From Chandler to Chandra

Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra

Faber and Faber, 17.99

THERE are certain books that are so similar to one another they almost beg to be grouped together. This is largely true of Indian novels. Look closely at the ones published in the past, say, 25 years, and you'll see that they're virtually identical, in theme if not in style and content.

For me, Midnight's Children is indivisible from A Fine Balance, which in turn cannot be separated from A Suitable Boy. Directly or indirectly, all three books - and there are other notable examples - are concerned with the same thing: the state of Indian society in the wake of independence and partition. In his long-awaited new novel, trumpeted by the publishers as seven years in the making, Vikram Chandra must be given credit for writing against this traditional grain.

Sacred Games may well be the first Indian detective novel. Set in modern-day Bombay - or Mumbai - the story revolves around Sartaj Singh, a violent, corrupt, police inspector. Consistently overlooked for promotion, his career is nearing meltdown. With his partner, the equally violent and corrupt Katekar, he spends most of his time chasing dead-end leads. He never seems to have enough time to clear his backlog of cases and is past caring.

At 40, he is beginning to wonder what it's all about, why he continues to be a policeman, and whether it wouldn't be worth quitting the service before he burns himself out. When he's not at the station, or out pounding the streets, he's at home drinking whisky and brooding over his failed marriage. Every so often he gets an irresistible urge to visit his widowed mother, who, aged and increasingly eccentric, potters about her suburban flat awaiting death.

Singh, it has to be said, is not a very original character. To create him, the author has borrowed a little too much from Raymond Chandler, whose Marlowe remains the last word on the cynical, world-weary gumshoe. Fortunately, there's enough salacious material in Singh's various investigations to keep the reader turning the pages. Shortly after the novel opens he is given the task of trapping a particularly repellent blackmailer. No sooner has he begun the investigation than he is called out to one of the city's slums to look into a brutal murder. These two storylines contain enough twists and turns and suspense for several crime thrillers, but then Chandra introduces a third, and from this point on, the novel broadens into a detailed and fascinating study of the Bombay underworld.

SINGH CANNOT believe his luck when he discovers the whereabouts of the legendary crime boss, Ganesh Gaitonde, who was believed to be on the run abroad, but who is in fact holed up in a house in the middle of the city. Determined to take down this famous gangster, Singh and Katekar race to the address, only to discover that the house is a concrete fortress. Bizarrely, Ganesh Gaitonde starts speaking to the two officers through a loud speaker, begging that they listen to his life story. As the two officers wait for back-up, and the bulldozers, Gaitonde begins his confessional. Eventually his bunker is stormed, but rather than allow himself to be taken, he shoots himself in the head. At this point in the story the reader is asked to make a huge imaginative leap. Gaitonde, though quite dead, goes on telling his story from the other side. And what a story it turns out to be. From a penniless nonentity he rises to become the head of a vast criminal empire whose reach extends into the very heart of the Indian government. It's a deeply unpleasant tale, and Chandra uses it to highlight some of the ills afflicting Bombay society: the crime, the corruption, the greed, the aping of western culture, the complete disregard for the poor and the dispossessed, the regular blood-lettings between Hindus and Muslims. Even Bollywood is portrayed as a hotbed of illegal activity, a glittering front for prostitution, money-laundering and racketeering. This is certainly not the India of the travel brochures.

Chandra spent a lot of time researching his book. He hung out with police officers as well as members of the criminal fraternity. But has all the hard work paid off? Not entirely. The novel excites and exasperates in equal measure. The problem for Chandra is that he wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to write a crime caper and still be 'literary'. Hence all the flowery language and endless digressions which do nothing but slow down what is otherwise a very engrossing story. The pace of the book is further hampered by an infuriating tendency to give potted histories to even the most minor characters. And then there's the problem of the two protagonists. In the end, they just don't ring true. Sartaj Singh must be the most self-aware policeman that ever drew breath, while Ganesh Gaitonde, a career criminal with no formal education, gives much too eloquent an account of his rise to power.

That said, he is by far the most interesting character in the book. Cunning, scheming and utterly ruthless, he rules his empire with all the swagger and egotism of Mussolini. To his enemies he is a madman who must be killed at all costs, while his friends and associates live in constant fear of incurring his wrath. He uses people for his own ends, particularly women, then discards them like so much rubbish. In his world he is king, and all those with pretensions to his throne are simply swept aside - stabbed, shot, or ritually dismembered.

Needless to say, his egotism is a mask for some deep-seated insecurities. He is riddled with fears and phobias. He worries about going bald, about being fat, about growing old and weak. But nothing causes him greater concern than his tiny member. In one unforgettable passage he surfs the internet looking for penis enlargement treatments. Having found one, which requires him to use a complicated massage technique, he shuts himself away from his minions and begins the treatment. He has to use a ruler to measure any growth, but when, after a fortnight, he can see no discernible improvement, he flies into a rage and starts threatening to kill people. It's not the most imaginative metaphor for the smallness of a man's mind, but the author can be forgiven as it works well and is extremely funny besides.

All in all, this is a very patchy read. At the heart of the book is a very clever detective yarn which any crime writer would be proud of, but Chandra surrounds it with so much verbiage you could scream. Oh for a bit of judicious editing. At 900 pages, the book is too long. Chandra may have departed from the typical Indian novel in terms of subject matter, but when it comes to length, he reveals himself to be every bit the traditionalist. Sacred Games, alas, is the poorer because of this.

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