Sacred Games – Vikram Chandra | Book Review

 

<First published on Histolit>

 

Kabhi-Kabhi Lagta Hai Ki Apun Hi Bhagwaan Hai –the lopsided tapori version of the Sanskrit phrase ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ and the first dialogue of the web series’ teaser – prompted me to watch Sacred Games (2018-19) on Netflix.

Being a fan of gangster movies, I knew I was going to like the web series, and thenceforth, would move on without making any fuss. But when I watched it I found it a blaring and boisterous exhibition of sex, violence and desi scurrilities.

Needless to say, I liked the non-linear narration and the suspense it generated, but I just couldn’t appreciate that off-colored collage of organized crime and religion, corruption and prostitution, and gore and glamour, devoid of cinematic subtleties.

That’s when I decided to read the book; because, in my view, the cinematic expression did not justify the potential of the story. Telling all this implies that I do not read a good many suspense-thrillers; the last one was The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides which I finished in a day.

This was two years ago, in 2020. It is not because I don’t like them; it is because I like them so much that I fear they would disrupt my routine. So, when I started this tour de force sprawled across the length of 900 pages of dense prose, I took a seven days’ leave from work to enjoy it. The interesting fact is that Vikram Chandra took seven years to write the novel.

 

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Now, coming to the novel, I feel so awestricken after finishing it that I find myself unable to simplify it in a sentence or summarize it by literary nomenclatures.

It is much more than a crime fiction, a suspense-thriller, a detective story, or a bildungsroman; or should I say it has something of everything literary, and vice versa.

From its narration, its characterizations, its straightforward and un-styled language mixed with Bambaiyya Hindi, it looks like, to me, a cocky experiment of literary forms and genres in an attempt to produce a throbbing portrait of the metropolis swirling around the current of the Subcontinent’s history. And not to forget its dominant quality –it is HUGE.

Recently deceased Spanish author Javier Marias says, ‘one of the best possible perspectives from which to tell a story is that of a ghost, someone who is dead but can still witness.’.

In the second chapter, the protagonist, Ganesh Gaitonde commits suicide, but the specter of this notorious gangster remains with the reader throughout the novel; it doesn’t shrink back from the narrative unless it finishes recounting the whole life story of Gaitonde.

Gaitonde’s character shines, and suffers also, like the moon; it goes through all the phases –from the New Gaitonde (barely visible) to the First Quarter Gaitonde (visible enough in Mumbai underworld) then the Full Gaitonde (the brightest and at peak in the world of crime) and thereafter the Last Quarter Gaitonde (sleepless, paranoiac, feeling used up, and suicidal).

 

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The phases do not pass off unhindered, they have to face the eclipses too; Gaitonde goes to jail, gets beaten up, loses his dear ones and makes a fool of himself for carnal pleasures.

Besides, as every moon has a dark side hidden from everyone, Gaitonde, too, has one, and to reveal this, Chandra rotates the narration enough to put light on that hidden facet.

Another character, the deuteragonist, Sartaj Singh, an honest police inspector, accompanies the reader from the beginning to the end.

Since the very beginning, when Sartaj enters into Gaitonde’s complicated life, he is destined to follow the hints left behind after Gaitonde’s suicide, to unravel the mystery behind the would-be catastrophe hovering over the city.

But his role is not limited to a mere investigator; as a true Mumbaikar, he saunters around and observes the people and places, he loves the city, its beauty and diversity, its filth and slime; as a caring friend, he feels guilty when his friend and assistant Katekar dies; and although Sartaj succumbs to certain human flaws, he does not display pessimism, neither in his professional nor in his personal life. Sartaj’s presence in the story feels like the sea breeze in a summer evening.

 

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Undoubtedly, Ganesh Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh are the two prominent characters of the story, but Sacred Games is also the story of Jojo and her sister Mary, Sartaj’s mother Prabhajot Kaur and her sister Navneet, the immigrants living in Bengali Bura, Adil from Bihar, Jamila from Lucknow, and also of pocketmaars and self-proclaimed chhota dons in Mumbai.

The antagonist duo, Guruji and Shahid Khan too, do not get lost in the multi-layered tome; their stories are an unavoidable part of the plot. On the whole, it’s a story of Mumbai; it shows how a city breathes and lives amidst calamities and absurdities.

The narrative of the web series does not correspond with the novel’s, many incidents and characters have been twisted at large, and in my opinion, two seasons were not just enough for the story.

Vikram Chandra has divided the novel into twenty-six lengthy chapters including four insets. The story runs on parallel lines, one of Gaitonde’s and another of Sartaj’s; the insets acts like preludes to add more clarity as the narrative thickens the plot. Insets must not be left unread.

In addition to its hugeness, the novel boasts of its compelling readability; it wields the power to tempt even the most reluctant reader. Once you finish a paragraph, the novel owns you.

Countless definitions will tell countless qualities of a great book, but why to run after them, if you realize after closing a book that you have not blinked for a long time, the book in your hand was a great one. I had this experience with S. Hussain Zaidi’s books, and now, with Sacred Games.

 

P.S. if you cannot stand the harshness of desi invectives, abuses, foulmouthedness, and if you think a good story must discard them, don’t read the book, because it has plenty of them, on every page, without italics, without English translation.

 

 

 

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