The literary establishment hasn’t yet given pride of place to tales of policemen and criminals, perhaps with good reason. Though high-minded forays into the underworld of shady characters who break the law – and the often shadier ones who ostensibly maintain it – do exist, countless disposable, embossed-cover thrillers regrettably crowd the shelves. After seven years (and a seven-figure advance) in the making, Vikram Chandra’s hefty Sacred Games throws its hat into the genre ring, upping the ante significantly.
Note that such transcendence does not entail the abandonment of the cops-and-robbers story’s trusty, time-honored conventions. The haggard, divorced inspector; the corrupt institutions of law enforcement; the scrappy gang boss who rose from less than nothing; the mysterious girl who may or may not have a valuable connection to said gang boss; the shady, high-level government operatives all make their appearances. Also in keeping with the pulp tradition, several of the major players possess alliterative names. Sartaj Singh, for example, is the only Sikh inspector in Mumbai, and half of the novel follows him. The rise of Ganesh Gaitonde, one of the city’s best-known managers of organized crime, comprises the other half. Mary Mascarenas, the hairdresser sister of Gaitonde’s closest associate as well as a valuable informant of Singh’s, bridges the stories.
Chandra makes it clear from the start that the book won’t stick too closely to its airport bookstand brethren. Early one morning, Singh receives a phone call tipping him off to Gaitonde’s location. Recently thought to be in exile, the don was considered practically unreachable, let alone detainable. Not one to miss out on the opportunity to bring a scofflaw to justice, Singh arrives at what turns out to be a nearly featureless fortified compound. Through a speaker, Gaitonde begins to recount his life story from inside. Even after a hired bulldozer destroys the hideout and Singh discovers the criminal mastermind’s corpse – an apparent suicide – the autobiographical talk continues. Chandra alternates between chapters covering the Sikh’s investigation into Gaitonde’s background and chapters of first-person narration of that very same background.
The author’s unrolling of the parallel stories proves effective; the book nearly always provides the reader with opportunities to identify the relevant connections before or along with the hardworking, if sometimes uninformed, Singh. Naturally, he and Gaitonde are crafted with a handful of common qualities that emerge with pages turned. Both, for instance, are frequently overcome with feelings of isolation. While Singh can never truly turn off his policeman’s instincts and thus never exists on quite the same plane of interaction as everyone else, Gaitonde must keep perpetually aware and alert. There isn’t room for many at the top of the criminal ladder, nor is there any shortage of aspirants for the spot.
Rarely in the narrative does Chandra skimp on detail or authenticity. One of the novel’s most well known features is its 900-page length, as well as its liberal use of slang straight from the streets of Mumbai or, as some of the cast still calls it, Bombay. Though using it slows things down a bit, the back of the book helpfully contains a semi-complete glossary. While one type of reader might find it all to be a bit much, there’s another type that thrives on this kind of information overload, and they’re the ones who will feel transported to the bustling, filthy – one hopes that at least some of the squalor described was born of exaggeration – ground level of big-city India.
Though these techniques work well, they aren’t serving a perfect story; somewhere within its final 300 pages, the plot goes slightly sour. In sharp contrast to the gritty realism of the first two-thirds of the book, events take a turn for the apocalyptically high stakes, lending the reading an uncomfortably James Bond-like feel. That, however, is almost nitpicking. When he manages to elude the formulaic nature of thrillers – which is most of the time – Chandra makes bold, unusual choices. Even when they don’t quite click into place, Sacred Games remains an entertainingly grand experiment, and the significant time investment required pays off nicely.