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Sacred Games: A Novel Hardcover – 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Mumbai in all its seedy glory is at the center of Vikram Chandra's episodic novel, which follows the fortunes of two opposing characters: the jaded Sikh policeman, Sartaj Singh, who first appeared in the story "Kama," and Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous Hindu Bhai who "dallied with bejewelled starlets, bankrolled politicians" and whose "daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes." Sartaj, still handsome and impeccably turned out, is now divorced, weary and resigned to his post, complicit in the bribes and police brutality that oil the workings of his city. Sartaj is ambivalent about his choices, but Gaitone is hungry for position and wealth from the moment he commits his first murder as a young man. A confrontation between the two men opens the novel, with Gaitonde taunting Sartaj from inside the protection of his strange shell-like bunker. Gaitonde is the more riveting character, and his first-person narrative voice lulls the reader with his intuitive understanding of human nature and the 1,001 tales of his rise to power, as he collects men, money and fame; creates and falls in love with a movie star; infiltrates Bollywood; works for Indian intelligence; matches wits with his Muslim rival, Suleiman Isa; and searches for fulfillment with the wily Guru Shridhar Shukla. Sartaj traces Gaitonde's movements and motivations, while taking on cases of murder, blackmail and neighborhood quarrels. The two men ruminate on the meaning of life and death, and Chandra connects them as he connects all the big themes of the subcontinent: the animosity of caste and religion, the poverty, the prostitution and mainly, the criminal elite, who organize themselves on the model of corporations and control their fiefdoms from outside the country. Chandra, who's won prizes and praise for his two previous books, Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay, spent seven years writing this 900-page epic of organized crime and the corruption that spins out from Mumbai into the world of international counterfeiting and terrorism, and it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ("You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran," Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
*Starred Review* "The game lasts, the game is eternal, the game cannot be stopped, the game gives birth to itself." So muses a veteran Indian intelligence officer on his deathbed, his devoted disciple, Anjila Mathur (one of many tough women characters), at his side. The games that Chandra choreographs in this riveting epic of Mumbai's underworld are far more profane than sacred, yet they do require some form of faith. Sensing that the legendary don Ganesh Gaitonde was involved in something far worse than the usual gangland activities, Anjilia covertly assigns police inspector Sartaj Singh to the case. Seen-it-all-weary yet disciplined, Sartaj is both ruthless and compassionate, and his acute awareness and street wisdom play in counterpoint to Ganesh's naked ambition. Chandra (Love and Longing in Bombay, 1997) has created a compulsively involving literary thriller by drawing on the Mahabharata and aiming for the amplitude of Victorian novels. He spins webs within webs, portrays a multitude of diverse characters, nets the complexity of a huge metropolis, and takes full measure of how the world really works. Corruption, murder, arms dealing, Bollywood, plastic surgery, and a superstar guru on an apocalyptic mission--all fuel this novel of crime and punishment, survival and annihilation. A splendidly big, finely made book destined to dazzle a big audience. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top Customer Reviews
This book challenges the reader to consider each character and their actions across the entire spectrum of grey as there is no black and white involved here... The gangster Ganesh is capable of very violent acts but doesn't view himself as bad, in fact he's trying to create a better self, if not move towards enlightenment while continuing to run his empire. The police officer Sartaj considers moving up through the police ranks, finds love and will do the right thing but still accepts bribes, looks away as other officers beat suspects and could even be accused of extortion. What is right and what is wrong? Who is good and who is evil? It depends on the reader's perception because none of the players view themselves as either. Pick your shade of grey and it's not easy.
This book crosses decades and countries. It ebbs and flows, rises and falls and in many cases shocks for very different reasons. What a well crafted story, what a great ride.
Part police proceedural and part travelogue of some of the high points and "low lifes" of Mumbai/Bombay it is one of my favourite books about any large city and its denizens. I read this right after "Shantaram". Afterwards I was able to discuss Bombay like a citizen with a friend of mine who had lived there in the 90's.
