Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra
Sacred Games., by Vikram Chandra. New York : HarperCollins, 2007. 947 pages.
A sweeping epic set in Mumbai, centering on a Sikh policeman and a crime boss.
Crime books are not my usual reading preferences, but this one is about crime and much more. I found much to admire and enjoy. It is a large book, over 900 pages, and it is packed full of interesting incidents and characters, many of them from the lower classes.
Vikram Chandra has masterfully structured his big book to keep it coherent and interesting to readers. The main narrative threads follow Sartaj Singh, a police inspector in Mumbai, and Ganesh Gaitonde, a powerful gangster headquartered there. Singh is Sikh, divorced and approaching middle age. Although he engages in the violence and bribery that seem to be endemic with the Mumbai police, he has a more humane side that allows him to care about people. Ganesh has had an illustrious career as a crime boss not only in Mumbai, but internationally. Although he dies shortly after the book begins, he recounts his struggles and achievements and his discovery of a guru whom he follows. As the book progresses, both men move toward a possibly destructive climax. “Insets” between the chapters tell shorter stories, virtually complete in themselves but relevant to some of the characters. For example, we see Singh’s mother as a child during the Partition and an intelligence officer who is “losing his mind” as he is dying. I loved these stories, even more than the larger narratives.
The prose in Sacred Games is also clear and compelling. Descriptions and dialog both include many lines that I savored. In addition, Chandra uses many words and phrases that his Mumbai characters would have used and readers from India would recognize. Some of these were included in his helpful glossary, but not all. They added to the feel of the book, but after while I just accepted them and guessed at their meanings. I know I lost something in passing them over. I also could not easily identify characters as Muslim or Hindu on the basis of their names as a more knowledgeable person could do. This would have been helpful because of the ways in which Chandra sometimes presents ethnic hatred and other times revealed how they could live and work together. A reader who knows India and its languages would probably appreciate this book more I was able to do.
In many ways, Sacred Games seems a conventionally masculine book, full of the violence, crudity, and aggression that traditionally have defined manhood. That didn’t work for me. I had trouble identifying with the men who killed casually and even with pleasure, and I objected to the ways in which they were equally casual and aggressive about using and abusing women. And yet, sensitive and full-blown women characters also appear in the book. These include the female intelligence officer wanting additional information about Gaitonde and the sister of a slain prostitute. In their portrayal we see the problems that men create in their lives. While somewhat secondary, they play important roles in the text. Chandra manages to depict the sexism of his male characters without being sexist himself—a difficult skill I wish others would master.
Last month litlov led a discussion about books by and about women. The suggestion was made that we all should read books by both genders. Certainly I do read and enjoy many books by men though they are seldom like this one. I abhor violence, greed, and abusive treatment of women in real life or in books. I think such attitudes are harmful to us all. I defend my reticence to read “men’s books” at least those which define masculinity in this negative manner, even if they also include admirable women characters.
Mumbai itself is vital to this book. The major characters love the city, despite its dirt, crime and chaos. Perhaps Chandra is encouraging us to accept the bad with the good and love both completely. I remain convinced, as does Sartaj Singh, that some evils remain worth fighting against.
Recommended to those who like big sweeping books, to those interested and knowledgeable about Mumbai and Indian languages, and those more tolerant of violence and sexism than I am.