WHAT do we make of Vikram Chandra and his 916-page detective novel "Sacred Games"? Published this past August in India, the U.K. and nine other countries and newly released in the United States, it seems utterly antithetical to our Age of Brevity. While the chatterati sang the author's praises -- the book sold 20,000 copies in its first three weeks in India alone -- and scrambled to identify warlords and gangsters, Adam Mars-Jones hissed in the Observer that there was perhaps "a little too much of everything." In the meantime, there has been a great deal of dancing around the book, especially the fact that HarperCollins spent $1 million at auction for the U.S. rights and $300,000 on the marketing campaign. But let's not talk about money. Let's talk about literature.
"Sacred Games" is written by a well-educated student of literature, which means that Chandra (who studied with John Barth and Donald Barthelme and spends part of the year teaching at UC Berkeley) knows exactly when to break rules and when to follow them. Like any good epic, his novel has two heroes, one good and one evil. Sartaj is a fortysomething Sikh police inspector in Mumbai. A reluctant divorce, he drives a beat-up car fondly called the Gypsy and drinks two to three Scotches per night, usually alone. He is nice to his mother and is respectful of women in general. Mothers bring their wayward sons to him at the station so he will rough them up a bit and get them back on track. His nemesis is Ganesh Gaitonde, a mobster who pulled himself up from nothing using violence, street smarts and sheer will. Ruthless, vain and greedy, he is addicted to sex with very young virgins. He has made himself rich by stealing and selling gold bricks, developing land and trafficking in everything from computer chips to methamphetamines and armaments.
But here's where it gets tricky. Although Sartaj's father was an honest policeman, he launders money for his boss and takes a bit of baksheesh for himself. His mind is a warren of denial. Gaitonde, on the other hand, is no mere gangster but a philosopher king and a truth seeker, a man with lifelong friendships and loyalties (in spite of the fact that people close to him usually end up dead). He is reminiscent of the protagonist in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The Autumn of the Patriarch," an intensely evil character we cannot help but love. It hardly needs to be said that putting us into the minds of people who seem a different species altogether (and so show us our own alter egos) is one of the greatest gifts good writing has to offer us.
Early in the novel, Sartaj receives an anonymous tip that Gaitonde has sequestered himself in a bunker in the center of the city. He drives to the scene with his sidekick, Katekar (a character so likable, with his anti-Brahmin sentiments and his loving family, that we continually fear for him), and sets himself up with a chair and a cooling drink by the intercom at the front door. Gaitonde tells Sartaj the story of his life, which Chandra weaves in chapters throughout the first two-thirds of the book. Sartaj and his men storm the bunker, but it is too late: Gaitonde has shot himself and his female friend Jojo, who supplied him with virgins for many years.
In spite of a heavy workload (investigating murders, beating up thugs, staging raids at local bars), Sartaj is recruited by an uber-bureaucracy, RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing), to investigate first the identity of the dead woman and then the circumstances of Gaitonde's death. It is, he is told ominously, a matter of national security.
One of the coolest things about "Sacred Games" is the crash course it offers in 21st century Indian society and especially the life of Mumbai. This is the city regarded by Salman Rushdie, among other writers, as the country's quintessential metropolis, affectionately referred to as "Wombai." Chandra is liberal in his use of Indian slang; practically every sentence contains a word or phrase in Hindi. (The book is accompanied by a glossary.) One gets the hang of it after a while: Words like ghoda (gun) and randi (prostitute) appear so often that they become part of the novel's vernacular. There are dialects and ethnicities -- Hindu, Muslim, Urdu, Bihari, Pathan, Parsi, Bengali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani -- as well as castes and neighborhoods.
Chandra brings us inside an astonishing array of apartments and domestic situations. We learn which soap operas the housewives watch, which movies and movie stars old-timers like Sartaj still refer to and what kinds of ice cream a 40-year-old would be nostalgic for. We see how the city has changed in the last few decades: "Now it was too vast," Sartaj thinks, looking out his window, "escaped from him, each family adding to the next and the next until there was that cool and endless glow, impossible to know, or escape. Had it really existed, that small empty street, clean for the children's cricket games and dabba-ispies and tikkar-billa, or had he stolen it from some grainy black and white footage? Given it to himself in gift, the memory of a happier place?"
Chandra, who went to film school at Columbia and whose family is in the film business, has a visual way with words that is a tremendous bonus to the reader as he places us in that overwhelming city. It is less helpful in his creation of characters. Dozens of minor figures march through the pages of "Sacred Games," at least 20 of whom must be remembered and identified each time they reappear. It is not until about halfway through the novel that we firmly hold all the cards we will need to play the game he has set in motion, and even then, Chandra is merciless with our memories.
After all, no sooner are we settled than Chandra starts to add his "inserts," chapters that loom above the immediate plot to reveal the back story, which involves an evil guru who wants to build a nuclear bomb and level Mumbai to create a new and purer world. "Every great religious tradition predicts this burning," he tells Gaitonde, who has been smuggling arms and uranium for him. "We all know it's coming." Counterfeit money, printed in the Soviet Union and then in Pakistan, is used to purchase the arms and uranium. Gaitonde, who has become paranoid and compulsive, builds the bunker in which he will meet his end.
Chandra's genius is in the way he trusts his readers. Still, there are a few too many balls in the air. Reading "Sacred Games" is a bit like watching an extremely talented jazz musician improvise. He's having fun and that's contagious, but too often the audience can feel on the wrong side of an in-joke. Or maybe it would be better to read "Sacred Games" if you had grown up in Mumbai. Chandra loses control of the story now and then, as if he put a thread down for a little too long and everything had a different feel when he picked it up again. The reader, drawn into the universe the author has created, feels these lapses, these broken or dropped threads.
Chandra wants to have it all, to be as entertaining as he is literary. He wants to write an epic song of India and also a detective story. Why shouldn't he? Traditional wisdom tells us that literary merit lies in character development while entertainment value lives in plot. Chandra is clearly more interested in the former, and the plot here is not nearly as well conceived as Sartaj and Gaitonde's moral, spiritual and even romantic concerns. I suspect that Chandra wanted to see if he could do it. Well, now he has. If he goes on to write other books with characters who help us understand ourselves; if he takes us into strange new corners of the world, closets and kitchens and beaches and deserts (as opposed to city morgues and various forms of death by bullet wound), would that be so terrible? Not at all. *