If you really want to come to some sort of feeling for this megalopolis read them both one right after the other. Shantaram offers hope and Sacred Games offers none so be warned.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Ganesh Gaitonde is a small-time crook who becomes the biggest Hindu mob boss in India. A street kid with no resources but his own wits, he evolves into a violent, immoral, spoiled man/boy who is protected and catered to by his band of dependent henchmen. He is as fascinating for his acts of unthinking bloodshed and revenge as he is for his sentimental generosity; for his naive delusion that he can produce the perfect Bollywood action movie, as he is by his blind devotion to a renowned holy man.
His story is laid side-by-side that of Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police officer in Mumbai. Singh is carrying the heavy mantle of a respected father who has preceded him on the force, a feeling of ennui about much of his daily grind, and a failed marriage. When Singh becomes the unwitting ear to Gaitonde's last words, and oversees the discovery of Gaitonde's body following his bizarre suicide, Singh is dragged into Gaitonde's sphere whether he wants to be there or not. We are captivated as Gaitonde posthumously recounts his autobiography and Singh tries to determine if Gaitonde's influence over India had grown from grossly criminal to internationally threatening.
This is a novel full of surprises, humor, bravura set pieces, and a plethora of Hindi profanity. We are treated to the sights, sounds and smells of Bombay, which is truly its own lush character in the book. But more than that, Sacred Games is a delicious head-first dive into words, deftly used not only to tell a good story, but to plumb the contradictory depths of human nature.
Mr. Chandra is obsessed with stories. One could argue that this is a quality inherent in all authors, but it is especially true in this case. While some authors dote on their characters and still others focus on the prose, it appears that Chandra's foremost goal is to keep the reader trapped in a tale, and another, and yet another until the reader is utterly disoriented but also strangely satisfied. We saw this in Red Earth and Pouring Rain, where the reader descended through level after level of storytelling and was then warped back to the present at hyper-speed. In Love and Longing in Bombay we read 5 stories on distinct emotional levels, but each interesting and engaging.
Sacred Games combines the breadth and scope of Red Earth and Pouring Rain with the realism of Love and Longing in Bombay and the result is a work of the quality that many observers felt Chandra was capable of.
At its most superficial level Sacred Games is the story of Mumabi police inspector Sartaj Singh's investigation into the bizarre murder-suicide of underworld mobster Ganesh Gaitonde. Along the way Chandra paints a vivid picture of crime fighting in India, including the corruption, scandal, and backroom deals all for a greater good. As one of Chandra's characters puts it, Mumbai's policemen are good men who are forced to be bad to prevent the worst men from taking power. However the main storyline makes up a small fraction of this nearly nine-hundred page marathon, there are numerous stories within the story that keep the book fresh.
Most notable among these subplots is the story of Ganesh Gaitonde himself and how he rose to prominence in the Mumbai underworld. In this way Chandra allows us access to the devlopment of the criminal mentality, the reader is able to easily pick out the the formative events and circumstances in his life which led to his rise and fall.
Besides these two strands there are also several chapters termed "insets" by the author in which he is able to flesh out those characters which may not be directly integral to the plot but have an interesting backstory or some items in their past that reveal the slightest bit more to the reader. My favorite inset chronicles the life of an Indian intelligence officer, from his first meeting with Nehru to his many successes and finally to a vivid account of his mental failing and the frustration with it. During one of his mental lapses he recounts a bit of information that proves vital to Sartaj Singh's investigation and links the inset with the main plot.
It is useless to attempt to summarize a book of such scope, but the above provides a broad outline of what you can expect to encounter.
In Sacred Games, Chandra has crafted an epic piece of work which will hopefully recieve due recognition. Definitely worth your time and money.
This is one honkin' heavy book, believe me. I was afraid that its weight might tip my suitcase over the rather meager limit for in-India flights, so I carried it the whole time in my hand luggage. Now, a week after coming home, my shoulder's still out of joint.
But I can definitely say, it added more to my understanding of the country than any of the travel literature I read.
