By day a professor of creative writing at the
Chandra has said in an interview that when he wrote
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
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
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.