on 21 September 2006
This truly is an epic. At first sight, I thought Vikram Chandra was just trying to match his namesake (the more famous Vikram Seth, author of other 'epics' like A Suitable Boy) by writing a long novel (it is long at 900 pages!). But as I started reading it, I realised that this was not just long, but wide and deep.
The author's breadth is dizzying - the story goes from the murky world of the Mumbai mafia-style underworld, to international terrorism, to the workings of the Indian bureaucracy, to the intelligence services investigating Islamic fundamentalism, to the traumas of the Partition of the Indian sub-continent 60 years ago, to the sidelines of the inside workings of Bollywood....
But, it is not just the breadth of the canvas that is breath-taking. This is not a superficial skimming of several sub-plots. It is the depth with which Vikram has researched each of these sub-plots and gone into not just describing the superficial external happenings there, but the intricate workings inside the minds of the people involved. He has gone right into the depths of the mind of a Mumbai don, a Mumbai policeman, an intelligence officer, a family uprooted at Partition....
It is hard to imagine that a 900-page book could be unputdownable - but this one was for me. I lost touch with the outside world for a week while I read this for several hours everyday.
This is one of those books I just liked the look of without knowing a great deal of what to expect.What I got was a book written with a passion for a cracking story, peopled by lifelike individuals all living uneasily together distrusting the stranger,despising the immigrant and constantly aware of caste and social standing.
Chandra's Sartaj Singh is a policeman with all sorts of problems and when a big time gangster seemingly falls into his lap life becomes increasingly complicated for him.
Vikram Chandra has written a great story here and what has really sold me is the way he paints Mumbai and various parts of India with such detail and colour. Usually a keen eye for detail can bore rigid but that is avoided as the story belts along right through. You are shown how people survive,( or not ), and a whole world opens up before the reader as pages turn and a new and captivating soul strolls, often briefly, across the story.
That Sartaj sticks out as a rare Sikh at work in the Mumbai police force adds yet more tension.
There are some Asian referrences that can be looked up on-line at the publishers website but to be honest I didn't as I wanted the feeling of mystery and another world unfolding to remain. It certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of this book one little bit.
There is so much to enjoy as the characters seemingly meander about the story whizzes along and you find yourself drawn deep into the huge world the author paints.
Give this one some of your time and you will find so much to savour and plenty will linger on in your mind long after you finish the last page.
on 10 January 2007
It's about hope and courage in a time of Kaliyug, of chaos, death and destruction - symbolised and realised as Bombay. It talks about random meaningless death, and random meaningless survival and how all of us choose our own way through life.
In addition to the plot elements you probably already know, the striking thing about it is - it's a book full of smells, from the slums, the traffic, the street stalls... Bombay sheer reeks off the pages. It's a book rich in character and tone (I especially enjoyed the untranslated Bombay slang), and still leaves you with the impression that you've seen the merest snapshot of the real Bombay - that there are countless millions of untold stories in this one city.
Yes ok, as a story - it wanders somewhat... as a read, it drags in places. It took me 3 months to finish it and I was let down a little by the ending which simply deflates after the painstakingly developed tension. (I think perhaps it just needed a surprise twist
Despite this it's thoroughly engrossing - particularly the internal identity struggles of the macho paranoid don Gaitonde, the existential soul searching of the inspector Sartaj, and the matter of fact detailing of administrative corruption in modern India.
Recommended for those with a bit of time to spare and some patience.
And if you enjoyed it, read Don Delillo's Underworld (if you haven't already).
on 5 October 2007
For some reason there seems to be a lot of hype around this book. Excellent Amazon reviews, fantastic quotes from various newspapers/ reviewers. I have to say that I was disappointed - the book is not bad, but I found that for a thriller, it really didn't make me turn the pages, and in terms of plot I found it really facile. It's not awful, but I kept hoping that it would build up towards the end. There are some comparisons to Dickens made regarding this book - the book may be as long as a good Dickens yarn, but sadly the author has neither the knowledge of people nor of plot to be able to compete.
on 3 August 2007
I have just finished this wonderful novel and agree totally with one of the quotes on the book jacket about finishing the novel with regret.
As I have virtually no knowledge about India and especially Mumbai,which is perhaps the book's main character, I cannot say how accurate this portrait is. This did not devalue the reading experience one iota. It is quite simply an enthralling read, facilitated by the author's graceful and flowing prose.