It's a big Bollywood mess of a book--and I mean that in the nicest sense. Lots of intriguing characters, mystery, romance, big moustaches, the odd wedding, a virtuous mother, even music. Subplots and histories abound, woven deftly into the present action. Chandra has made his shady policemen, his corrupt politicians, his grasping and clawing would-be actresses, even his murderers, all sympathetic in spite of their actions. It's a long, rambling love letter to Mumbai, and yes, it's a complicated book. But Mumbai is a complicated city in a very complicated country; the scope (and the heft) of the novel feels perfect for the task it undertakes.
Don't be intimidated by the foreign vocabulary. Once you decide to take the unfamiliar words in context--hint: most of them are either profanities or song lyrics--and stop skipping to the dictionary in back, you'll find yourself immersed.
Susan O'Neill, author, Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam
Bombay is probably the main character in this "tome" (900 pages and 7 years in the making), which is at first difficult to penetrate, but completely addictive and rewarding once, you go past the 200 page mark.
What makes the book difficult to penetrate is the profusion of characters and the confusing at first-plot structure. (and to readers not from Bombay, the language. Chandra uses bombay street slang (which itself is derived from a multitude of languages and is its own "bambaiya" dialect) without your usual italics or a useful glossary as an annexure.) (The american edition, i understand carries a glossary)
The book is at core a love song to the Bombay which the author loves, but works on multiple levels. Firstly, it works as a solid piece of Victorian fiction. Not as much a "whodunit", as a "why they did what they did" . Secondly, it is a deep introspection of the changing nature of that wondrous megapolis, which nurtures and nourishes its many economic immigrants. Religion, the Underworld, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Bollywood,the glitterati etc etc, are covered by the broad canvas of this novel which spans from pre independence India to the present day.
Granted, that not all the side stories and minor characters pay off or add to the overall narrative (some of the insets are frankly self-indulgent), but that is but a minor blemish in a book which gives you a character as accomplished and complete as Ganesh Gaitonde.
Ganesh Gaitonde- the "don", the "rags to riches"- it can happen only in bombay phenomenon, the taker of boys, the ravager of women, a connoisseur of Bollywood cinema, the self-learned street fighter, the at once dangerous impulsive, globe trotting, central character. It is apparent that Gaitonde has been invested with the 7 years of research and an infinite supply of humanity. This is a fiction character which will surely stay with you.
In comparison, Sartaj Singh, the 40 year old, divorced cop,pales, but only slightly. Sartaj is the unwitting hero, in this novel, where all the characters are painted "pale grey" at best.
Some of the other characters which Chandra creates, from jojo - the madam, to Katekar, Sartaj's constable are indeed Bombay characters of our times.
Bollywood plays a huge role in this book as well. From the aspiring actress, Zoya Mirza's rise to Gaitonde's boys discussing what a Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and a Kishore Kumar ditty, stands for.
This is indeed a big, clamorous novel, very similar to Bombay where the sound of the crowds, the daily bump and grind, is its own sweet melody.
This is probably the best bombay book ever. Move over Rushdie...
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a "good" read, a novel with a plot worth the investment of reading time and characters you come to care about. It is a good old-fashioned Dickens novel. I was initially interested in reading the book because it was about the criminal underworld in India (mysterious and exciting and something I knew nothing about). Other reviewers have explained the plot and for the first third of the book that kept me reading. Then my interest began to shift and I found myself coming to care more about the characters, wanting to understand their behavior, learn more about their past and to find out what happens to them. Unlike the normal thriller where the originality and complexity of the plot provides the action and reader momentum and the characters, usually simplistically drawn, are the "grease" that moves it smoothly along, here the characters' behavior drives the plot, providing a plot reality that is not black and white, good guys versus bad guys, and causes the reader to pause and think about humanity and what links people together. People in India are not different from people in the United States or the United Kingdom or Thailand. The language is different, the culture is different, but we are all linked in our search for love and connection. For me, that is the Sacred Game to which the title refers.