BookBrowse Reviews Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

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Sacred Games

A Novel

by Vikram Chandra

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
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    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 928 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 928 pages

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A splendidly big, finely made book destined to dazzle a big audience

Chandra says that he set out to write a conventional thriller, "You know, the type of thing that starts with a dead body on the first page and then at the most 300 pages later ends up with everything figured out and fixed," However, as he started to research the novel by spending time with Indian policemen, crime reporters and gangsters, he realized that what seemed like a local crime "had all these connections to politics and religion and the ongoing struggles between nation-states in the region".

In short, Chandra got a sense of "this huge web of events, people, organizations and forces at work that were affecting people's lives and linking them together." and at some point he realized "damn, this is going to be big!"

Seven years later and 928 pages in length (in the English version, the Hindi version is 1200 pages!) it certainly is big. Harper Collins had sufficient confidence in it to lay down $1 million to win the bidding war for USA publishing rights (following similar bidding wars in the UK and India).

Some reviewers love it, some are a little muted, a few downright hate it. Will it be for you? That depends. Like a python with weight-control issues, it seems that Chandra has swallowed everything in his path in an attempt to encompass the very essence of modern India, most specifically the racial and ethnic conflicts that have repeatedly threatened the country in the almost 60 years since independence.

"[T]hings that happened 50 years ago in a sense wrote divisions physically into the geography of the region, but also into people's bodies and minds. Those events continue to have very clear impacts on our lives today. And I wanted to get at least the feeling of that and not shy away from its ugliness. The propensity for violence that coexists with all those other feelings was something I wanted to deal with."

At the heart of this tale is a detective yarn centered on Inspector Sartaj Sing (previously seen in Love and Longing in Bombay), a middle-aged divorcee with a stagnant career and love-life. He's a good detective but no angel, as is shown early on. Around this central thread Chandra weaves at least a half-dozen sub-plots, and throws in a number of effectively unrelated stories to boot. The result is a sometimes brutally violent epic set in the jangling heart of Bombay in all its confused variety that some feel would have been a better book at around 600 pages.

It is interesting to note that at least one reviewer who criticizes the length of Sacred Games opens his review by stating that he is an admirer of long Indian novels such as Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. In other words it's not so much the length that some take issue with but the structure. For example, one reviewer comments that it is not good for the flow of the story to have one's main protagonist off stage for 100 pages at a time! A number of others complain about the four chapters totaling 130 pages, labeled "Insets", which provide back stories to peripheral characters but are otherwise unrelated to the main flow.

One of Chandra's techniques that does draw praise is his habit of using many local words in the text in such a way that the meaning can be inferred, without the need to fall back on glossaries, footnotes, or even italics. As one reviewer puts it "Chandra refuses to serve Bombay up on a plate to outsiders. The reader must sink or swim - no water wings are provided."

So, back to the central question, is this a book for you? Will you feel like the reviewer for The Washington Post who felt it was a " massive dead weight of a novel" or will you side with the Booklist reviewer who gave it a starred review describing it as "a splendidly big, finely made book destined to dazzle a big audience"?

Most likely you'll end up giving it the caveatted respect that most reviewers have, summed up by the reviewer for the UK newspaper, The Observer, who concludes, "Will Chandra be able to etch into this second-hand template all the magical dirty details of the city? As the book goes on, the answer more and more seems to be 'yes', but Chandra could have made it easier on himself, not to mention the reader."

Incidentally, towards the end of the '90s, a huge scandal hit Mumbai which slowly unfolded to reveal a web of corrupt relationships involving organized crime and the movie dream factory of Bollywood, reminiscent of Chicago during the gangster glory days of prohibition. Violence, intimidation, money-laundering and corruption were the norm and gangster bosses were local media celebrities. This background is worth knowing because some of Chandra's more improbable plot twists did happen in real life!


Sikhs
Chandra's lead protagonist is a Sikh. There are about 23 million Sikhs worldwide, of which about 60% live in Punjab in the North of India, where they form the majority. The Punjab is known as India's breadbasket and enjoys one of the most industrialized economies in the nation. Sikhs are spread across India but overall form less than 2% of the population. Nine out of ten Sikhs live in India but there are also significant communities spread worldwide, particularly in English speaking countries, most notably the UK and Canada.

Sikhs believe in one God and respect the teaching of the ten Gurus. The term Sikh originates from the Sanskrit for disciple or follower. The basic tenants of their religion (founded more than 500 years ago) require them to live an honest life without discrimination.

Devout Sikhs always wear five items as an external symbol of their faith: The hair is uncut (Kesh) and contained inside a turban; they carry a wooden comb to comb their hair twice a day (Kanga) which is usually stored inside the turban where it serves the double purpose of holding the hair in place; they wear an iron bracelet (Kacha); and a strapped knife (Kirpan) which symbolizes that a baptized Sikh is both a saint and a soldier. Lastly they wear an almost knee-length undergarment made out of a white, light-weight cotton material securely tied with a drawstring (Kachar);which reminds Sikhs to refrain from lust, one of the Five Evils to be avoided; the others being anger, greed, worldliness and pride.

This review was originally published in January 2007, and has been updated for the January 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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