BY NALINI IYER
Vikram Chandra’s third book, “Sacred Games,” establishes him as a writer to reckon with. Chandra, who divides his time between the United States and India, is the author of two previous books, “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” (a novel) and “Love and Longing in Bombay” (a short story collection). He won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best Published Book, the David Higham Prize for fiction for his first novel, and the Eurasia Region Commonwealth Prize for his short story collection. No doubt that the literary establishment had early in his career recognized his talents, but in this novel Chandra surpasses the achievements of his earlier works.
In our age of brief e-mails and text messages where reading for pleasure seems to be limited to thrillers, chick lit and romance fiction, Chandra achieves the unthinkable. He grabs the reader on the first page with the absurd anecdote of a lapdog that is the victim of domestic violence and holds on to the reader through 900 pages of convoluted plot, innumerable characters and sometimes incomprehensible Bombay slang. It has been a while since this English professor has been so enthralled and entertained by a novel. Windstorms, power outages, holiday travel notwithstanding, this book was my constant companion for 10 days as I snatched every possible minute to read some more.
The novel returns to Sartaj Singh, a character in “Love and Longing in Bombay,” and pits him against Ganesh Gaitonde, a Bombay “bhai” (or underworld don). We learn of Gaitonde’s meteoric rise to diabolic power, his battles with Suleiman Isa, a rival don, his spiritual and sexual quest, his bizarre relationship with a madam, Jojo, and his belief in a disabled guru. This narrative of Gaitonde’s profane and sacred quests and games is interwoven with Sartaj Singh’s sordid life of sexual frustration, corruption and kickbacks, challenges with bureaucracy, entanglement with espionage, and his burgeoning love for a victim’s sister. The novel has elements of thrillers, detective fiction, romance novels — a little something for everyone.
More than introspective dons, mysteries and romances, this novel is a paean to Bombay. Bombay became familiar to global readers in Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” Ardashir Vakil’s “Beach Boy,” and Rohinton Mistry’s “Such a Long Journey.” Chandra’s Bombay is neither upper middle class like Rushdie’s nor focused on one particular ethnic group’s culture as in Mistry, but it is a thriving megalopolis whose thugs, socialites, prostitutes, dons, policemen and street vendors come to life on an (in)glorious canvas. “Sacred Games” also pays homage to Indian cinema (not just Bombay commercial cinema also known as Bollywood) in its plethora of characters, its innumerable references to movie plots, its peculiarly Bombay dialect, and its baggy, improbably plot.
This, of course, to Chandra fans is inevitable given his connections to the industry. His mother wrote scripts for Hindi movies, his sisters work as writers and film critics, and his brother-in-law is a leading producer. Chandra himself has written a script for a Bollywood thriller. The reader familiar with Indian cinematic history and Bombay will love the novel for its intimacy with those worlds; for those who know neither, this novel would be a great introduction to that world.
Vikram Chandra reads at Seattle Asian Art Museum on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m.