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Vikram Chandra's big fat Mumbai book

By Jai Arjun Singh
Last updated on: August 30, 2006 12:38 IST
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Reading the publicity notes for Vikram Chandra's mammoth Sacred Games -- variously hailed as the Fiction Event of the Year and the latest Great Indian Novel - it's easy to be misled into thinking that this is a cop-vs-gangster story, albeit one that's at least three times longer than standard entries in the genre.

The protagonists are the Sikh police inspector Sartaj Singh and the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, and portraits of the two men bleed into each other on the book's delightfully lurid cover, which evokes pulp fiction.

Much of the book itself is racy and conversation-driven, and it can certainly be enjoyed at the level of thriller; Penguin India publisher Ravi Singh is on the ball when he says that this is the fastest-paced 900-page book you'll ever read.

But Sacred Games is more complex and layered than the marketing suggests. The book does give us the stories of Sartaj and Gaitonde, but in alternating chapters; they only actually meet once, and it's a downbeat, weary encounter.

Running between the pages of this novel is another, more thoughtful, more cynical narrative about the nature of identity and the endless and unknowable workings of action and reaction. This second book is driven by the characters' interior lives, their attempts to make sense of their world, and their inherent nihilism.

"What I set out to write," Chandra tells me at the Taj Mansingh hotel during the Delhi leg of his book tour, "was an anti-thriller."

The classical structure of the detective story, he explains -- "and sorry for sounding professorial" - goes like this: an unexplained case; the application of reason by the detective; the studying of clues; and the providing of an explanation. At the end, everything is in its right place, balance has been restored.

"But I wanted to invert that template by showing the numerous layers of history that play a part in the protagonists' lives. Gaitonde and Sartaj seem to belong to the classical detective tradition like Moriarty and Holmes, but in fact, like all of us, they are caught up in events that are far bigger - in a huge web of agendas and politics and ideologies."

Chandra's method for showing this is to pack an enormous, almost exhausting wealth of detail into the book, as well as to include "Inset" chapters that don't directly involve Sartaj or Gaitonde but provide a background to the events they are enmeshed in.

This isn't a completely successful device - without these interludes, Sacred Games could have been tighter and more appealing to the casual reader (who will baulk at the book's size anyway) -- but the author is clear about his reasons for including them.

"The Insets set up a layer of back-stories and provide a sense of the characters' interior lives. I wanted them to be like the subterranean notes in a symphony."

That Chandra likes to examine the interior workings of things, the enigma of cause and effect, is obvious from his nuanced, measured tone.

Even when we discuss the literary media's obsession with money (something that must have been a sore point for this reticent author who found himself in the spotlight because of the large advance he got for the book), he reflects on the historical reasons rather than expressing annoyance.

"Once princely patronage vanished," he says, "artists in India worked in a vacuum for a long time.

Naturally, the first few big book deals for Indian authors have given a charge to Indian English publishing, and the media has got onto the bandwagon. It's not necessarily a bad thing - it's certainly better than being ignored - but if it takes space away from meaningful conversation about the books, that's a problem."

Compared to some of today's young writers, out of college and straight into the bookshelves, Chandra was a late starter, all of 34 when his first book Red Earth and Pouring Rain was published.

Two years later, Love and Longing in Bombay established him as one of the leading Indian writers of his generation -- whereupon he slipped neatly out of the public glare for several years. He has been teaching at the University of California and dividing his time between Mumbai and Berkley.

Given his reputation for being low-profile, was the long gap planned? No, says Chandra, he didn't realise the third book would take this long to complete.

"Initially, I thought I was writing a very different, shorter book," he says.

"I was reacting to the environment in Mumbai and, in a larger sense, the country in the 1980s and 1990s. What I imagined was a localised story about the tapori down the street. But it soon became clear that in dealing with crime, the connections with all the other things were really important - politics, religion, the larger geopolitical tensions of the subcontinent."

The catalyst was a conversation with a senior police officer in Mumbai. "I asked him about an encounter involving automatic weapons, which had happened barely 50 feet from my house -- my father and I actually heard it. The cop said to me, "I can tell you the story of this shooter who was killed, and about the cop who brought him down, but if you really want to understand what's happening, you have to talk to these other people." He was implying that the layers of other things connected to this incident were larger than what my limited vision suggested. The local guy is connected to a larger don who in turn has been recruited into a much larger game."

At this point, the book started becoming bigger. "It began to encompass the narrative of the nation-state and even went back in time to the partition, the effects of which still roll on in our lives."

