By Vikram Chandra,
Viking, Rs 650
Vikram Chandra’s masterly new novel — exactly 900 pages long — starts with a white pomeranian, Fluffy, flying out of the window in upper-middle-class Mumbai: “Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam, bounced off the bonnet of a Cielo, and skidded to a halt near the rank of schoolgirls waiting for the St Mary’s Convent bus. There was remarkably little blood, but the sight of Fluffy’s brains did send the conventeers into hysterics, and meanwhile, above, the man who had swung Fluffy around his head by one leg, who had flung Fluffy into the void, one Mr Mahesh Pandey of Mirage Textiles, that man was leaning on his windowsill and laughing.”
The spare, Hitchcockian funniness of the writing — the sense that it creates of schoolgoing ordinariness and urban kitsch erupting into bizarre and brutal catastrophe, and yet the ordinariness somehow managing to hold it all in eventually, in feats of epic-cinematic, divinely comic inclusiveness — is just one of the many ways in which Chandra’s virtuosity unfolds in the novel. The little details that make up these opening moments are already part of a much larger universe. Mumbai, “that great whore of a city”, is not only its people and their pets, cars, high windows and hysteria. But within the city, and beyond its shores, is the “void” into which poor Fluffy, among many others, is cast — a “great, lurking emptiness” that is simultaneously spatial, inward and cosmic.
Sacred Games is haunted by a terrified fascination with heights, a highrise vertigo poised between fear and desire. So many of its interwoven life-stories are of the ‘rise and fall’ of individuals from nothingness to surreal power and then into another nothingness, that the “hurtling drop” becomes essential to what the characters must know and dream of and be destroyed by, and to the bigger shapes and meanings their stories add up to. In Ganesh Gaitonde, the great Hindu don who believes that “a man can become anything he wants”, this fear of fall is like “a soft, slipping panic” in the veins, or an “unnameable, endless plummeting” in the chest, which comes upon him in his most tender or playful moments.
Fluffy’s fall, and Gaitonde’s, are also reflected on, investigated and, in the case of the latter, actually brought about by Chandra’s other memorable creation: Sartaj Singh, the police inspector. This brooding, stylish, fallible and insomniac sardar, ravaged by time and a painful divorce, is brought back from the pages of Chandra’s earlier Love and Longing in Bombay. He is chosen to be Gaitonde’s nemesis by the don himself and by Singh’s superiors in Intelligence. Gaitonde had once seen in Sartaj’s eyes and in his swagger “a policeman’s cruelty”. Sartaj’s cruelty is important for the tone of Chandra’s writing. He finds an occasion to describe it when Sartaj visits the morgue to look at the body of a murdered woman: “a policeman must gaze steadfastly at everything, anything, what the world is truly made of, you must know it all unflinchingly, without repugnance or perverse fascination”.
Yet Gaitonde had also sensed that underneath Sartaj’s professional coldness, there was a “sentimental man”, just as Sartaj’s lover, Mary, would sense in him “a coiling sadness”, a grief that he carried within him “like an infection”. Sartaj’s relationship with Mumbai is like Marcello’s with Rome in La Dolce Vita: “He remembered… the feeling that he could hold the whole city in his heart…impossible to know, or escape.” It is largely because of this alluring mix of coldness and feeling in Sartaj, and in his central, fixing gaze, that Sacred Games is a work of both violence and mourning, compelled as much by a darkly ludic death-wish as by an equally gamesome will to live and look and know.
It is with Sartaj that the arc of the novel begins and ends. The master-image that broods over this shape is Gaitonde’s huge white steel-and-cement cube in the heart of Mumbai, specially built as a shelter from nuclear dissolution. Gaitonde sequesters himself in it with Jojo, a producer/agent for aspiring models and actors and a high-class Madam, with whom he has had an intense platonic friendship conducted almost entirely on the phone. Sartaj is summoned to this white cube at the beginning of the novel by Gaitonde himself, and they start talking to each other through its security speakers. And the novel’s last great image is of Sartaj at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, walking along the Harimandir Sahib parkarma at dawn. He suddenly finds himself weeping on the parkarma for those who have died for things that they have not properly understood: “There was no calculation that could determine exactly how much had been sacrificed or what had been gained, there was only this recognition of loss, of pain endured and absorbed.”
Between these two defining moments, Chandra interlaces the story of Sartaj’s investigations into Gaitonde’s life and death with Gaitonde’s posthumous account of his own life. Embedded in this structure are four “inset” chapters and what might be called two “meta-chapters”. The insets open historical vistas out of and behind the main narratives, extending the novel’s spatial and emotional geography, complicating its relationship with time. The meta-chapters — “The Great Game” and “Ganesh Gaitonde Explores the Self” — provide two ways of taking a god’s eye-view of this vast web of “many-tendrilled” action. The game of Intelligence (played by the dying K.D. Yadav, a pioneering intelligence officer, and his protégée, Anjali Mathur) and Gaitonde’s game of bhaigiri are both forms of deadly play that provide the novel its mutually inextricable plots. But they also provide the systems and strategies by which it would reflect upon itself, make sense of its own treacheries, forge ways of “telling” these meanings as humanly intelligible stories and of seeing them in relation to life’s outgrown symmetries of right and wrong, love and hate, good and evil. The meta-chapters constitute, therefore, the “huge, humming, incandescent mesh” of the novel’s informing intellect, by which information is seen to nest inside information and the “discernment of patterns” becomes possible.
Yet, what holds the novel most profoundly and vitally together, and enables its mastery of the actual as well as the fabulous, the real and the surreal, is the cinema of Mumbai. Bollywood is to Sacred Games what chivalric romance is to Don Quixote — a living, self-perpetuating mythology, a shimmering universe of images and meanings by which people live and die, make, re-make and know (or resist knowing) themselves and the worlds and stories they inhabit. These films, and the long histories of their making and viewing — from Mother India to Company, Dev Anand to Shah Rukh, Mumtaz to Bipasha Basu, with Kishore, Rafi, Mukesh and Lata running through it all — are inseparable from the surfaces and depths of this novel, from what people speak, sing, fear and wish for, and what they actually do. Gaitonde, the producer of International Dhamaka and the secret creator of the superstar Zoya Mirza, feels most “real” when he is most “filmi”. His boys watch Deewar in jail in an unforgettable episode: “There were no arguments, we watched it…We were all with Amitabh, we were with him through his climb to the top…On that day we were all together, all one.” And Sartaj savours the “unspeakable pleasure of being alone” as he eases on to the twilit highway and hums Vahan kaun hai tera, musafir, jayega kahan'