Richard Derus's Reviews > Sacred Games

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
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May 02, 2013

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Read in February, 2010

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Seven years in the making, Sacred Games is an epic of exceptional richness and power. Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh--and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.

Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But "the silky Sikh" is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he's determined that he'll be the one to collect the prize.

Vikram Chandra's keenly anticipated new novel is a magnificent story of friendship and betrayal, of terrible violence, of an astonishing modern city and its dark side. Drawing inspiration from the classics of nineteenth-century fiction, mystery novels, Bollywood movies and Chandra's own life and research on the streets of Mumbai, Sacred Games evokes with devastating realism the way we live now but resonates with the intelligence and emotional depth of the best of literature.

My Review: WOW. What a book! It's over 900pp long! It's as overwhelming and complex and befuddling as Bharat itself is, for an uninitiated Murrikin tourist.

It's also fabuolously, gorgeously wrought, and very much worthy of being a bestseller. It never will be, for several reasons.

First: It has, and needs, a glossary. Second, it needs but has not an organized-by-relationship Cast of Characters. Third, it's a blinkin' wrist-sprainer of a hardcover and would be fatter than the Bible if it was turned into a mass-market paperback. Fourth, it's just as challengingly fragmented as Ulysses, only more fun to read.

Okay, first comes the glossary. Honestly, I don't know what to tell you about this. I think, based on personal experience, that it's best simply to immerse yourself in the sea of the book, experiencing it the way you would Mumbai if you went there without a tour guide. Just wander along behind Vikram, looking over his shoulder and listening to the people he's talking to; he's the author, after all, and we should trust him to lead us not into the temptation to give up, but deliver us to a satisfying conclusion to the stories he's telling us. He won't disappoint. But if you constantly flip back and forth, back and forth, to the glossary, it'll get wearing and make that giving-up option well-nigh irresistable. Just let the language happen, let yourself see the words without having an instant picture of the concrete reality but rather absorbing the ideas behind them. "Chodo" doesn't need to mean something explicit to you for you to realize that it's being used to describe physical intimacy. You'll get that point PDQ. Let it happen naturally! Try to move past your ingrained logic-and-analysis patterns to experience something afresh.

Second, there are a LOT of people in this tale, and a more complete league table of them would have been helpful where a glossary was not especially so. I think it's useful, in books of more than 20 characters, for publishers to offer us the chance to refresh our memories about who's who and what role and relationship they have in the book. I'd make the publisher do this retroactively but that's not practical...Harper Collins isn't taking orders from me, for some strange reason.

Third, the immensity of the tome! Gadzooks and Godzilla! Had this book sold in the millions, Canada would be devoid of tree-cover. 928pp!! Now, having read the book twice, I can honestly and objectively say that at least 150pp could have come out and left the beauties of the book intact. I think it's a common problem among publishers, though, this inability, or unwillingness, or inexpertise at the art of good editing. I know it's hard. I know because I've done it, and done it very well. But I also know that the end product of a good, collaborative edit is a fabulously improved book.

Fourth, Vikram Chandra's fractured PoV for storytelling. This is the reason an organized Cast of Characters is needed...who's who is provided on p. xi-xii, but it's not complete, and it's not broken into groups by relationship. But the voices are, for third person-limited narrative, beautifully differentiated. The "Inset:" tags are clues to the changes of viewpoint, but we never leave the third person-limited narrative voice; it's challenging to make that not seem flat, like the PoV character suddenly knows things he can't possibly have access to; and for the most part, Vikram Chandra does it well. The last "Inset: Two Deaths, in Cities Far From Home" isn't quite as smooth as others, and in my never-very-humble opinion could be dispensed with whole and entire without damage to the rest of the story.

So why am I so mingy in giving this book a mere 3.5 stars? Because it's too big a commitment to ask a reader to make when it could have been shorter and better told. But folks, India is a huge, huge, huge place that has a lot of English speakers in it. They're going to be producing more and more books in English. I really, strongly advise you to start acclimatizing yourselves to this new reality by picking up works by talented storytellers like Vikram Chandra. Start here, start learning to let Hindi words reveal themselves to you, sink back into the immense, soft seas of India's talented storytellers...unless you want to learn Mandarin, that is.

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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Kedar (new) - added it

Kedar I have read that big fat book Shantaram and really liked it. I have read the slightly slimmer Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and liked it. Sacred Games is lying on my shelf for a long time now, but I somehow am not able to gather courage to pick it up (and read!). SG is another book, along with the ones I mentioned earlier, that has Mumbai/Bombay as one of the main central characters in the book. That is one of the alluring points. Apart from that...Sigh, I hope to pick it up soon and find out.


Richard Derus Kedar, I say take your...self...in your hands and get to it. I hate to think someone is missing out on the fun.

Also, if you read SF at all, and like settings in India, I highly recommend River of Gods by Ian McLeod. Amazing, wonderful book, so beautifully written and so bravely imagined, set in an India that just might come to be by 2047, the centennial year that it's set in.


message 3: by Kedar (new) - added it

Kedar Thanks for the recommendation.


message 4: by Nilesh (new)

Nilesh Kashyap Nice review!
I love hearing views on India from an outsider, and it looks like you are really picked up some important hindi words.


Richard Derus Thanks, Nilesh! I am completely outside all of the Indias there are, but it's such a fascinating place I can't help but be intrigues.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

"it's best simply to immerse yourself in the sea of the book, experiencing it the way you would Mumbai if you went there without a tour guide. Just wander along behind Vikram, looking over his shoulder and listening to the people he's talking to."

Excellent advice in another excellent review. You read everything twice before reviewing it!?!?!? Goot Gott in Himmel! Are you a literary cyborg? I remember you alluding to that self-imposed duty in another review, but as I started reading this review, I said to myself, "I bet he didn't read this one twice." But then, in the 6th paragraph, you set me straight. BTW I did see this book in the store a few monts ago and was impressed enough with having read the first few pages to know that I would read it someday-- when my wrists are strong enough.


Richard Derus Isometrics for wrist strength...a few shorter India-themed novels (The Palace of Illusions first, IMO, because it's simply beautiful)...then fling yourself off the 30-meter board into the story.

I've quit reading all but the most complex books twice. I can't do it and keep up with even the *bones* of my TBR!


message 8: by Darryl (new) - added it

Darryl Nice review! I probably won't get to Sacred Games until next year, but I look forward to reading it.


Richard Derus Maybe if you pick it up on 1/1/13 you'll be done by 1.1.15. It's a whopper!


message 10: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Fineisen Enjoyed your review. Find the girth of said book a bit intimidating...


Richard Derus It's a wrist-sprainer, all right, but a good read indeed.


message 12: by Meenakshi (new)

Meenakshi Thank you for the review, Richard. Marvelous.


message 13: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Beautiful and entertaining review Richard.


Richard Derus Thank you both for stopping in to say so!


message 15: by Book'd (new) - added it

Book'd Nice review Richard. I am happy to read review of an Indian work from someone outside India.


Richard Derus Hitesh wrote: "Nice review Richard. I am happy to read review of an Indian work from someone outside India."

Thank you for stopping to say so, Hitesh. I expect India to have more and more of an impact on English-language literature, so I think it's wise to get to know the players and the conventions.


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