One of Chandra's finest achievements is the character of Ganesh Gaitonde and his rise through the crime ranks. Part philosopher, part visionary, Gaitonde is initially sceptical of custom, religion, anything that categorises people or creates divisions among them.

Eventually, however, he goes along with the myth others create for him - a Krishna bhakt, a Hindu don. For Chandra, this is a commentary on the human need for structure and identity.

"We are built to look for patterns in everything. Scientifically it's been shown that the brain is so attached to the idea of unity that whenever it sees emptiness, it wants to fill it in and create meaning.

Gaitonde, despite wanting to be a man alone, to live without structure, is seduced when someone offers him a narrative that explains him to himself."

The character is an amalgamation of people Chandra met over many years. "I spoke with people from the other side of the law, asked them about their lives. But one also takes in so much information that's incidental: the way they hold themselves, a silver statue of Krishna in the background - and all that stuff comes together even years later, and out pops this character who is a composite."

Many of the criminals Chandra met while working on the book were actively religious, thoughtful about their lives and aspiring towards a structured existence.

"There was this hitman, a highly rated shooter, who was a yoga-doing vegetarian. And he said to me, "Agar main meat khaata hoon, dimag garam ho jaata hai jabki thanda rahna chahiye." (`When I eat meat, my mind gets hot, it doesn't stay cool like it should.') He kept asking, "Why are you writing a book on the underworld? You should investigate life's big problems, the big issues facing us all'."

How difficult is it to put yourself into the head of a person who off handedly describes how he once hacked an informer to pieces and then went into his house, "…ate a little sabudane ki khichdi and went to sleep"?

"Obviously, I haven't lived Gaitonde's life," says Chandra, "but as a writer you have to find a little part inside yourself that might have a certain inclination and then develop it into something bigger. It's a bit like Method acting and you have to be careful not to let it dominate you too much." He laughs. "I guess that's why writers are famously unstable."

Chandra's strong movie connection - he went to film school at Columbia and later worked with Vidhu Vinod Chopra (his brother-in-law) on 1942: A Love Story and Mission Kashmir - also shows up in Sacred Games.

The book illustrates the fascinating synergy between the film world and the lives of gangsters and policemen. In one passage, for instance, Gaitonde and his boys start crying while watching Deewar, because they identify with what's going on; inevitably, one feels, some of these youngsters will start modelling their personalities on the Amitabh Bachchan character, who in turn was based on the real-life figure of Haji Mastan - thus perpetuating a never-ending circle.

"This relationship between life and cinema, or the visual arts in general, is a fact of our modern world," muses Chandra. "It happens elsewhere too - think of the Yakuza in Japan or the mafia in the US, and the constant cross-referencing between movies, television and the real-life practitioners."

In films financed by the underworld, he points out, the narrative is constructed by people who actually live it. In the book, this provides the cue for a very funny passage where a cantankerous old critic watches a movie made by Gaitonde and pronounces it "too filmi and clichéd – the filmmakers have obviously never met a real gangster".

This allows Chandra to make some observations on our notions of reality vs melodrama.

"The Indian upper and middle class has been trained to see reality in a specific way, which mostly comes from the tradition of psychological realism. So when we see the other kind of representation - in mainline cinema - we deny its veracity. But often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths even while seeming artifical on the surface."

"And what is overly emotional or melodramatic anyway?" he demands. "I look at what goes on in Indian families and by god, we're so melodramatic in real life!"

Having finished the opus, does he now plan to return to the regular-sized novel? "At this point I'm just taking a very determined holiday, including a sabbatical from teaching," he replies.

"The intention is to indulge myself by reading whatever I want, watching movies and bad television." And, of course, to get this sprawling book out of his head.

"It's a relief to escape the darkness of this world. I think I'll write something set on a pink island next: boy gets girl, girl gets boy, boy gets boy, everyone is happy!"

Returning to Mumbai after a 21-year absence, Mehta set off on a voyage of discovery, and this book about the city's many subcultures - Bollywood, the underworld, the sex industry among them - is the result.

Incidentally, Mehta and Chandra did much of the research for their books together, though there was eventually a falling out between the two men.

Mumbai from the perspective of an outsider who made the city his own - an Australian who escaped prison in the late 1970s and eventually found shelter (and a new name) in the Indian metropolis. Currently being made into a film with Johnny Depp in the lead role.

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Jai Arjun Singh
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