SUCHITRA BEHAL

Sacred Games plays with the form of the thriller to explore the landscape of fear and extortion that prevailed in the Mumbai of the 1990s, says Vikram Chandra, in an e-mail interview.

Vikram Chandra never fails to astonish. Almost like a magician conjuring up his latest trick, Chandra, the writer has once again shown his ability to move ahead. Not afraid to experiment, he has drawn a variety of characters to build and share his story which takes the reader into the mind of a cynical yet human detective, Sartaj Singh, well past the prime of his life, and into that of Ganesh Gaitonde, India's most wanted criminal. Singh and Gaitonde are two faces of the coin and it is in the minds of these two men that the game of life is played out.Seven years of painstaking research and a hefty advance of a million dollars, that made Sacred Games the focus of the literati, Chandra has pulled off a coup of sorts with a masterpiece that dazzles as it races along the Mumbai skyline. In a short email interview, the author explains how and why Sacred Games came to be. Excerpts:You have been writing about Sartaj Singh for the last 10 years? Why are you so fascinated by him?It's often hard to tell why a character stays with you. When I finished Love and Longing in Bombay, I thought I'd finished with Sartaj Singh, but as the weeks and months passed I found myself thinking about him, and seeing the world through his eyes. It became clear then that we had unfinished business. So I gave in and started writing. I liked the guy, he's cynical and reflective and yet hopeful. And a policeman is an interesting protagonist; he allows you to move across a culture sideways and vertically. But — without sounding too mystical about it — there's really no logical reason why I stayed with him. You can find all sorts of reasons after the fact why somebody is a close friend, but the truth is you have an affinity for some people, and that fact just is.During your research for this book, how often did you encounter hostility? Was information easy to get?I think I encountered open hostility only once, and that was from a company member who was probably high on something. He didn't want to be interviewed, and he was only there because his superiors had told him to. But other than that, most people were courteous, especially the higher-ups. Many of them assumed that I had something to do with the press, and everyone has their own spin that they want to get out into the media. If somebody didn't want to divulge something, they just stonewalled or changed the subject, and I never pressed too hard. Mostly, you get the best information from asking a question now and then, keeping mostly quiet and listening, and letting people talk about their lives. Everyone has a story, and once they start telling it, you get some really amazing revelations. Anyway, as a novelist, I'm often not so interested in the historical details — who did what to whom on which specific day — but in the incidentals, in the texture and mood that is revealed when somebody is narrating his or her own life as they see it. Often, the lies they tell are as revealing as the truths they are willing to reveal to you. The fantasy that a person has about himself, about what he would have liked to have become, is immeasurably valuable material for a fiction writer.Between the two — the police and the mafia — who was more forthcoming?About equally so, I'd say, in general. Although there are a couple of policemen who I have a personal connection with, so they were forthcoming in a manner that a stranger would never be. And I'm grateful to them for that trust.Would you say Sacred Games is universal? That is, if Sartaj Singh were Peter and Ganesh Gaitonde, Ramsey could this be happening anywhere else in the world? Or is it only specific to this country?Organised crime exists everywhere, and it grows stronger roots anywhere the State is weak and the institutions of civic society are not functioning properly. The interaction between various arms of the governing body and elements of organised crime is also something that's existed everywhere. The degree to which all of this happens is what we should be concerned about as citizens. As a writer, what interests me are the specifics of these transactions in a particular city at a particular time, the grey areas between "good" and "bad."Who is the hero of this book? Sartaj or Ganesh? Thackeray described Vanity Fair as a "novel without a hero", and I think that's what makes it such a wonderful and great book. I think of both Sartaj and Ganesh as human beings, as protagonists in the drama of their own lives.Sacred Games has been categorised as a thriller. How important is genre to you?I'm interested in forms, in the ways in which stories are told. We get used to certain shapes which stories make, and these conventions, with their associated expectations and