'Sacred Games:' An Epic of Mumbai's Underworld

Vikram Chandra

Vikram Chandra is an award-winning author whose works have been translated into 11 languages. Melanie Abrams hide caption

itoggle caption Melanie Abrams

To enter the world of author Vikram Chandra's new book, Sacred Games, is to be immersed in the crime and corruption of India's financial and movie capital, Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.

Weighing in at 900 pages, the novel is Dickensian in scope, and part Godfather as well. Sacred Games follows a world-weary cop and a larger-than-life crime boss. Add in the world's largest film industry, Bollywood, a shady guru and the ever-present tension between India and Pakistan, and you have a full-blown literary potboiler.

Recently divorced police inspector Sartaj Singhis is a man "trying to keep afloat the best way he knows how," Chandra says of one of his main characters. "He's surrounded by corruption of all sorts" and asks himself the daily question: "How do you maintain yourself in this world?"

Singh soon encounters Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous crime boss, and becomes unwillingly involved in a big case. The cop is "slowly pulled into it and by the end of the book, he's forced to make some very painful choices," Chandra tells Renee Montagne.

Mumbai is not just a backdrop but also a character in the book.

"There's an energy about the place that is unmistakable and very, very seductive," Chandra says. "The citizens of Bombay love to complain about the city endlessly, but [they] also will defend it fearlessly against outsiders making the same complaints. As Sartaj puts it at the very end of the book, 'When you're away from it, you can miss it, physically you can ache for it — even for the stink of it.'"

In the seven years it took Chandra to write Sacred Games, the author spent a lot of time with real cops and gangsters.

"It was surprisingly not that hard to make contact with people on the other side of the line and actually get to meet them. And you want to believe that they are very different from you. Language itself encourages us to make them 'other.' In Hindi, you would say he's a rakshas, a demon. And once I actually started meeting these people, it became more and more clear to me that they were not different at all. They were just people like me who operated in a different moral context."

The book is so full of gritty underworld slang that there's a glossary to help readers navigate the language. For example, criminals call jail sasural, the Hindi word for the in-laws' house.

"Your in-laws' house is a home that you visit quite often... so that you're familiar with it," Chandra explains. "So, therefore jail becomes your sasural — it's where you have to go all the time."

Book Excerpt: 'Sacred Games'

'Sacred Games'

Policeman's Day

A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter's scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam, bounced off the bonnet of a Cielo, and skidded to a halt near the rank of schoolgirls waiting for the St Mary's Convent bus. There was remarkably little blood, but the sight of Fluffy's brains did send the conventeers into hysterics, and meanwhile, above, the man who had swung Fluffy around his head by one leg, who had slung Fluffy into the void, one Mr Mahesh Pandey of Mirage Textiles, that man was leaning on his windowsill and laughing. Mrs Kamala Pandey, who in talking to Fluffy always spoke of herself as 'Mummy', now staggered and ran to her kitchen and plucked from the magnetic holder a knife nine inches long and two wide. When Sartaj and Katekar broke open the door to apartment 502, Mrs Pandey was standing in front of the bedroom door, looking intensely at a dense circle of two-inch-long wounds in the wood, about chest-high. As Sartaj watched, she sighed, raised her hand and stabbed the door again. She had to struggle with both hands on the handle to get the knife out.

'Mrs Pandey,' Sartaj said.

She turned to them, the knife still in a double-handed grip, held high. She had a pale, tear-stained face and tiny bare feet under her white nightie.

'Mrs Pandey, I am Inspector Sartaj Singh,' Sartaj said. 'I'd like you to put down that knife, please.' He took a step, hands held up and palms forward. 'Please,' he said. But Mrs Pandey's eyes were wide and blank, and except for the quivering of her forearms she was quite still. The hallway they were in was narrow, and Sartaj could feel Katekar behind him, wanting to pass. Sartaj stopped moving. Another step and he would be comfortably within a swing of the knife.

'Police?' a voice said from behind the bedroom door. 'Police?'

Mrs Pandey started, as if remembering something, and then she said, 'Bastard, bastard,' and slashed at the door again. She was tired now, and the point bounced off the wood and raked across it, and Sartaj bent her wrist back and took the knife quite easily from her. But she smashed at the door with her hands, breaking her bangles, and her last wiry burst of anger was hard to hold and contain. Finally they sat her down on the green sofa in the drawing room.