947 pages could indicate a slow, tedious read, but nothing could be further from the truth. The plot unfolds beautifully and the novel is rounded off unexpectedly and in a most satisfying manner by the two moving Inset chapters before we return for the final chapter to Sartaj Singh, the Sikh policeman at the heart of the story.
This book teems with life, and the sounds, smells and sights of India bombard you from all sides. Is it realistic ? Who cares ? And don't be put off by thinking it's a detective novel, because it isn't. We should just be grateful that Vikram Chandra has provided us readers with such a treat. Do yourself a favour. Buy, beg or borrow a copy of this novel and prepare yourself for a great reading experience.
on 9 December 2011
I love Indian novels and was really looking forward to reading this on the Kindle especially as it had good reviews. I had two false starts as it didn't grab me from the beginning and finally settled in on the third attempt.
It's incredibly long and not very gripping, the plot jumps around from the third person story of the Sikh inspector through the first person narration of the dead gangster and various other extraneous stories introduced and told just for the hell of it. And yet there should be tension as the plot builds towards its climax - sadly there's not and instead of the satisfying conclusion at the end of the drama, two irrelevant and only slightly interesting stories are inserted prior to the final ending. I was dying to get to the end, for a sense of achievement if nothing else, and I found the insertion rather annoying.
Although possibly an insight into modern Indian life with looks back at the hell of partition and the result of extreme poverty and corruption on some people, what made it so difficult for me to relax and get into it was the amount of untranslated hindi words, phrases and sometimes whole poems. Whilst adding to the 'authenticity' of the dialogue it's also incredibly distracting when one has to go to Google and spend quite some time looking up words that are, really, integral to the understanding of the book. It's a shame that there wasn't an included hindi-english dictionary included (at least there wasn't one on the Kindle)or some other form of introducing the Indian words so that they did not become real bugbear as they did for me.
In other ways it was well written with lots of detail, but the characters were rather two dimensional and I didn't feel involved with any of them. Such a shame ...
on 30 April 2008
Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games combines the attractions of genre literature with a meticulous social portrayal of that most fascinating of countries: modern India.
The novel's chosen format is that of a detective story, with ex-playboy, philosophically inclined Sikh police inspector Sartaj Singh chasing the tail of Bombay's most notorious gangster boss. We are also given the gory and satisfyingly prurient tale of the gangster's rise to chiefdom. But it is best never to betray too much of a thriller's plot. Suffice it to mention that the storyline takes on nationally and even internationally threatening dimensions, as well as going through the Bombay mob and the police's more modest, everyday battles.
The pace never flags through the book's massive 900 pages. No doubt Chandra is a capital storyteller, but this also owes something to the author's evident knowledge of his subject and acquaintance with the travails of the Bombay police force; one can feel the author has sweated and put in the hours for his reader. And beyond this, whole swathes of Indian society are put under the microscope. This is no set-piece version of sacred, historical India. What we have is an equally brutal and endearing, and invariably contradictory picture of a country in full transformation. Sacred Games ranges from the Bollywood scene to Bengali slums, from Naxalite battlegrounds to new-rich condominiums and from the Singhs' family farm in Maharashtra to the corridors of power in Delhi. It even manages to make the inevitable expository piece about the partition tragedy realistic and appealing.
The writing is elegant without - surprisingly for such a tome - being wordy, granting a large place to dialogue. It contains a number of English Indian words, but while this leaves the non-native curious, it isn't detrimental to his or her comprehension or enjoyment. I was warming up to my own imagined ending, to be disappointed that the author chose another direction. On reflection, though, Chandra's moralistic but not moralising denouement is much better than mine.
on 13 March 2008
It was a matter of pure coincidence that I bought this book-my decision had more to do with making avail the free postage facilities provided by one of the larger online presences when buying xmas presents, than an attempt to buy myself a fat little read.Little did I realise then that this little bit of indulgence to myself would provide me with unbridled satisfaction for a good few weeks.
Its almost 3 months since I cursed over the first page and about 3 pages down fell in love with it.Over the next 900 or so pages one is treated to the briefly intertwined but otherwise elaborately diverse lives of Sartaj Singh,a Mumbai police inspector and Ganesh Gaitonde the underworld Hindu don.Around this is woven the intricate politics of mumbai-between the mafia,the politicians and the various police departments.
But for me, the real allure of this book is 'mumbai' itself.Throughout this opus,Vikram Chandra describes the city people associate it with. The dust, the noise, grime and dirt,the scent of the sea[sometimes odour too] are all things that make his megapolis the city it is.To me ,sitting in my squeaky clean Cambridge apartment,this brings back memories of home,of gangster stories that we teenagers used to talk about in the classroom.
