NBCC Awards Finalists in Fiction: Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games”


This is the twenty-fourth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Vikram Chandra, “Sacred Games,” Harper Perennial

Do young Indian writers dream of writing “The Great Indian Novel” the way young writers once dreamed of writing the great American one? With fledgling MFA’ers in the U.S. arguably more focused on “The Great American Short-Story Collection,” it wouldn’t be surprising if such grand ambition were declining everywhere. Certainly the will to epic hasn’t been prominent in the cascade of wonderful fiction by Indian and Indian American writers over the past 15 years. Yes, there was Vikram Seth’s immense “A Suitable Boy,” but many fine works in this flowering have been more modest in scope, miniaturist in aspiration.

Whatever the case, the would-be literary giant tapping away in Delhi, Hyderbad or even Bangalore (between freelance computer gigs) must now concentrate on writing the “Second Great Indian Novel” of recent times. Because in “Sacred Games,” Vikram Chandra, already much honored for his earlier “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” and “Love and Longing in Bombay,” has pulled it off.

From the astonishing first paragraph in which Fluffy, that doomed white Pomeranian, flies out the window to her fate, screaming in her “lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam,” the reader rests in the hands of a writer who, like Bellow in “The Adventures of Augie March,” or Tolstoy—yes, Tolstoy—aims to give us the full sweep of a society’s inevitably paired sanity and nuttiness in the company of characters who somehow touch it all.

Chandra has said that “Sacred Games” began as a conventional detective tale: “One dead body, and 300 pages later, everything is neatly solved.” Instead it became an epic, 947 pages in the current Harper Perennial edition. Yet the outsized expansion makes sense. When atypical Mumbai gangster boss Ganesh Gaitonde, under siege by that imperfect detective Sartaj Singh we met in “Love and Longing,” shoots himself and his female companion, you know it’s going to take time to mop up the back story.

What one can’t quite anticipate are the many feats of bravura literary art Chandra manages within a runaway gumshoe thriller. As in crime dramas like “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos,” the positioning of everyone on the edge of danger, with hardly a degree of separation from Mumbai’s underworld, keeps things churning. Chandra’s quaint Victorian voice lends an old-fashioned feel to the action, just as Gaitonde’s musings from beyond the grave add an air of fantasy.

Then there’s Chandra’s unabashed decision to include the wild slang of Bombay’s streets, Hindi, Urdu and Marathi indelicacies,  a feast made more fun for the benighted by the glossary at the back of the American edition. I particularly liked learning that you can call a man who’s too pretty to be a man “chikniya,” which sounds both Russian and Las Vegas, and dub a certain type of womanly flirtation “nakhras,” which sounds Yiddish, and that so many Indian slang words for the male organ make it sound, well, like the name of an Indian god. Lodu? Lauda?

In any case, Chandra, like Tom Wolfe and many a reportorial novelist before him, did the legwork that makes “Sacred Games” something too many novels no longer are—convincing, about both its terrain and the choices made by people awkwardly close to crime, with only a partial grasp of the larger circumstances in which they live. 

Even as publishers continue to produce books of mammoth page-length, they privately bemoan the supposed decline in attention span among young readers. The only way to know whether novels of the size and scope of “Sacred Games” not only still “work,” but soar, is to read them. I am not a young reader, but I somehow felt younger after experiencing the tumultuous world of “Sacred Games.” If any book can rid Westerners of that lingering identification of Indian culture with the mystical and exotic, that cornucopia of nonsense Gita Mehta once folded under the lovely phrase Karma Cola, it’s Chandra’s latest marvel. Fiction prizes should go to great books, not mere good ones. “Sacred Games” is such a book.—NBCC board member and books critic and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano

Review in The Guardian.

Toronto Star review.

Washington Post review.

Review roundup on SAJA Forum.

La Bloga review.

Interview in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Interview in the Austin American-Statesman.