'Shoot him,' she said. 'Shoot him.' Then she put her head in her hands. There were green and blue bruises on her shoulder. Katekar was back at the bedroom door, murmuring.

'What did you fight about?' Sartaj said.

'He wants me not to fly any more.'

'What?'

'I'm an air-hostess. He thinks . . .'

'Yes?'

She had startling light-brown eyes, and she was angry at Sartaj for asking. 'He thinks since I'm an air hostess, I keep hostessing the pilots on stopovers,' she said, and turned her face to the window.

Katekar was walking the husband over now, with a hand on his neck. Mr Pandey hitched up his silky red-and-black striped pyjamas, and smiled confidentially at Sartaj. 'Thank you,' he said. 'Thanks for coming.'

'So you like to hit your wife, Mr Pandey?' Sartaj barked, leaning forward. Katekar sat the man down, hard, while he still had his mouth open. It was nicely done. Katekar was a senior constable, an old subordinate, a colleague really – they had worked together for almost seven years now, off and on. 'You like to hit her, and then you throw a poor puppy out of a window? And then you call us to save you?'

'She said I hit her?'

'I have eyes. I can see.'

'Then look at this,' Mr Pandey said, his jaw twisting. 'Look, look, look at this.' And he pulled up his left pyjama jacket sleeve, revealing a shiny silver watch and four evenly spaced scratches, livid and deep, running from the inside of the wrist around to the elbow. 'More, I've got more,' Mr Pandey said, and bowed low at the waist and lowered his head and twisted to raise his collar away from the skin. Sartaj got up and walked around the coffee table. There was a corrugated red welt on Mr Pandey's shoulder blade, and Sartaj couldn't see how far down it went.

'What's that from?' Sartaj said.

'She broke a Kashmiri walking stick on my back. This thick, it was,' Mr Pandey said, holding up his thumb and forefinger circled.

Sartaj walked to the window. There was a group of uniformed boys clustering around the small white body below, pushing each other closer to it. The St Mary's girls were squealing, holding their hands to their mouths, and begging the boys to stop. In the drawing room, Mrs Pandey was gazing brightly at her husband, her chin tucked into her chest. 'Love,' Sartaj said softly. 'Love is a murdering gaandu. Poor Fluffy.'

'Namaskar, Sartaj Saab,' PSI Kamble called across the station house. 'Parulkar Saab was asking after you.' The room was some twenty-five feet across, with four desks lined up across the breadth of it. There was a six-foot poster of Sai Baba on the wall, and a Ganesha under the glass on Kamble's desk, and Sartaj had felt impelled to add a picture of Guru Gobind Singh on the other wall, in a somewhat twisted assertion of secularism.

Five constables came jerkily to attention, and then subsided into their usual sprawl on white plastic chairs.

'Where is Parulkar Saab?'

'With a pack of reporters. He's giving them tea and telling them about our new initiative against crime.'

Parulkar was the deputy commissioner for Zone 13, and his office was next door, in a separate building that was the zonal headquarters. He loved reporters, and had a genius for being jovial with them, and a recent knack for declaiming couplets during interviews. Sartaj wondered sometimes if he sat up late with books of poetry, practising in front of a mirror. 'Good,' Sartaj said. 'Somebody has to tell them about all our hard work.'

Kamble let out a snort of laughter.

Sartaj sat at the desk next to Kamble and flipped open a copy of the Indian Express. Two members of the Gaitonde gang had been shot to death in an encounter with the Flying Squad in Bhayander. The police had acted on received intelligence and intercepted the two as they proceeded to a factory office in that locality; the two extortionists had been hailed and told to surrender, but they had instantly fired at the squad, who then retaliated, et cetera, et cetera. There was a colour photograph of plainclothes men bending over two oblong red stains on the ground. In other news, there had been two break-ins in Andheri East, one in Worli, and this last one had ended in the fatal stabbing of a young couple. As Sartaj read, he could hear the elderly man sitting across from Kamble talking about slow death. His eighty-year-old mausi had fallen down a flight of stairs and broken her hip. They had checked her into the Shivsagar Polyclinic, where she had borne with her usual stoicism the unrelenting pain in her old bones. After all, she had marched with Gandhi-ji in fortytwo and had suffered her first fracture then – of the collarbone from a mounted policeman's lathi – and also the bare floors of jail cells afterwards. She had an old-fashioned strength, which saw sacrifice of the self as one's duty in the world. But when the pressure ulcers flowered their deep red wounds on her arms and shoulders and back, even she had said, perhaps it is time for me to die. The elderly man had never heard her say anything of the like, but now she groaned, I want to die. And it took her twenty-two days to find relief, twenty-two days before blessed darkness. If you had seen her, the elderly man said, you too would have cried.

