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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Playing Sacred Games

When asked, "What do you write for?", Vikram Chandra, in an interview with, replied, "The most honest way to put it is what they call khujli in Hindi -- I itch." Well, after having ploughed though Sacred Games, one can only wonder at the intensity of that itch.

His intent here is clearly to lift the genre novel to a more literary plane -- and, sentence for sentence, this is something he succeeds in, for the book is elegantly written and crafted. (In this aim, Chandra is not alone -- others such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen have confessed to their love of genre fiction and have attempted the same feat, taking detective novels and comic book characters as their material.)

Quality of prose apart, the other aspect of genre fiction that Chandra tries to overcome is that of stock characters. In this, one feels he's only partly successful: true, Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde are certainly more developed and rounded than characters you'd come across in a run-of-the-mill cops-and-robbers potboiler, but this development is limited. The underworld don's ambition, brutality and lecherousness are sought to be fleshed out by making him painfully self-aware, and the upright police officer's sense of irony and acceptance of corruption come across more than occasionally as a marriage of convenience. The moral murkiness of Graham Greene's world, for example, had no need of such contrivances. (One also had a clear sense that Chandra's characters were caught too tightly in the mesh of plot and structure, rendering them unable to break free from the page and emerge as living, breathing individuals in their own right.)

The above, however, are offset by Chandra's total immersion in and transmutation of his material: Mumbai's sights, sounds and smells are marvellously portrayed and this vivid delineation of a sense of place -- one of fiction's "lesser angels" as Eudora Welty put it -- is a chief source of pleasure to be found in these pages.

Which brings us to the key characteristic -- and, in one's opinion, key weakness -- of the book: its size. Where, really, was the need to make it so jaw-droppingly large? If your intent is to illumine the nature of society during a specific era (as Tolstoy set out to do in War And Peace) or portray the narrow-mindedness of English provincial life (as George Eliot did in Middlemarch) then, yes, you need bulk, you need heft. Even Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy justified the number of pages because of the creation of numerous characters, from distinctly varied backgrounds, all adding up to a snapshot of India in the Fifties.

Sacred Games' size, however, seems to have come about because of sheer self-indulgence. (Jai Arjun Singh makes much the same point in this earlier, astute post, pointing out -- very rightly -- that the so-called "insets", for a start, could well have been done away with.) It shouldn't take close to 900 pages to transcend a genre and create a novel involving characters drawn from a specific aspect of Mumbai's life.

It's been widely reported that Chandra took seven years to write Sacred Games. If he'd taken another year to make it more compact, it would have been worth the wait. As Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review of Seth's Two Lives, "this one would have been told better if it had been told more briefly."

Update: Just came across Nilanjana Roy's take: "’s worth the nine hundred pages".


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