Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sacred Games

In my recent effort to catch up on dust-gathering, neglected books from my pile, I picked up Sacred Games sometime at the beginning of the month. Obviously, I was being ambitious because running into 900 odd pages, Sacred Games is a mammoth book, and looked daunting in every way – more so because of the fact that my copy was hard-bound and wrist-spraining heavy. But, once started, I was surprised how the pages flew once, and how it made me eager for the unfinished pages. In fact, many a times, I found myself hurrying through things so that I could go back to the book and resume reading. This is something that doesn’t always happen.

After A Suitable Boy, which was even longer by a few hundred pages, Sacred Games has to be the only such big-size book I could ever manage to finish. And in fact, though these two are very disparate – not only in their settings, but also in their tones – I repeatedly found myself comparing them both. People argue that besides the voluminous size and the sprawling saga there are no common threads that can link the two books – while one is set in set in the languorous time of just-independent India, the other is set breathtakingly close to our time. However, the common thread to me lay in the detailing – each has narrative that are painstakingly developed, a very close and compassionate eye for fleshing out the characters, a subtle way of conveying emotions through nuanced gestures.

Anyway, this is not supposed to be a comparison (which I don’t like to do), so I shall stick to my feelings for Sacred Games only. Like always, I begin a book by reading the blurb first. And the blurb of Sacred Games described it somewhat as a cat-and-mouse story of a disillusioned policeman versus a gangster of organized crime, and how their stories intertwine in the backdrop of a metropolis. As it turns out, this description is hugely inadequate in telling us what the book is about. Yes, it does have the crime thriller bit, the occasional racy suspense, but at the end it goes much beyond. Although the metropolis and policemen and criminals occupy much of the space, it carefully traverses to spread into a big canvas interspersed with a mind-boggling array of characters and plots. So, you have the reference of small towns of the Hindi heartland, far-flung corners of north-eastern India along with its insurgency and border problems, the glimpse of secret service agents, life of illegal migrants from neighboring countries, workings of Naxalite camps, the spiritual gurus, and even the horrors of partition. Plus, there are the heartbreaks, betrayals, adultery, extortion, murder, smuggling, police-criminal nexus, and, in unusual ways, tenderness and love as well. In short, enough to get you hooked.

However, despite such a spicy concoction, Sacred Games holds on to its own – it says everything matter-of-factly, explores the inner workings by going beyond the superficial, and Vikram Chandra, the author, does this with compassion and style. A special mention should also go to two things I found compelling – one, how Bollywood plays a big role in the whole book, right from the songs, films, filmstars, to how the characters are often molded by this invisible juggernaut; two, the language, which so heavily draws from the language of the metropolis in which it is set, throwing unadulterated cuss-words, film song lyrics, names of food items, mythologies, and many other words of endearment, disappointment, and anger. In fact, Bollywood and underworld is so heavily used that, at times, the real and fictitious characters are found mingling delightfully close at hand. And, about the language, it suffices to say that Sacred Games may have lost out much of its charm had it not been the unabashed use of language.

And finally, as I closed the book, I realized how the book carefully entrusted me, the reader, with more knowledge than any of the characters in it had. All the protagonists see a picture that is essentially incomplete and there are many things that are not revealed to them; they do not see the undercurrents that flow underneath, the motives, and the reason that drives each other’s behavior. In that, the reader gets an elevated position from where he/she can make more sense of what is happening below. However, ironically, this privileged knowledge does not give us comfort; it only deepens our feeling of helplessness as we watch the game go on.

A much satisfying read and well worth the wrist sprain.