It's been an awfully long time since I've been so excited by a book that I wanted to finish it so I could write a review and tell everybody how amazing it is. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra is one of those books. It's so good that you resent having to do anything else at all during your day except read it. Who wants to eat, go to the bathroom, sleep, go to work, or any number of other trivial matters when you could be reading Sacred Games?
Some books are really strong on characterization, but weak on atmosphere and plot, or strong in one of the other areas but weak in others. Maybe, if you're lucky the author is good enough that he or she gets two out of three, but Vikram Chandra has done what I consider the ultimate in novel writing by bringing off all three of a novel writing's holy trinity to perfection.
Every single character is so fully drawn and real, you can visualize them so well that you'd recognize them walking along the street. Not just by a physical description either, but by the look in their eyes, the manner in which an emotion affects them, and by the energy they exude.
You'd swear that Chandra was looking over the midwives' shoulder on the day each character was born, so intimate and detailed is the vision we have of each of them. But then again a good author is parent, midwife, teacher, spiritual advisor, matchmaker, mortician, as well as biographer to his or her characters. Chandra fulfills all his duties along those lines as he guides us through the lives of his people.
He is so dedicated he even follows one into the afterlife for him to tell his story. But after the notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, one of the most wanted men in Mumbai, takes his own life, he lingers to tell his story to the policeman who was there at his death. Technically he is not telling Inspector Sartaj Singh anything directly, but rather using him as a confessor figure in his mind's eye to tell his life's story.
Chandra does such a magnificent job of relaying Gaitonde's rise from the street to the highest echelon of gangsterhood, that there are times when I found myself getting anxious for him to succeed and believing all Gaitonde's justifications for killing somebody. To be able to generate such great empathy for a character who normally wouldn't be given the time of day in a book except to show up to kill the hero, or be a shadowy figure in the background, is in itself an amazing feat.
It does make it easier to like him when one compares him to the moral ambiguity of Mumbai society in general, and the police force in specific. Things are so corrupt that Inspector Singh is looked upon as something odd because he only takes the bribes that are considered essential and necessary for police work to take place. The fact that very little actually ends up in his pockets and his bank account makes him a paragon of virtue, or a slight figure of ridicule, depending on your point of view.
The reality in Mumbai is that the state barely sends the police force enough money to pay the officers' wages. Everything else from uniforms to paying informants has to come out of somebody else's pocket. So the gangs all have their police officers and the police officers all have their gangs who they work for and with.
The gangs will use their police contacts to make trouble for their opponents, and pay the police for conducting an ambush of their enemies receiving a shipment of heroin. Maybe some of the heroin makes it way back to the gang that supplied the tip, but any monies found on scene are carefully divvied up among the police. A certain amount has to be handed in for the superiors to take their cut and ensure that they will allow you to use uniformed men when you need them to conduct raids, a certain amount goes into the station house, and the rest goes into the pockets of everyone in on the arrest.
There are plenty of opportunities for a policeman to get ahead and make good money in Mumbai if he or she is willing to compromise themselves. And it's not hard to go down that slope when all around you people are lining their pockets and building nest eggs in the Cayman Islands. The money-launderers of Mumbai are on the best of terms with both the police and the gangsters, and will never be hassled by anyone.
Mumbai is more than just the city or the region most of the novel takes place in; she is also a character in the novel. She still wears remnants of her days as Bombay, the tattered lace of long-gone imperialism, but those are being gradually overwhelmed by illegally built apartment blocks that tower over everything including height regulations.
Ramshackle collections of one-room hovels huddle around the bases of these towers as if they hope they will be miraculously drawn up inside. Life is even cheaper here than anywhere else and you can be killed over anything. There is no sewage or running water, and negotiating passage is fraught with difficulty.
The same, of course, can be said for anywhere in Mumbai, and if you're not careful where you step you could end up in the shit if you are police officer. The corridors of power, the air conditioned splendour of offices and shops in the wealthy neighbourhoods, the film lots – wherever you go a police officer's welcome is dependant on who knows who, and they must know when to kick a door down and when to knock gently.
But Mumbai has her beauty too; the sights and sounds of happy people, the smell of the ocean and watching the sun setting into the sea, the various sounds of prayer that come from any number of the multitude of temples and their gods and goddesses. The wafting of incense mixes with the smells of the outdoor cooking stalls and their curries, roties, naan bread, and other delights that help to offset less pleasant olfactory experiences.
Nothing is at it seems in Sacred Games, and at the onset it all seems so corrupt to our eyes and ears, immoral and unjust even; how can a system that depends of bribery work? Well it doesn't seem to work any better or worse than our system of justice. How many blind eyes are turned here towards the activities of corporations more intent on making money then anything else?
But as long as they donate to the right people and work for the right causes, there won't be any problems. How is that any different from what happens on the streets of India's largest city Mumbai?
Sacred Games is a magnificent book in all the meanings of that word. At 900 pages long it might seem intimidating, but don't be put off. You'll want it to be longer, you'll want to linger among its pages like you would linger over a meal in a great restaurant where the company has been interesting, and the tastes amazing.
From what I gather by reading the reviews of Indian writers, Chandra's depictions of Mumbai are dead on, so for those of us who don't travel this might be out best chance to experience the city in all of its splendour and darkness. You'll be denying yourself a real treat if you don't read this book and an education on a part of the world we should be learning more and more about in North America.
But aside from all that it's a great story, with amazing characters, and incredible atmosphere written by a superlative writer, what more could you ask for?