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Chandra’s latest is hard to put down

By Erica Eisdorfer

Recently, NPR’s Terry Gross commented to The New York Review of Books that it’s hard to interview writers who say they’re motivated by the urge to “tell stories.” She says that very often that’s all there is. They’re full up; they spill. If they’re talented enough, we read. In Sacred Games, the enormous new novel by Vikram Chandra, we read compulsively, unable to put the book down.

Sacred Games was preceded by the sort of respectful excitement in the industry that indicates that while the book’s a page-turner, it’s very, very smart and will require smart and patient readers, and thus the readership isn’t guaranteed. The novel thrills (an important thread of the story pits Hindu and Muslim mafia dons against each other), but will the heightened feeling alone keep us reading? Will we have the fortitude to handle the political history, the religious philosophy, the massive information of Sacred Games? Not to worry. Once you open it, it owns you.

The setting is Mumbai, today. The plot alternates gracefully between Sartaj Singh, an angsty Sikh detective, and his prey, the exuberant Ganesh Gaitonde, self-made man and India’s criminal mastermind. Like the depressed Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep from John Burdett’s Bangkok series, Detective Singh is not immune to the violence that’s part of the job, while the criminal Ganesh doesn’t much mind it. But wait right there. Dismissing this book as a crime novel is like calling Crime and Punishment a thriller.
Sacred Games is the definition of a psychological novel: These characters don’t drink a cup of chai without investigating their motivations, locating their actions on the Great Wheel, honing their moral imperatives. Is it possible to shrug off our hold on this small thing called our life? Is that the natural effect of aging? Is it wrong to strive? Does it make you less human, or more? Questions like these are scattered across the fabric of the narrative like so many tiny mirrors on an embroidered orange cloth.

Someone once said that magenta is the business-like navy-blue of India. Sacred Games is brightened by a fantastic array of cultural minutiae: Bollywood song lyrics; food that makes you sweat; the combined scents of petrol and jasmine; botoxed sexpots versus 6-year-olds who call the street corner their bedroom. The act of reading this book opens your inner eye wide to the textures of the country, especially to Chandra’s beloved Mumbai and its suburbs, but beyond that as well: the contours of the landscape, the mountains, the dirt-farms, the barely controlled gorgeous chaos. Chandra’s what-would-otherwise-be-arrogance (except he gets away with it so completely) of peppering his book until it’s hot with Hindi, Punjabi and other Indian languages (hence the glossary) reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s Spanish dialogue in his Border Trilogy. It’s like living abroad: the context’s the thing, and besides, the language makes you feel like you’re there.

At the heart of Sacred Games is the Hindu-Muslim conflict, and what it means historically and what it means today. Pakistan’s right there, a border away. Like the great Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, the conflict is muddled and then clarified and then re-muddled, just as conflicts always are. Sartaj Singh’s Ma, who retains a secret from the riots of her youth, puts it so: “These Muslims will never let us live in peace.” When reprimanded by her politically correct son, she rejoinders: “You don’t know these people. They are just different from us. We will never let them live in peace either.”

Sacred Games is huge—as big as ambition, as consuming as love, as deep as compassion and as grand as India itself. Open your heart to it, bhai, and it will absorb you.

Erica Eisdorfer has managed the Bull’s Head Bookshop on UNC’s campus for almost 20 years. She has written for Travel & Leisure and edited Carolina: Photographs from the First State University, published by the UNC Press. She reviewed books for WUNC radio for seven years.

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