This is not a great literary classic, it is more of a paper Bollywood blockbuster.Vikram Chandra has written a novel about the real India, about its inhabitants that feature more in the crime sections of the news but neverthe-less have the lives so inherently linked to the Mumbai bloodline.And,it differs from the poncy diaspora novels that Indian literature is so full of. Hopefully, this novel marks the beginning of a new genre of english writing in India ,one which through the liberal use of the mixed vernacular can coexist with the more conservative form.
This is a dazzling, complicated, bewildering and magnificently compelling novel set in modern India. Its reach is extensive. `Sacred Games' trawls back to the times of Partition and explores the nature of India's divided society, its inherent and functional form of commonplace corruption, and the threat of international terrorism involving the most potent of WMD.
All of this is expertly and gradually revealed through the personal tales of two protagonists on opposite sides of the law: an upstart young Hindu gangster who becomes one of the leading crimelords in Mumbai and a stalwart if unambitious Sikh policeman. Their paths cross, and the telling of their stories explores the complexity of today's Indian society, with the spice of an international thriller thrown in.
Many people will find 'Sacred Games' hard going, and a very long read. It took me about 200 pages to feel comfortable with the language (some of it in Hindi, Gujurati, Sanskrit or slang, so English-only speakers will need to use the glossary at [...] or get a feel for the meaning and go with the flow). There is a considerable level of sex and extreme violence, as you might expect with a realistic depiction of criminal networks -- but the beauty of 'Sacred Games' is that these appear alongside moment of poetic purity. Evens the in the darkest moments of depravity there are glimpses of devout human spirit and even the most corrupt individuals can be unexpectedly righteous.
A book to be read slowly, savoured and digested at length. Let it overwhelm you for a while, and get to know the main characters. Definitely a book to take on holiday and read for several hours at a time - would be very disjointed if grabbed in short sections. I thoroughly enjoyed the plot, revelled in the life-story of Ganesh the gangster, and adored the insight into modern Indian society. Will definitely buy the author's other novels. (It only fails to gain five stars for me because of the confusing opening which may well prove too much of a barrier for many readers.)
on 16 October 2006
Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games" is the "best" Bombay book, whichever way you look at it. It is set in Bombay and it is about the great megapolis.
Bombay is probably the main character in this "tome" (900 pages and 7 years in the making), which is at first difficult to penetrate, but completely addictive and rewarding once, you go past the 200 page mark.
What makes the book difficult to penetrate is the profusion of characters and the confusing at first-plot structure. (and to readers not from Bombay, the language. Chandra uses bombay street slang (which itself is derived from a multitude of languages and is its own "bambaiya" dialect) without your usual italics or a useful glossary as an annexure.)
The book is at core a love song to the Bombay which the author loves, but also works on multiple levels.
Firstly, it works as a solid piece of Victorian fiction. Not as much a "whodunit", as a "why they did what they did" . Secondly, it is a deep introspection of the changing nature of that wondrous megapolis, which nurtures and nourishes its many economic immigrants. Religion, the Underworld, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Bollywood,the glitterati etc etc, are covered by the broad canvas of this novel which spans from pre independence India to the present day.
Granted, that not all the side stories and minor characters pay off or add to the overall narrative (some of the insets are frankly self-indulgent), but that is but a minor blemish in a book which gives you a character as accomplished and complete as Ganesh Gaitonde.
Ganesh Gaitonde- the "don", the "rags to riches"- it can happen only in bombay phenomenon, the taker of boys, the ravager of women, a connoisseur of Bollywood cinema, the self-learned street fighter, the at once dangerous impulsive, globe trotting, central character. It is apparent that Gaitonde has been invested with the 7 years of research and an infinite supply of humanity. This is a fiction character which will surely stay with you.
In comparison, Sartaj Singh, the 40 year old, divorced cop,pales, but only slightly. Sartaj is the unwitting hero, in this novel, where all the characters are painted "pale grey" at best.
Some of the other characters which Chandra creates, from Jojo - the madam, to Katekar, Sartaj's constable are indeed Bombay characters of our times.
Bollywood plays a huge role in this book as well. From the aspiring actress, Zoya Mirza's rise to Gaitonde's boys discussing what a Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and a Kishore Kumar ditty, stands for.
This is indeed a big, clamorous novel, very similar to Bombay where the sound of the crowds, the daily bump and grind, is its own sweet melody.
This is probably the best bombay book ever. Move over Rushdie...