'Sacred Games:' An Epic of Mumbai's Underworld To enter the world of Vikram Chandra's new novel is to be immersed in the crime and corruption of Mumbai. The city formerly known as Bombay isn't just a backdrop; it's also a character.
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'Sacred Games:' An Epic of Mumbai's Underworld

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

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

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To enter the world of author Vikram Chandra's new book, "Sacred Games," is to be immersed in the crime and corruption of Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Weighing in at 900 pages, the novel is Dickensian in scope and part "Godfather" as well.

"Sacred Games" follows a world-weary Bombay cop and a larger-than-life crime boss - and 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.

Author Vikram Chandra joined us to talk about the novel. Good morning.

Mr. VIKRAM CHANDRA (Author, "Sacred Games"): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: The two characters that I just spoke of - one a cop, one a gang boss - the novel opens, though, with a sort of a terrible thing: a murder, if you will. Maybe you should read the first line or two.

Mr. CHANDRA: Sure. This is from the first chapter of the book, which is called "Policeman's Day."

(Reading) 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANDRA: There is...

MONTAGNE: So, Fluffy...

Mr. CHANDRA: ...a terrible murder.

MONTAGNE: A terrible murder by a jealous husband, Fluffy being the dog of his wife. And in walks Sartaj Singh - Chicknea(ph), as he's called by some.

Mr. CHANDRA: Chicknea is smooth in a kind of feminine way, so he's so good looking that he's pretty. So you would call somebody like that a chicknea to mock him.

MONTAGNE: And his wife has recently left him, kind of going a little bit to seed.

Mr. CHANDRA: Well, he's a man trying to keep afloat the best way he knows how. He's surrounded by corruption of all sorts. So how do you maintain yourself in this world is Sartaj's daily question. The problem is that right at the beginning of the book, he gets himself into an encounter with Ganesh Gaitonde, who is this huge, very famous don connected with all kinds of nefarious activities. So the narrative of the book for Sartaj becomes his unwilling involvement in this big case. He's slowly pulled into it, and by the end of the book, is forced to make some very painful choices.

MONTAGNE: You lived quite a bit in the city that is - not just a backdrop, but a character unto itself in your novel - and that's Mumbai. Hot, crowded, odiferous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: But it also really pulls you in.

Mr. CHANDRA: Yeah, there's an energy about the place that is unmistakable and very, very selective. The citizens of Bombay love to complain about the city endlessly, but then also will defend it fiercely 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.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get back to your gangland boss, Gaitonde, who is a narrator of different sections of the book. A most wanted gangster, basically, in the country. In the seven years it took you to write "Sacred Games," I gather that you spent a lot of time with the kinds of characters that you portray in your book - the real policemen and gangsters of Mumbai.

Mr. CHANDRA: Right. It was surprisingly not that hard to make contact with the 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 started actually 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. And that's why I think it became very important for me to have Ganesh Gaitonde, the horrible man that he is, be a first person narrator in the book so that the reader must feel the connection with his ambition, his desire.

MONTAGNE: Is that underworld that you spent time in, is that where you learned this underworld slang that fills the book? And there's a glossary attached, a lot of it quite - we can't say it on a family radio show but...

Mr. CHANDRA: Colorful.

MONTAGNE: Colorful!

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Right. I mean, like there's a word, sasural. It normally means the house of your in-laws.

Mr. CHANDRA: Right, but for the guys in the business, it's jail. In other words, your in-law's house is a home that you visit quite often, but that is not yours, so that you're familiar with it. So, therefore, jail becomes your sasural. It's where you have to go all the time.

MONTAGNE: There's a wonderful term in the book that people use for themselves. They say that can't have happened. It's very filmy. It's too filmy.

Mr. CHANDRA: Right. There's a point in the book where Ganesh Gaitonde actually produces a film for one of his girlfriends, and he gets very involved in the writing of it. And this has happened in real life as well, that the bosses of the organized crime companies contribute cash and story ideas to the actual film industry, which then in turn takes these resources and makes movies. So it's a very circular kind of exchange.

MONTAGNE: There are songs being sung, and Gaitonde sings a classic movie song after he gets a bagful of his first smuggled gold.

Mr. CHANDRA: Right.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a favorite one in the book, a favorite song?

Mr. CHANDRA: You know, these songs, if you're traveling through India, for instance, you hear them everywhere. And, you know, if you're walking down a bizarre street, there will be four radios playing different songs at the same time.

And I'll tell you a song that links up to Sartaj Singh. Sartaj has been divorced and is very alone and cynical and bitter, and he finally meets this girl Mary, who he starts to like. And there's this moment at which they're driving through the streets of the city, and he suddenly comes up behind an auto rickshaw, you know, those little three-wheeler things which are used as taxis. And inside the auto rickshaw, they're playing this song (foreign language spoken).

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. CHANDRA: The sense of that is, tell me where are you in this intoxicating night. And so what Sartaj does is that, instead of going home, he follows the auto rickshaw so that they can listen to the entire song. And that's a moment that I think anybody who's lived in a city in India has participated in at one point or the other. You know, going out of your way because you've heard this lilting music in the distance, and you just want to have it to yourself for a few minutes before you have to face the traffic again.

MONTAGNE: Vikram Chandra, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CHANDRA: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Vikram Chandra's new novel is called "Sacred Games." You can read an excerpt at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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