Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra - 992 pgs

Book CoverSacred Games is an intricate saga of modern Indian society, which tells the story of Inspector Sartaj Singh, a middle-aged, mid grade policeman, and the momentous case that will finally elevate him to quasi-success in the realm of the Indian police force. From the moment the charismatic Singh is introduced, already entrenched in his battle for upward mobility among his colleagues, the kaleidoscope of the region's people and culture is in motion, creating a dense and populated contemporary fairy tale of India, both delightful and disturbing. The crux of the story involves the manhunt and capture of one of India's most influential self-made gangsters, Ganesh Gaitonde. As the story weaves itself between the daily life and professional trials of Sartaj Singh and Gaitonide's retelling of his rise to power, the vagaries and intricacies of India and its population begin to expose themselves. In an almost explosive way, the reader is lead through a culture that defies any attempt for explanation: the warring factions of gangsters that control everyday existence for millions, the ethical bribing at every level of social existence, the strict caste separations, and the everyday attempts to maneuver amongst the crippling poverty of the country. In addition, the book is packed with a motley assortment of characters. From the plastic enhanced beauty queen to the semi-crooked police commissioner, the hustling club owner to the unscrupulous blackmailer, every camp has been represented. Through the vibrancy and complexity of these characters, the story begins to take shape. As it turns out, Gaitonde is far from the city's biggest problem. Unknown to everyone, Gaitonde has been plotting with someone even more sinister than himself and the repercussions for Indian society just got a lot more complicated and dangerous. Though the main focus is always the tug of war between Singh and Gaitonde, there are several other sets of stories embedded within the main narrative, and each one only enhances the layers and conspiracies that float just beneath the surface of this funny, sad and thrilling novel.

One of the reasons that it's so hard to describe this book is because there is just so much of everything. The characters, situations and atmosphere are literally packed into this huge tome. It would be easy to say that this was a great book and leave it at that, but the thought and patience that must have gone into the creation of this brimming story leave me to marvel. Every instance of action is held to it's fullest potential, which kept me tense as I sprung from page to page. Threads of story disappeared completely, only to be deftly introduced again just when I thought they had dissipated. The author never let up on his hold over the story, keeping a myriad of confusions and labyrinth of details all in check. Every character, no matter their importance in the story, had a piece in the greater puzzle, and it was exciting to watch the drama creep from unforeseen corners out onto the main stage to thunder back into the spotlight. There were no messy segues and bits of plot left over in this story: everything was expertly tucked in, leaving no niggling questions to sort out other than the obvious moral conundrums that the story itself creates. One of the great things about this book was the way that each character was fully rounded and three-dimensional. Yes, there were some stock characters, but I would say that about 95% of the characters were shown in a way that highlighted their importance to the plot, while still fleshing them out completely. And despite the fact that Gaitonde was a villain, he came across as uniquely humble and beneficent while still managing to be an altogether bad apple. I also fell in love with the character of Sartaj Singh, just a little bit. His formalities, prudence and humility were very touching, lending him the air of an upright yet fallible gentleman. In a brilliant yet understated way, the country of India was not only the backdrop for this story, it became a character in itself. The effect was a clever installation of place, but it also lent a depth to the India I was familiar with and exposited for me whole new avenues of imagination. The book did have some violence running through the plot, but it was by no means gratuitous or off-putting. In this instance, I would say the author hit the perfect balance with his use of violence: not too gory, yet not too tame. I couldn't help but feel involved with this book, as it presented an India that few ever see: a teeming and colorful world that I feasted upon with relish.

This is, however, an extremely long book, and requires a certain level of commitment from the reader. The only problem I had with this book was the fact that I had to lug it around. To remedy this, I suggest that you may feel more comfortable with the paperback version. I should also mention that the book includes a glossary of the Indian slang that is peppered throughout the book. I found the glossary to be extremely helpful. This book had it all in terms of its pace, scope and subject matter, and gave me so much more to wonder about an area of the world that I already find fascinating. If you have the time to invest in this book, and have a love for Indian fiction, you can't go wrong with Sacred Games.


Anonymous said...

I have the paperback version of this sitting on my shelf! I want to read it, but it's length definitely intimidates me... I'm sure one day I'll dive in (and your review certainly intrigues me), but for now I think it'll continue to shelf-sit.

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