'Sacred Games' by Vikram Chandra

Mumbai mystery is as sprawling as the city itself

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What can we make of Vikram Chandra and his 916-page detective novel? It seems utterly antithetical to our Age of Brevity.

"Sacred Games" is written by a well-educated student of literature, which means that Chandra (who studied with John Barth and Donald Barthelme and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley) knows when to break rules and when to follow them.

   
"SACRED GAMES"

By Vikram Chandra
HarperCollins ($27.95)

   

Like any good epic, his novel has two heroes, one good and one evil. Sartaj is a fortysomething Sikh police inspector in Mumbai, the former Bombay. Divorced, he drives a beat-up car and drinks two to three scotches per night, usually alone. He is nice to his mother and is respectful of women.

His nemesis is Ganesh Gaitonde, a well-heeled mobster who pulled himself up from nothing by violence, street smarts and sheer will. Ruthless, vain and greedy, he is addicted to sex with very young virgins.

Here's where it gets tricky. Although his father was an honest policeman, Sartaj launders money and takes a bit for himself. His mind is a warren of denial.

Gaitonde, on the other hand, is a man with lifelong friendships and loyalties. He is an intensely evil character we cannot help but love. Putting us into the minds of people who seem different altogether is one of the great gifts of good writing.

Early on, Sartaj receives an anonymous tip that Gaitonde has sequestered himself in a bunker in the city's center. He drives there with his sidekick, Katekar, and sets himself up with a chair and a drink by the intercom at the front door.

Through the speaker, Gaitonde tells Sartaj the story of his life, which Chandra weaves in chapters throughout the first two-thirds of the book.

Sartaj and his men storm the bunker, but it is too late: Gaitonde has shot himself and his female friend Jojo, who supplied him with virgins for many years. He is then recruited by the government to investigate the dead woman and the circumstances of Gaitonde's death. It is, he is told ominously, a matter of national security.

One of the coolest things about "Sacred Games" is the crash course it offers in 21st-century Indian society and the life of Mumbai, the city regarded by writers as the country's quintessential metropolis.

Chandra, who went to film school at Columbia University, has a visual way with words that is a bonus to the reader as he places us in Mumbai.

It is less helpful in his creation of characters. Dozens of minor figures march through the pages, at least 20 of whom must be remembered and identified each time they reappear. It is not until about halfway through the novel that we firmly hold all the cards we will need to play the game he has set in motion, and even then, Chandra is merciless with our memories.

No sooner are we settled than Chandra starts to add his "inserts," chapters that loom above the immediate plot to reveal the back story, which involves an evil guru who wants to build a nuclear bomb and level Mumbai to create a new and pure world.

Reading this book is like watching an extremely talented jazz musician improvise. He's having fun and that's contagious, but too often the audience can feel on the wrong side of an in-joke. Chandra loses control of the story now and then, as if he put a thread down for a little too long and everything had a different feel when he picked it up again.

The reader, drawn into the universe the author has created, feels these lapses, these broken or dropped threads.

Traditional wisdom tells us that literary merit lies in character development while entertainment value lives in plot. Chandra is clearly more interested in the former, and the plot here is not nearly as well conceived as Sartaj and Gaitonde's moral, spiritual and even romantic concerns.

I suspect that Chandra wanted to see if he could do it. He has. If he writes other books with characters who help us understand ourselves; if he takes us into strange corners of the world, closets and kitchens and beaches and deserts (as opposed to city morgues and death by bullets), would that be so terrible? Not at all.



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