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Book Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

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My Book Report, by Ginger Haycox: It's been awhile since I've begun anything like that, but Sacred Games truly made me feel like I should begin a review that way. It is so filled with plots, subplots and is so stoked in Indian history both today and yesterday, I feel that, like a student, I need to prove that I fully understood what I've just read. This book is a hugely long 900 pages (read: tome) and you may momentarily find yourself lost or forgetting who is who; but only briefly.

I hadn't really read anything about India or based in India until now, so this was a both a teacher and a tale – most entertaining and enjoyable ones, as well. There's never a question of Chandra taking liberties with fact; there is never any doubt that he knows the city he's basing his epic on.

This is a story taking place in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a modern Indian city with a darker side. Seven years of research went into getting this epic right, and that goal has been accomplished. Ambitious? Oh my, yes! And unapologetically melodramatic. But then it is a novel and we look for this in storytelling.

You immediately become immersed in the life of detective Sartaj Singh — one of the very few Sikhs in the Mumbai police force — and his dealings with the criminal underworld, and with Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India. Sartaj is past forty, his marriage dead and career prospects on the slide. We start out with him receiving an anonymous tip-off to the secret hideout of the legendary boss of the G-company, and he's determined he'll recoup his career by being the one to bag this gangster.

One thing Chandra does superbly well is give a sense of the changes and the continuities of modern India. I like that we learn about things suffered by the Singh family, and how the book fleshes out and explains why characters became what they are. Gaitonde's own origins are equally as painful as Sartaj's, and totally convincing: the dreadful injustices of small-town life shape the monster he is to become.

In a story that takes you through friendship and cut-throat betrayal and extreme violence, Chandra has brought us a page-turner that resonates intelligence and is one of the best-written books I've read. The emotional depth of this book is astounding. Sacred Games' prose is just right for its purposes, the foul language fitting and vital.

If there are any flaws, they might lie in the abundance of subplots, some left without satisfactory resolution. But then, many life events are a little open-ended. I want to know the outcome of certain characters we come to know in the story, and I don't get full closure in that.

In any case, Sacred Games will be talked for a long time yet, and for years to come may be the measuring stick for many books based in India.

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