In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…
Sacred Games was published in 2006 to widespread acclaim. The manuscript had earned its author a million-dollar advance – as it turned out sales didn’t quite match that exuberance. Nevertheless, over the years, the novel has garnered something of a cult following, so much so, that in 2018 Netflix released a big budget TV adaptation, resulting in renewed interest in the source material.
The book itself is difficult to pin down. Weighing in at almost a thousand pages, it is both a thrilling gangster epic set in Bombay’s notorious underworld and a searing social commentary on contemporary India. The story follows two parallel narratives, one through Bombay’s criminal underground in the 80s and 90s and the other through a modern-day hunt for the explanation behind a dead gangster’s bizarre final words. The central protagonist of the novel is Sartaj Singh, a Sikh policeman led by a tip-off to the hideout of notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde who has returned to Bombay after many years. With his dying words, Gaintonde asks Sartaj if he believes in God. Employing interweaving plot strands and a multiplicity of voices, Sacred Games tackles themes as far apart as the sectarian violence of Partition to the modern threat of nuclear terrorism.
Chandra does not make this an easy read. He digresses, spends an inordinate amount of time building up characters and situations that don’t always offer a discernible payoff, plays with narrative devices (such as four chapters that have little to do with the main story and which he calls ‘Insets’) and dips into the local vernacular with gay abandon.
In the New York Times, reviewer Paul Gray wrote: “By paying homage to both Ian Fleming and James Joyce, Chandra risks alienating the constituencies of each — of writing a thriller that’s too serious and a serious novel that’s too much in thrall to an absurd story.” This sentiment captures the central issue with Sacred Games. It is a novel that aims to be majestic, and so often is; but at other times can be infuriating. The vastness of the scope allows Chandra to develop his characters and themes at length. Sometimes that length appears unnecessarily bloated.
In spite of its faults, there is little doubt that Sacred Games remains a landmark Indian novel. Personally, I found the experience of reading the book exhilarating, not least because of my own familiarity with Bombay, where much of the action takes place. This is an immense, demanding, but, in my opinion, an ultimately worthwhile read.
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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here
And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here
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