When he was writing his 1997 collection of stories Love and Longing in Bombay , Vikram Chandra ventured into the world of crime and the police through journalists on the beat and the gangster chain of command. Years later, when Sacred Games (2006) began to take shape, he went back to the gangsters, policemen and others to better understand their world. It resulted in a 900-page opus on Mumbai, underworld sagas et al, which Netflix is mining to script its India growth story.
Inside the labyrinth
We are drawn into the life of Sikh detective Sartaj Singh (who had first appeared in Love and Longing ...) and into the criminal world of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted man in India — and get a glimpse of the many denizens of the city which is a “labyrinth of hovels and homes” and an “entanglement of roads”. Sartaj, past 40 and divorced, with career prospects on the wane, is excited when he gets a tip-off to the secret hideout of the boss of G-company and is determined to collect the prize. But Gaitonde kills himself, and thereby hang tales. Two story strands unfold: Sartaj's journey to unravel the don’s path to suicide is interspersed with Gaitonde’s backstory.
In all this, Sartaj likes to remember the words of his mentor, a corrupt superior: “We are good men who must be bad to keep the worst men in control. Without us, there would be nothing left, there would only be a jungle.” A jungle controlled by someone like Gaitonde under whose watch “Brahmins and Marathas and Muslims and Dalits and OBCs” all work together “without difference or suspicion”, making the underworld look a lot better than the real world. This is where ‘bhais’ live outside the law but are bound to each other.
Mirror to the megalopolis
We are soon immersed in ‘maximum city’s’ myriad issues — caste, politics, elections, right-wing parties. “A rumour is the most cost-effective weapon ever,” we are told, “you start it for nothing and then it grows, mutates, has offspring.” Walking into this is Sartaj who must sift through the falsehoods for the truth. Bursting with characters — the dramatis personae is one and a half pages long — Chandra holds up a mirror to life in this megalopolis.
So there’s luxury yachts and slums, Bollywood divas and Miss Indias, cops and gangs. And don’t mind the curses. The novel begins with a white Pomeranian being thrown out of a fifth-floor window. The dog belongs to an airhostess, the much-married Kamala Pandey, with a pilot for a lover. Later, Sartaj’s mother, who has been following the case, calls him up and says: “You should help her... She’s all alone.” So is everyone else in the world, Sartaj wants to say.
The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.