Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra, Author . HarperCollins $29.95 (928p) ISBN 978-0-06-113035-9

Mumbai in all its seedy glory is at the center of Vikram Chandra's episodic novel, which follows the fortunes of two opposing characters: the jaded Sikh policeman, Sartaj Singh, who first appeared in the story "Kama," and Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous Hindu Bhai who "dallied with bejewelled starlets, bankrolled politicians" and whose "daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes." Sartaj, still handsome and impeccably turned out, is now divorced, weary and resigned to his post, complicit in the bribes and police brutality that oil the workings of his city. Sartaj is ambivalent about his choices, but Gaitone is hungry for position and wealth from the moment he commits his first murder as a young man. A confrontation between the two men opens the novel, with Gaitonde taunting Sartaj from inside the protection of his strange shell-like bunker.

Gaitonde is the more riveting character, and his first-person narrative voice lulls the reader with his intuitive understanding of human nature and the 1,001 tales of his rise to power, as he collects men, money and fame; creates and falls in love with a movie star; infiltrates Bollywood; works for Indian intelligence; matches wits with his Muslim rival, Suleiman Isa; and searches for fulfillment with the wily Guru Shridhar Shukla. Sartaj traces Gaitonde's movements and motivations, while taking on cases of murder, blackmail and neighborhood quarrels. The two men ruminate on the meaning of life and death, and Chandra connects them as he connects all the big themes of the subcontinent: the animosity of caste and religion, the poverty, the prostitution and mainly, the criminal elite, who organize themselves on the model of corporations and control their fiefdoms from outside the country.

Chandra, who's won prizes and praise for his two previous books, Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay , spent seven years writing this 900-page epic of organized crime and the corruption that spins out from Mumbai into the world of international counterfeiting and terrorism, and it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ("You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran," Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 10/23/2006
Release date: 01/01/2007
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