This book is not for the faint of heart. Like any true Mob narrative, SACRED GAMES has its share of severed limbs, murder-suicides and bullets to the brain. But what it also has is a surprisingly human --- and even humane --- quality, shown not only by the good guys but by the baddest of the bad. Vikram Chandra presents his characters in such a well-rounded way that we can't help but love them, despite their criminal tendencies.
Ganesh Gaitonde chronicles his life up until the point he pulls the trigger, shooting himself in the head in a newly-made bomb shelter. Police inspector Sartaj Singh must uncover the reasons behind this bizarre behavior of one of India's top crime lords. The subsequent investigation leads to a series of events that threatens the well-being of Mumbai. Race, class and religion exist here in such a delicate balance that it seems the entire city is on the brink of implosion and rebirth.
Investigations in Mumbai are fraught with under-the-counter agreements and money passed through anonymous hands. Singh, as well as the entire law enforcement agency, must find the delicate balance between playing the game and becoming the criminals they fight so hard against. Sartaj's superior counsels him by saying, "We are good men who must be bad to keep the worst men in control. Without us, there would be nothing left, there would only be a jungle."
SACRED GAMES is a delicate weave of connections, each person as necessary as the other for the telling of the tale. In fact, this 900-page story has so many of these important connections that a list of characters is presented in the front of the book --- a cheat sheet to be referred to often, as characters appear and reappear with hundreds of pages in between their individual plotlines.
The sheer length of this novel is sure to be a deterrent for many readers; it was for me as I trudged through the hundreds of pages of text. But by the end, despite a couple of tangents that I thought were more social commentary than part of the plot, the long journey was well worth the time it took to get there. As plotlines begin interweaving, the story starts coming together into a cohesive whole. Singh and Gaitonde are characters so intimate and complex that by the middle of the book their individual stories become page-turners as the mystery slowly unfolds.
Chandra gives us an intimate feel of the language and culture by peppering the novel with Indian terms, though they are never defined. However, as the novel progresses, these terms become so natural it's as if somehow they always have been a part of us, hidden away until this very moment. "Papa-ji" rolls off the tongue so affectionately that we are aware of the intimacy of the suffix. "Bhai" is said with such reverence that we know the important position of the man to whom it is spoken.
Mumbai exists here not merely in description but in this newfound vocabulary, and the streets come alive with the use of this native tongue. Mumbai is a city that presents a squalid and beautiful backdrop for this tale of man's search for meaning, as it desperately tries to rise above itself through the playing of sacred games.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on January 23, 2011