Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An area in abeyance

I want to write something good, but don’t know what. If I just start typing anything, it may turn out nothing more than gibberish, yet I have a feeling that just writing will help me reach something that may turn out to be distantly meaningful. I have been carrying a book daily in my bag to office, and whenever I open it in office — the bag, that is — I feel a certain sense of security in having something relatable to look at. Just the sense that there is a figment of deeply lived life resting right next to me, in those pages, waiting to fill me with wonder and bafflement, joy and passion, all at once. There are hours to pass, when work’s done, and the hands invariably reach for the book, to its first page — with the beguilingly heady promise of its contents. It is this notion that makes me defer completing "To the lighthouse". I believe I know the book already, in all its twists and minor glories, its crests and troughs, the lingering emotions, the nostalgia, tragic pain. It’s all fine, I find telling myself. You know it all — and reading it, gobbling it up in one go — will take away the promise of that charm forever. You would, in reading it, meet the man you’d become and whom you think you already know — this soul who’s completely, unabashedly your alter ego, filled with mystique and silence, merciful, almost a barge of naked emotion, filled to the brim with immensity — the immensity of faith, grief, love and the others. And it is this notion of your "other" that you postpone meeting, since what lies after that, is an area in abeyance, with no pointers to what it holds.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Differing worldviews

When uncomfortable with a book, I wonder to myself — what is it that can be done? To overcome this? What exactly? The problem with reviewers, perhaps, is that they are not writers themselves. When X comes up and says that this part of so-and-so author’s book was unnecessary, I think such an opinion comes from not having written that book itself. Because when one actually sets out to write, what comes across on the page can’t possibly follow the logic of fitting a pre-conceived structure. Writing is akin to baring the soul on the page, reaching out to the self in its deepest manifestation, and producing words that can mirror one’s experience. There will be failures, no doubt, in encapsulating the truth, but it would still be an image of the person who pens them. Therefore, it is futile to criticise for stylistic inaccuracies, because that would be like criticising someone for a broken limb. It’s how they are. This also implies that inadequacies of description needn’t always stem from a lack of the writing technique. Perhaps the writer isn’t meant to write what an evolved reader expects. Or, one writer may not be equipped to write what a given reader looks forward to, because the two subscribe to fundamentally different worldviews.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A policeman and his prey

Ten pages into this novel, you know that either Vikram Chandra has spent years researching this book or he is blessed with that keenness of observation we ordinary mortals can only dream of. Here, Inspector Sartaj Singh, made memorable in a brief appearance in Chandra's earlier collection of inter-related short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, carries forward his policing ways.

By day a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, Chandra metamorphoses into a prolific writer by night. Sacred Games is his third book, for which he was reportedly paid an advance of $1 million after a hectic transcontinental bidding war ensued between major publishers. He comes from a family that has its feet planted firmly in Bollywood (while one sister is a well-known director, the other is a respected film critic). One can then safely vouch that the magnanimous flights of imagination that have propelled his latest sprawling work are a quirk of heredity.

Chandra has said in an interview that when he wrote Kama, the story of Inspector Sartaj in the original collection, he was much more interested in the lives of police officers. But policing and crime are two sides of the same coin, and it is here, in this breathtakingly vast novel that checks out only after 900 pages, that Chandra binds these two interconnected narratives to a fitting conclusion.

The novel begins with Sartaj being tipped off about the final hiding place of dreaded Hindu don Ganesh Gaitonde. This is one of the finest sequences in the novel, as Ganesh, holed up inside his super-fortified bunker, regales Sartaj with stories of his heroism and his rise from mofussil obscurity to King of the Bombay Underworld.

From here, it's all in a day's work for the inspector as he deals with fighting couples, delinquent boys and issues of national security. We are given glimpses into Sartaj's emptiness and work - hard, police work - as respite from thought. The inspector makes the best of circumstances; he is a wily survivor and it is to Chandra's credit that he imbues him with such touching humanity that the character, warts and all, wins the reader's empathy.

The novel also points to the larger socio-political story churning India today - the rise of religious fundamentalism and its effect on local politics and crime syndicates. At one point in the novel, the daughter of Gaitonde's money handler approaches him to convince her father to allow her to marry a lower caste man. The girl, knowing fully well that her father would never accede to such a union, yet gathers the courage to approach Gaitonde because he is the leader of a gang widely known for its inclusive status, with Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and OBCs (Other Backward Castes) working together as Bhais, literally meaning 'brothers', a Bombay euphemism for underworld operatives. Gaitonde tries, but what ensues is another matter.

However, with the changing political climate and the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, he is forced to discard his secular ways and become a Hindu don, with sympathies towards the easily identifiable Rakshaks. Chandra does not mind picking up cudgels on behalf of his politics, it would seem from this book, with the names in it leading to all sorts of dreary, dark corners. As one progresses, one hops into plot details which aren't what they seemed at first glance. In a striking similarity with reports about real life underworld gangster Chota Rajan, Gaitonde is also used by the Indian intelligence towards breaking the back of his rival, Muslim don Suleiman Isa. If the author sought to make Sacred Games as much Gaitonde's story as Sartaj's, he has more than succeeded. If anything, in the stakes of preponderance, Gaitonde, with his enigmatic last line to Sartaj and hidden rituals of subservience to ascetics is tough competition to the Inspector. In him, Chandra has doffed his well-fitting hat to the Master of Petersburg.

This is not to suggest that the novel is all Crime and Punishment. Games boasts a Dickensian cast replete with Bollywood starlets, plastic surgery and "nippy star natter". What is a source of constant joy in this expansive fantasy land is that people with contrasting personalities, with such offbeat worries and cares, people who seem to land from disparate worlds, can survive — or should one say, even manage to go around together — within the claustrophobic confines of the booming metropolis that Bombay is. In no other city of India can such a diverse society flourish, and it is this spirit of Bombay that provides fodder for novels that linger. Think Midnight's Children. Think A Fine Balance. Think Sacred Games. All odes to the Maximum City.

What may seem to pose a problem to American readers is Chandra's refusal to italicize or define local words that he so liberally sprinkles through the length of the narrative. This may be particularly painful to someone hungering for racy cuss words spoken during a shootout or encounter. You are strongly advised to familiarize yourself with the local dialect to truly appreciate the countless guilty pleasures tucked away in this book, for Games can easily be nominated as a compendium for Bambaiya - an ingenious mix of English and colloquial Hindi.

While Chandra nowhere loses narrative tautness, he could have easily done away with the Insets, four unnecessary chapters that contribute nothing to the main storyline. It is important to qualify that when one refers to the storyline, one is pointing to the story of Sartaj and Gaitonde. For in a volume of this scope, shot through as it is with several alternate narratives, it confounds the mind to zero in on what constitutes the novel's center. That may not be entirely bad for a book that is out to capture a city which, by definition, defies description. But the story of Sartaj's mother and her Partition traumas calls for a fresh approach and who knows, another book. It's not everyday that one reads a 900-page tome that's this good, so it would not have been a bad idea for the author to try to keep the reader's wrists from spraining.