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Sacred Games: Underworld unplugged

In his best-selling crime epic that came out this month, Vikram Chandra plunges deeply into the Mumbai underworld.

News18test sharma |

Updated:January 30, 2007, 12:22 PM IST
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<i>Sacred Games</i>: Underworld unplugged
In his best-selling crime epic that came out this month, Vikram Chandra plunges deeply into the Mumbai underworld.

Berkeley (California): Baby-faced author Vikram Chandra, in brown V-neck sweater and sipping a skimmed latte, does not immediately strike you as a guy who has spent most of the past decade hanging out with gangsters.

Nor does the soft-spoken novelist swagger like someone who has become an international publishing phenomenon and the center of a million-dollar bidding war.

Instead, as he sits in a coffee shop a block from his oak-shaded bungalow, the 45-year-old writer blends in with other intellectuals from the nearby University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches creative writing.

To write Sacred Games, his best-selling Indian crime epic that came out this month, Chandra plunged deeply into the Mumbai underworld. Through crime journalist friends and police contacts, he met with nervous hit men in grimy cafes and gained audiences with Tony Soprano-style dons in penthouse apartments. And, unexpectedly, he found himself feeling very much at home.

''There were a couple of moments where I found myself laughing at somebody's jokes, and there's a part of me that's going, this guy's OK, I could hang out with this dude,'' Chandra says. ''Then your mind suddenly flips over and you realise, yes, but also tomorrow morning he's going to go out and kill somebody he doesn't know for money. That paradox is what fascinates me about the human heart.''

The all-too-human face of evil also anchors Sacred Games in the person of Ganesh Gaitonde, the urchin-turned-godfather whose apparent suicide at the beginning of the book sucks its police detective protagonist, Sartaj Singh, into an international conspiracy.

Gaitonde returns to the story soon enough as a sometimes-narrator who tells the story of his rise to power while Singh tries to solve the mystery of his death.

But Chandra's novel aspires to much more than the conventional police procedural or spy thriller. Shot through with Mumbai slang and pop culture references, Sacred Games sprawls and churns like the city itself, as its characters become entangled in the bloody scrum of Indian politics, driven by ancient religious rivalries and intricate class divisions.

''I got really interested in this mesh of inner lives and historical forces and organisations and nation states,'' Chandra says, ''how all of them connected together, and individual human beings were caught up in this enormous sort of network and sometimes had very little inkling of why certain things were happening to them.''

Chandra's prodigious ambition for the book, which he started writing in 1997, has spurred breathless talk of Sacred Games as 21st century Indian fiction's breakthrough epic.


''This is a great novel, perhaps the greatest book on Bombay ever written. Certainly a contender for the Great Indian Novel,'' wrote one reviewer in the Hindustan Times.

Whatever the book's standing as literature, the popularity of Sacred Games is undeniable. It has remained on India's top-10 best seller list since its release.

Younger Indian readers have embraced the novel's rowdy social panorama of criminals, cops and slum-dwellers in a country still saddled with the class tensions of the caste system, says Amardeep Singh, a professor of world literature at Lehigh University who keeps a blog about new South Asian fiction. They also find its encyclopedic use of Indian obscenities ''thrilling.''

''It's a breaking of a certain unwritten set of taboos of what you can and can't talk about and the language you can use,'' Singh says.

Sacred Games has also sold well in England, where it was named a top book of 2006 by several British critics, and has been translated into 14 languages, from Hindi to French to Croatian.

HarperCollins beat out five other publishers to buy the U.S. rights to ''Sacred Games'' for $1 million, and has reportedly pushed the novel with a $300,000 marketing budget _ a rare sum for a single book. There are 75,000 hardcover copies in print in the United States so far, with the book already in its fifth US printing.

Chandra originally intended to write a more typical 300-page mystery novel inspired by an extortion attempt against his own brother-in-law, a film director, in the mid-1990s.

In what was an all-too-common experience for Indian professionals at the time, Chandra's brother-in-law refused to turn over money to the mobsters and instead surrounded the family home with armed security guards.

''It's very weird to think that my little nephew was growing up in a world where guns were commonplace parts of his everyday experience,'' he says. ''It was also strange how fast I got used to it.''

Chandra was born in New Delhi and, with his wife, novelist Melanie Abrams, divides his time almost evenly each year between Berkeley and Mumbai. He grew up reading Hindi pulp novels and watching his mother turn out script after script for radio, television, the stage and film.


''I started to write fiction really early because my mother's a screenwriter,'' Chandra says. ''In our house, she was always working at her stuff, so it became natural to want to write down the stories I was making up.''

Sacred Games is written in English but with enough Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi cursing, Indian pop-song lyrics and names of Bollywood actresses to keep non-Indian readers turning to the glossary at the back of the book after nearly every page. Even Indians outside Mumbai might have trouble deciphering some of it without help, Chandra says.

He approaches his work as a storyteller, not a writer, he says.

''If I were sitting in a coffee shop in Bombay telling this story to a friend of mine, the language I would use would naturally be sprinkled with these words,'' he says. ''And it would contain a whole bunch of cultural references that both of us would share. I would feel no need to explain it.''

The difficulty of Chandra's language, which has generated both excitement and consternation, has hardly kept readers away from ''Sacred Games.'' Part of the reason is undoubtedly the story itself, which pulses with energy throughout, despite its daunting 900 pages.

But Chandra also seems to have tapped into something else. Though a polyglot melting pot for most of its history, India has more recently become a kind of poster country for globalization, with Mumbai at its epicenter. By writing a thoroughly Indian novel, Chandra has also written a global novel that illuminates the historical currents and cultural forces connecting lives worldwide.

Still, the author never planned on all the attention. Though an earlier novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), and short story collection, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), earned Chandra critical acclaim and several awards, the notoriety has not approached his current fame.

''I've just been a happy literary writer going on my way creating my books,'' Chandra says. ''So I never expected all of this to happen. Certainly, it was fun when it started happening, but also completely weird.''

Chandra is currently on a yearlong sabbatical from teaching and has no plans to abandon the classroom. And although he's not against making Sacred Games into a movie (Hollywood and Bollywood have both expressed interest), he has no desire to be involved in a film project.

''I think finally what you do is you just retreat into your cave again,'' he says. ''You sit down and start trying to imagine a world. I think once all of this turbulence dies down, I'll just go back to my normal life. I hope.''

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