My edition: Paperback (Export Edition), Faber and Faber 2006, ISBN 978-0-571-23119-5. The book was first published by Faber and Faber Limited in 2006.
How did I get it?
I bought it at London Heathrow Airport while waiting for a delayed flight. An excellent application of unused GBP.
Why did I read it?
I think I would regard myself as a fan of modern Indian literature. I had read Vikram Chandra’s earlier works “Love and Longing in Bombay” and “Red Earth and Pouring Rain”. Some of the short stories in “Love and Longing” are among my all time favourites. I had been waiting for more from Chandra for a long time.
The gist of it
The plot revolves around Sikh detective Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde, India’s most wanted mobster. Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off leading him to Gaitonde’s secret sanctuary. If you have seen the film “Heat” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, you may imagine how the main characters are drawn to each other, how their fate becomes inescapably linked, and how only the death of one of them can break the deadlock. However, while De Niro and Pacino are on par in the movie, Singh is completely out of his league when he decides that he will go for Gaitonde by himself.
Why does Singh go to arrest the most dangerous criminal in India by himself? And why does the mafia boss, with as much blood on his hands as any of the most notorious American mob leaders, ask Singh whether he believes in God when it becomes clear that he will not be able to escape this time, with the bulldozers beginning to tear down his shelter?
Sartaj Singh is middle-aged. He is stuck in his career as a detective, being overtaken left and right by more ambitious – and especially by better connected – colleagues. His marriage hasn’t worked out, suffering from all the typical symptoms of cop’s marriages (remember Pacino?). His father was a renowned policeman, and Sartaj always feels that he is not living up to either his parents’ ambitions, nor to the expectations placed on him by his superiors. All of his bosses are more or less corrupt, and Sartaj wonders how his father got though decades of police service without a blemish, or if he just did a better camouflage job. Sartaj has refused bribes while his rich wife afforded him that freedom. After his separation, he no longer has that option. He has to rely on the small bribes and fees like all of his colleagues. When it appears that he may be able to bring in the most sought after gangster in India, he sees his chance.
However, at this point the book does not follow the expected conventional path. Gaitonde begins to tell Singh his life’s story through the intercom of his shelter. After Gaitonde’s death, Singh is forced by the Indian political police and his superiors to investigate further why Gaitonde had come back to Bombay after years of living in safe exile, and why he did not try to resist arrest or to esacpe. It does not become clear to Sartaj why he, as a lower class detective, is picked out to conduct this investigation since he has no credentials in his favour except for his presence at Gaitonde’s death.
In the course of his investigations, Singh‘s hero status becomes somewhat tainted, and the detailed description of Gaitonde’s path from small street gangster to mafia boss makes Gaitonde a fascinating, if not sympathetic character. Much of Gaitonde’s story is told from his own point of view. At the beginning of his career, Gaitonde’s gang integrates all sorts of heritages, making no differences of religion or caste. When he has risen to the position of an important force in India, it is opportune for him to act as a hindu patriot, being protected and used by politicians. As a good mobster must, he has an arch rival, muslim mob boss Suleiman Isa. In classic “Godfather” style, the two of them fight several gang wars, losing dozens of their closest friends. They hire double-crossers and reveal traitors in their own ranks. In the course of their careers, both of them make friends with powerful politicians, only to find out that they will not be able to legalise their money or position. Both Bollywood and Hollywood play major roles in the fabric of this book. Gaitonde tries to wash some of his money in the Indian movie industry, while his enemy Isa is reported to watch only three movies on permanent roll: “The Godfather” parts 1, 2 and 3. Here, Chandra is almost making fun of his usage of American film role models.
But it does not stop there. In addition to espionage story, mobster film type story, police procedural, all of which usually dominated by male characters, Chandra begins (after about 200 pages) to draw up strong female characters as well. Singh’s future lover, Gaitonde’s amour fou who brings about his downfall, the government intelligence agent who pressures Singh to extend his investigations after Gaitonde’s death, the powerful TV producer Jojo, Suleiman Isa’s female controllers in Bombay, all have prominent roles in the novel and are drawn out as tough, often shady characters.
Gaitonde’s story continues to be told by himself (and it is not quite clear whether this occurs before or after his death. At one point, Singh disappears from the story for more than 100 pages. Gaitonde becomes addicted to a guru who is responsible for his turn to religion, but who is also involved in terrorist activities and weapons smuggling – the reason why he is seeking collaboration with Gaitonde.
Four of the chapters, for a total of more than 130 pages, are “Insets”, which do not contribute to the plot but certainly add to the understanding of the characters and the Indian environment, which may be the most important character of all. One of the insets is described by Adams Mars-Jones in “The Observer”: “One of the Inset chapters, ‘The Great Game’, is told from the point of view of an old man with a brain tumour. He develops something called a scotoma, a blank in his vision. His brain begins to fill the lower half of the visual field with incidents remembered from his whole life.“
For me, this metaphor is the closest description of Chandra’s technique of story telling in „Sacred Games“.
I loved it! Best in the holidays. Just one word of caution: This novel is full of Hindi terms. If you are expecting an explanation, or a glossary, or even that the terms are in italics, then you will be disappointed. While there are numerous critiques to be found which do not come to terms with this technique, I find this one of the strongest points in an exceptional novel. Chandra invents his own language for his characters. By allowing them to speak in this mixture of English and Hindi, and by denying explanations that would not be available if you were listening to the characters live, they win a credibility that could not otherwise be achieved. Do not try to understand every term. Just plough on. After about 200 pages, the book’s language will seem totally natural, and any other way of telling this story is hard to imagine.
And one more word of caution: While I thoroughly enjoyed the read, there are many people who do not like this book. As an example, read Jonathan Yardley’s negative critique in the Washington Post.