Kamble was flipping pages in a register. Sartaj completely believed the elderly man's story, and understood his problem: the Shivsagar Polyclinic wouldn't let him take the body without a No Objection Certificate endorsed by the police. The handwritten note on Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation stationery would say that the police were satisfied that the death in question was natural, that there was no foul play involved, that the body could be released to relatives for disposal. This was supposed to prevent murders – dowry killings and suchlike – from being passed off as accidents, and Police Sub Inspector Kamble was supposed to sign it on behalf of the ever watchful, khaki-clad guardians of Mumbai, but he had it sitting next to his elbow and he was studiously scribbling in his register. The elderly man had his hands folded together, and his white hair fell over his forehead, and he was looking at the indifferent Kamble with moist eyes. 'Please, sir,' he said.

Sartaj thought it was on the whole a finely considered performance, and that the grief was genuine, but the bit about Gandhi-ji and broken collarbones quite excessively and melodramatically reproving. Both the elderly man and Kamble knew well that a payment would have to be made before the certificate was signed. Kamble would probably hold out for eight hundred rupees; the old man wanted to give only five hundred or so, but the sacrifices of the elders had been done to death in the movies, and Kamble was quite indifferent to the degeneration-of-India gambit. He now closed his red register and reached for a green one. He studied it closely. The old man began the whole story again, from the fall down the stairs. Sartaj got up, stretched, and walked out into the courtyard of the station. In the shade of the gallery that ran along the front of the building, and under the tin portico, there was the usual crowd of touts, hangers-on, relatives of those chained in the detection room inside, messengers and representatives from local businessmen, favour-seekers, and, here and there, those marked by misfortune and sudden misery, now looking up at him in mingled hope and bitterness.

Sartaj walked past them all. There was an eight-foot wall around the whole complex, of the same reddish-brown brick as the station house and the zonal headquarters. Both buildings were two storeys high, with identical red-tiled roofs and oval-topped windows. There was a promise in the grim arches, in the thickness of the walls and the uncompromising weight of the façades, there was the reassurance of bulky power, and so law and order. A sentry snapped to attention as Sartaj went up the stairs. Sartaj heard the laughter from Parulkar's cabin well before he could see it, while he was still twisting through the warren of cubicles piled high with paper. Sartaj knocked sharply on the lustrous wood of Parulkar's door, then pushed it open. There was a quick upturning of laughing faces, and Sartaj saw that even the national newspapers had come out for the story of Parulkar's initiative, or at least for his poetry. He was good copy.

'Gentlemen, gentlemen,' Parulkar said, raising one proud, pointing hand. 'My most daring officer, Sartaj Singh.' The correspondents lowered their teacups with a long clatter and looked at Sartaj sceptically. Parulkar walked around the desk, tugging at his belt. 'One minute, please. I'll talk to him outside for a moment, then he will tell you about our initiative.'

Parulkar shut the door, and led Sartaj around the back of the cabin, to a very small kitchen which now boasted a gleaming new Brittex water filter on its wall. Parulkar pressed buttons and a bright stream of water fell into the glass he held below.

'It tastes very pure, sir,' Sartaj said. 'Very good indeed.'

Parulkar was drinking deep draughts from a steel tumbler. 'I asked them for their best model,' he said. 'Because clean water is absolutely necessary.'

'Yes, sir.' Sartaj took a sip. 'Sir – "daring"?'

'They like daring. And you had better be daring if you want to stay in this job.'

Parulkar had sloping shoulders and a pear-shaped body that defeated the best tailors, and his uniform was crumpled already, but that was only usual. There was a sag in his voice, a resignation in his sideways glance that Sartaj had never known. 'Is something wrong, sir? Is there some complication with the initiative, sir?'

'No, no, no complication with the initiative. No, nothing to do with that at all. It is something else.'

'Yes, sir?'

'They are after me.'

'Who, sir?'

'Who else?' Parulkar said with unusual asperity. 'The government. They want me out. They think I've gone high enough.'

Excerpted from Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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