rewards, become "genres". I'm including "literary" as a genre, by the way, in this grouping. Anyway, one of the pleasures of being a writer is that you get to play with these forms, to make them and subvert them and twist them. I hope the book partakes of some of these forms and yet is also something else altogether.How did the idea for Sacred Games come about? Was it a slow festering over the years or an incident that triggered off the thought processes towards this book?I started with the image of Gaitonde inside his white bunker of a house, and Sartaj outside, talking to him. I suppose that image came out of the air, out of the environment I was living in at the time. Mumbai in the late 1990s was full of violence and extortion and fear. I personally knew people who had been threatened and shot at and wounded. I knew policemen who were dealing with all of this, and ordinary people who were just trying to live their lives while the newspapers were full of encounters and assassinations. The book became a way to investigate all of these landscapes.ExtractBUT when Parulkar led the interrogations it was a different game altogether. It was always at night. He sat in an armchair, his shoes off, quite relaxed. He had me stand in the middle of the room, directly under the hanging light, and he always had two of his inspectors standing behind me. He asked his questions as if he was talking to a friend about their trip to Lonavla next Saturday, easy and quiet. But then the blows would follow, sudden whipping gusts against my calves that staggered me forward, deep thumps on my back that emptied me of breath. I was driven to my knees time and again, and panting on the floor, I hated him. They lifted me up each time, and he started again. Questions, questions. His face hidden beyond the circle of light, his belly lifted up towards me. I endured. It was the insult of barking cuffs to the back of my head I could not bear, the slaps that stung tears from my eyes, the numbing flares that lit up my eyes from the inside. When Majid Khan was present during one of Parulkar's sessions, I felt his hate in his punches to the small of my back, all that anger he hid for survival's sake. When he was freed by Parulkar's direct orders, he hit me hard. During the fifth interrogation, that fat bastard Parulkar began to laugh at me. `Look at the great Ganesh Gaitonde crying like a little girl,' he said. `Look at him bawling.' I wasn't. I wasn't crying. I was wiping tears from my cheeks, but they were from the sharp cracks on my ears, which started the tears instantly. It was automatic, my body reacting like it would to coal-dust in the eyes, and had nothing to do with me weeping. But that maderchod Parulkar was sure. He leaned forward in his chair to laugh at me, and looking at his fat pig's nose, his little teeth, I knew he would kill me. He was Suleiman Isa's man, and he was bound to his political masters, and unlike his subordinates, he was quite willing to hurt me, he would snap my bones, he wouldn't stop at the slaps and the patta, he would beat my feet with lathis and attach electrodes to my golis. He was too far gone down his road with his allies to be afraid of me. Between him and me there could be no accommodation, and he would make me suffer.So I decided to cry for him. I had to play it exactly right, he was an old, old khiladi, and he had questioned thousands of men, broken each of them. He had come up through the ranks because he was wily as an old crow, he had tip-toed through a lifetime of traps, watching with these squinty steel eyes of his. If I wept too hard, or too easily, he would see it, know it for fraud. So I acted the opposite, that I was ashamed, that I was trying to hold it in, that I was reaching for courage. That I was flinching despite myself from the blows, and splintering under them. I gave him his victory, an easy one but one that he worked for nevertheless. When I finally begged, he was burstingly greasy with pride and satisfaction. `Give me something then,' he said. `Give me something and I'll send you back to your cell. Tomorrow you can even visit the doctor and get medicine for your stomach. Show him all your aches and pains.' I did. I gave him two shooters, small freelancers you could hire for three thousand rupees. They worked for everyone, for Suleiman Isa, for us, for anyone else, they were buyable. So I sold them to Parulkar for a little peace, for a radio in my cell, and for visits to the doctor. He was very pleased when I told him the three places they slept, and even more pleased when they picked them up that same night and encountered them before the sun was up. They must have had the reporters already tipped off that evening, because the story was in the next day's afternoon papers, complete with photographs of the dead men... (From the chapter "Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited Again", pp.429-430.)