VIKRAM CHANDRA – Sacred Games. HarperCollins, hardcover; first edition, January 2007. Trade paperback: Harper Perennial; 1st printing, December 2007.


    At 900 plus pages a good many readers may pass this one by, which is a pity, because it is a remarkable thriller that also manages to be an epic of Mumbai (Bombay) and through it, modern India at the birth of the 21st century. Written by Vikram Chanda, who divides his time between Harvard and Mumbai, it has the advantage of a writer comfortable and capable in English and at home in the streets of his homeland.

    The hero of Sacred Games is Sartaj Singh, an Inspector with the Mumbai police, who is at war with Ganesh Gaitonde, the nation’s most wanted criminal and head of G Company, a sort of Indian Mafia with fingers in every pie. Their conflict will take the men across a wide spectrum of life in Mumbai.

A Sikh, known by his colleagues and the people of Mumbai’s streets as the ‘silky Sikh,’ Sartaj is divorced, over forty, and watching his career downspin, but he is determined to bring down Ganesh, who, despite his success as a criminal, is facing demons of his own, his very success isolating him from human contact.

    As the novel develops, equal parts Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, The Godfather, police procedural, and Bollywood movie, Chandra reveals more and more of both Sartaj and Ganesh, while his portrait of the swirling exotic and poverty-stricken city evolves in the background.

    “History has a shape …the universe has a design … For every insect, there is a predator. For every flower, there is a function. Some scientists still look at all this beauty, but insist it is result of natural selection, of chance and nothing else. They are blind. They are afraid. Pull back from the chance, look at it with the right vision, and chaos reveals its patterns.”

    Finding those patterns is the way Sartaj will locate and find Ganesh, and by the time the two men confront each other, Chandra has given us a full portrait of life in Mumbai: its people, its poverty, its beauty, and its flaws. Sartaj and Ganesh themselves are fully revealed, and their inevitable conflict becomes a clash as epic as Ahab and the white whale.


    The novel is a love letter to Mumbai, but one written with an eye to its realities. Structured like an old fashioned triple-decker, its scope is focused by the conflict of these two men, a battle worthy of Holmes and Moriarity, or Jean Valjean and Javert, but cast in the form of a thriller, although one of which it can be said, as it was of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all life is in it. All the life of Mumbai anyway.

    In Sartaj, we have a hero as complex as Maigret and as human, and in Ganesh an antagonist as complex and troubled as Michael Corleone, who finds the only man who can understand him or forgive him is the man sworn to destroy him. Like all great protagonist/antagonist pairs, the two men both compliment and contradict each other. Their battle is an epic one that sweeps in its wake all of the city they inhabit. Only one of the two can emerge from the battle: the one best equipped to grow within himself and face his own reality.

    Sacred Games may not be for every reader, but if you ever want more from a thriller, good writing, ambitious narrative expertly controlled, and pure old fashioned storytelling, this is the book for you. That is also a first class thriller is a tribute to Chandra’s skills (and the extensive vocabulary of Indian words and slang at the end of the book).

    As India’s role in the world grows more important we can look forward to getting a glimpse of Indian popular literature, and with this more serious book we will have some familiarity with the subject. In recent years Indian crime has figured as a background in John Irving’s Son of the Circus, and David Gregory Roberts Shantaram, both a far cry from the charm and gentle wit of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote.

    Read this one. It is a major work, and yet it reads like a thriller, a portrait of a world alien to most of us and at the same time utterly familiar and real. Despite its length and depth, you won’t want to put this one down. It is the kind of book you can move inside of and inhabit. And unlike most thrillers you won’t want this one to end.

    But don’t get a hernia reading it. It is really a hefty tome, though surprisingly, one that doesn’t read that way. Epic and compelling aren’t always words you can use together, but both fit Vikram Chanda’s Sacred Games.