan bristling with rifles. 'I don't know,' Sartaj said. 'But now that he's here, he's ours.'

Excerpted with the publishers' permission from Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, Penguin India, Rs 650.

To order Sacred Games online click here

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