Borges tells us of a civilization where cartographers produced the perfect map: one “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” In the next breath, he concedes that this map was useless. Though Borges titles his tale “On Exactitude in Science,” it might serve as a parable for the novelist. One sets out to document a time, a place, a series of events… but even a single escalator ride (as Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine has shown us) can take up 50,000 words. It turns out that the novel, that capacious canvas, demands selection. Compression. Let this protagonist stand in for an army. Let this page break signify the passage of years.
In his new novel, Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra sets out to map contemporary Bombay, and despite his many achievements, the novel threatens to become as boundless and ungovernable as the city itself. I don’t mean that Sacred Games is too long; I’d happily sit through another 900 pages of Chandra’s balanced prose, provided that each paragraph felt necessary. But if the same conversation occurs three times in the course of Chandra’s novel, he feels duty-bound to report each exchange. If a peripheral character has been scarred by the Partition that occurred 50 years ago this month, Chandra insists on telling us how. If a character takes a notion to cruise penis-enhancement websites, we get a list of URLs.
The set-up is promising: Inspector Sartaj Singh, a sartorially adept member of the Bombay police force, is tipped off to the whereabouts of gang leader Ganesh Gaitonde. Gaitonde eludes capture in the style of a Roman senator – packing himself off to that great hoosegow in the sky – but the circumstances of his death disclose a plot that dwarfs any of his previous crimes. In alternating chapters, Sartaj races against the clock to thwart the conspiracy, and Gaitonde narrates, from beyond the grave, his own rise to (and fall from) power.
Its potboiler conventions lend Sacred Games a measure of glitter, but it’s as an anthropological investigation that the novel strikes gold. The novel’s linguistic curry, spiced with Hindi and Urdu slang, delivers a taste of the polyphonic vitality of Bombay. A few vividly rendered locations – Chowpatty Beach and seedy Indian restaurants and a Sikh temple – evoke the entirety of Sartaj Singh’s world. (One senses always the teeming masses in the background.) And the various sectarian fault-lines of present-day India are fully, fictionally realized: not only does the author see them, he evaluates them. He instructs, as well as entertains.
Likewise, Chandra excels at procedural detail. He depicts the corruption and brutality of Bombay police-work with a journalist’s eye for minutiae. If Sartaj Singh begins the book as a cipher, time chips away at the uneasy peace he’s made with the demands of his job. Eventually, we see him longing, underneath, for something better. Here is Sartaj contemplating a bomb-scare:
“He was at his desk, in his dingy little office with the weathered benches and untidy shelves. Kamble was hunched over a report. Two constables were laughing in the corridor outside. There was a little pool of sunlight from a window, and a pair of hopping little sparrows on the sill. And all of it was dreamlike, as gauzy as the wafting of early morning. If you let yourself believe in that other monstrous thing, even a little, then this ordinary world of bribes and divorces and electricity bills vanished a little.”
This last clause, cascading from the immoral to the amoral, suspends Sartaj between detachment and attachment. Detachment, attachment: isn’t this the dialectic that keeps our great cities alive?
Gaitonde’s character moves in the opposite direction. As an outlaw, he begins the book with a certain charismatic capital, but the repetitiveness of his megalomania – “Ganesh Gaitonde Makes a Film”; “Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited”; “Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited Again”; Ganesh Gaitonde Gets Plastic Surgery – depletes our interest. And here the novel’s more-is-more aesthetic runs up against the more-is-less principle of Borgesian cartography.
Pankaj Mishra, similarly vexed by Gaitonde, has pointed to Chandra’s ambition to transcend the bourgeois morality of the Western novel. But Chandra wants Gaitonde, like Hannibal Lecter, to interest us precisely because he’s bad. And Hannibal was more engaging on celluloid than on the page. Gaitonde starts out round, but ends up as two-dimensional as a movie poster. It’s a shame, too, as Chandra can invest a supporting character like Sartaj’s partner, Kartekar or his boss, Parulkar, with real weight. And in the case of Sartaj’s mother (the focus of one of the book’s four historical “insets,” or novella-length digressions), he can bring a character fully to life.
Those insets, indeed, contain some of Sacred Games’ strongest writing. But they read like aborted novels, tangential to this one. Against the fine descriptions and effortless historical significance of an inset such as “The Great Game,” the Gaitonde-Sartaj plotline devolves into lunacy: nuclear terrorism, international espionage, and an evil-criminal-genius-cum-Vedic-guru. Chandra wants to license this “filminess” by appealing to the kitchen-sink aesthetic of Bollywood, but he fails to master the requirements of genre fiction, which are, in their own way, as demanding as those of realism. The palpable tension and richness of Sartaj’s quotidian life dissolve just as they should be deepening.
Ultimately, Sacred Games comes off as a very serious book and a very silly one glued on to the same spine. This may well be part of Chandra’s program. But inclusiveness doesn’t always deepen our engagement in a fictional world. Sometimes, it can enforce a curious distance from it. Craving immersion in a perspective, we instead find ourselves standing outside a teeming flatness, unsure where we’re supposed to look.
Notwithstanding Chandra’s debt to the realist doorstops of Dickens and Thackeray, the dissolution of point-of-view is (arguably like Bombay itself) a postmodern phenomenon. And perhaps in its Dhamaka plot, its refusal to reconcile the filmi and the literary, and its overwhelming expansiveness, Sacred Games corresponds more exactly to the city Chandra loves than a shapely narrative could. Still, fiction is no science. It is the art of illusion – useful illusion – and I look for this gifted writer, in his next novel, to focus his impressive energies toward some brighter (if not bigger) bang.