Sacred Games...Up Close and Personal
It took Vikram Chandra some seven years to write Sacred Games, currently being touted as the big Indian release of the year. And they're not kidding about the "big" - it's 900 pages, so yes, just what you'd want to pop into your overnight bag if you're taking a weekend trip!
What does it take to put out a 900 page book - well obviously, you've got to believe in what you're saying. So instead of me fixating on the somewhat daunting length (and believe me, I quite like the challenge a long book presents, unlike the more fickle demands made on your attention span by, say a short story) here's a look at what the book's about.
(To deal with all the gasp! You actually read it? Wonder of wonders looks I've been getting - that and the unsaid, "Wow, you really must not have much work to do!") But for the record I was sick, and it took me more than just a couple of days, so there!
The story is gripping enough. There's the mafia - number one don Suleiman Isa, modelled roughly on Dawood Ibrahim, down to the alleged hand in the '93 riots. And there's one of our main characters, Ganesh Gaitonde, who grows before our eyes from a young man with ambition to a no-nonsense teetotaller with an army...A slightly cynical but very bang-on man with an army, not to mention an agenda. When it suits him, he dons the mantle (sorry, terrible pun!) of Hindu mafioso though he's hardly religious - his trusted number two is a Muslim, and he tries to tell his "boys" that the rest of it is all bull. But of course these are trying, tense times. And what happens to the very likeable number two, well I'm still getting over it. (Not the fact of it, so much as the inevitability of it once G finds out about his brother.)
The book had me, I willingly admit, from the beautiful character study that is our other protagonist, Sartaj Singh (who's back from Chandra's earlier work, just older, more cynical, and now divorced...though he does grab hold of his own ray of sunshine towards the end) to the basic plot, to even the ambiguous morality of the police world. Mumbai is a colourful backdrop and seems real enough - but is that just because I'm an outsider? The true acid test would depend on how the story resonates with Mumbaikars, I suppose.
The story...a riveting, good, old-fashioned thriller. With shades of real characters - from a controversial godman with a hidden evil agenda, to Bollywood starlet Zoya Mirza, who meticulously creates the perfect body (part by part!) with the help of a plastic surgeon and her own private playboy don. Ganesh Gaitonde is brilliantly fleshed out...his burning need for spiritual guidance endears him to the reader, but soon makes you want to slap him, because of course it makes him weak and flawed. His rude awakening and terrible descent into self-doubt and paranoia is disturbing, but fits, somehow.
Just that it's a little long drawn-out. The story too...While it's admittedly got what it takes, it does tend to meander off, sometimes a little randomly. It was a nice touch to add Anjali Mathur's boss and G's one-time RAW handler, Mr Kumar, but a little over the top. And the Canada angle - again, might have worked for some people, but to me, it seemed a little forced.
And while a little meandering never hurt a story, I would think if you've got a hefty 900-odd pages under your belt, you could cut down on bits without really hurting the story.
But it's not my story, after all, it's Chandra's. And as he said in an interview, "I think it was probably a third longer, and then my wife helped me and we cut and cut and cut...now it's precisely the length it needs to be."
His editor obviously agrees.
Chandra feels his book has "a certain pace" that he hopes "is satisfying to the reader". That it does, and readers who aren't daunted by the overwhelming length will certainly enjoy the ride.
More about Amrita Tripathi
Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.