Book Critique - Sacred Games

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: Readers travel through a web of murder, mystery, politics, cops and dons and above all national security. Despite it's lengthy read, it does keep the reader gripped to it in every chapter.

Sacred Games is the third novel by Vikram Chandra published in January of 2006. The primary plot-line revolves around a Sikh police inspector, Sartaj Singh, who was introduced first in the 1997 book Love and Longing in Bombay: Stories, and the local don Ganesh Gaitonde.

I bought my book at a book sale, and the only reason I had bought it was because it's written by an Indian author - my birth country - some two years ago. But, I hadn't got around to read it since then, considering the 900+ pages in there. However in 2018, Netflix made the first original web series based on this novel. 

Although the book was a mediocre success, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kahsyap, with a star cast of talented actors the likes of Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, it definitely had garnered a lot of attention and audience. And I like to read the book first before watching the TV show or play or movie that it is based on. So, finally here's my review.

It is a normal day for Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police inspector in Mumbai, and his trusted constable, Ganapatrao Popat Katekar, until they receive a phone call about the whereabouts of one of the local dons, Ganesh Gaitonde. In the effort to capture him and bring him to the police station for further interrogation, neither Sartaj Singh nor Katekar, imagine how their lives are turned upside down and to places they end up visiting or the unexpected people they meet.

The entire plot has two parallel tracks. One track is set in 2000s India focusing on the social issues centering in Mumbai, becoming the current track. The second track goes back 20 to 25 years earlier to the youthful days of the don, Ganesh Gaitonde, giving his side of the story to the readers. In between he also adds four "insets" that peer into the life of minor characters who evolve the main characters as the plot proceeds.

Author Mr. Chandra opens the novel by listing out the names of key characters and their roles. I thought this might give away the plot, but it only made it easier to understand the characters better. Usually when I read a romantic fiction or a murder mystery, I don’t see this listing. But other genre I feel that this helps the reader getting acclaimed with the characters easily. 

Mr. Chandra showcases how easy the bribery happens in every sector of business and life, and why it is so much needed. In words of Sartaj, the amount of money government provides to the police station is not even enough to put gas in their vehicles for more than three days. The only way they were surviving is through these bribes. So, they arrest a few, let go a few, have some raids, investigate some cases and close others without. Corruption that is seen yet unseen by everyone, so expected and accepted too.

He also highlights how the police work with intimidation, and in most cases resorting to the suspects being beaten by them. The author doesn’t restrict in showing how police brutality works in the Indian Police and how things change illegally from one place to another, all under the close eye of the police. He also shows how the local dons and mafias tie into the string of politics, films, police and the common man. Seems like everything hinges on them and rides on them.

The book also brings forth not only the long-rooted hatred between Hindus and Muslims since Indian Independence and the split of the country in 1947, but also the mutual hatred towards people from different castes, sects or regions. Along-side religious and political conflicts at the time each piece of the plot is set, Mr. Chandra takes us into a philosophical journey through the endless ponderings of his characters - at times bordered on boring and lose the reader's interest. 

Mr. Chandra goes back and forth between the decades so much that at one point I felt the duration of the story that is set in present is almost 10 years or so. However, it's only two years since the present starts to the end. Perhaps all the droning and philosophical thoughts made me feel that as I felt them too lengthy. Yet due to the plot being set between 70s and 2000s, there were several things from those decades that were popping about bringing back so many memories to me

The author also doesn’t shy from using the street language from Mumbai, with a lot of f-bombs and gory language used in the local dialect, Hindi.  It is very common to have English mixed with local language in India. For instance, the words are a combination of Hindi and English forming a new language of its own that we call "Hinglish". Mr. Chandra uses that very liberally in this novel. 

Mr. Chandra has several references and quotes to Bollywood all through the plot keeping with the spirit of Indian community's love towards Indian Cinema giving the readers glimpses into the songs, actors and the films. However, he does center around the yester year actor Dev Anand. Subtly he connects the readers to the plots with songs.

Mr. Chandra has the protagonist and antagonist perfectly opposite to each other - one so self-absorbed and justifies both, religiously and politically, for his actions no matter how bad they are; while the other has a slightly higher moral line even though he is swept in this wave of corruption and social evils. 

In his tale of cops and robbers, the author also gives us glimpses of soldiers and officers from intelligence units who go through harsh climates, locations and training in order to serve the country. I believe it is typical for any country's army and border force to go through this. Yet, it pains me that in India there is less recognition to soldiers as opposed to cricketers and film stars. 

Slow and steady, Mr. Chandra takes the reader through the dark undergrounds of the life of a don, his aides, the women and kids that are used in every way, the corruption spreading like a disease across the country, the blind belief in gurujis and swamis, and sadly how often money trumps everything even love. Although I felt the ending of one of the antagonist is finished in a flash rather than an elaborate scheme. However, with the pages already going to 900+ I did appreciate that part being kept very simple.

The author takes the readers through a web of murder, mystery, politics, cops and dons and above all national security, all the while humanizing the lives of his characters to their basic needs - Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan (Food, Clothing and Shelter). 

Though a lengthy read, it did keep the reader gripped to it in every chapter, despite some droning bits. Now I am curious to see how the TV Series turned out, when the book although being a national best seller, had less success than expected. Can't wait to watch the TV show.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Plot Reveals:

a. One of the life-lessons that Sartaj is given in the process of his career is about how money moves people around - Paisa Phek Tamasha Dekh. Meaning if you have enough money you can play people like chess pieces and watch the spectacle that happens. That quote is so true and I remember hearing it in one of the songs from 2007 Indian thriller film Johnny Gaddar. It's titled Move Your Body and sung by Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, Loy Mendonsa, Hard Kaur. 

b. My name is rarely used as a character name or a business name. So it was a pleasant surprise to see it in this book, even though mentioned just as the name of one of the aspiring actresses. 

c. Anjali Mathur, a government intelligence agent, has a father, Jagdeep Mathur, who was part of the same unit. 20 years after being recruited into the unit, he disappears one-day after leaving a string of people who had either attacked him or he used them to escape. What happened to him remains a mystery through the plot. 

d. There is a reference of a washed out actress who in order to make a living takes up on sleeping with producers, directors and even jail superintendents when needed, where someone needs a favor to be done, and she is sent to smooth the roads. And sometimes she is sent to smooth roads for herself. I heard about a hindi actress, Nagma, being used like that, shuffled from producer to director to producer when she lost her peak and was looking to rise to the top. Sad, very sad, that every industry wants meat than talent. 

e. For non-Hindi speaking readers, Mr. Chandra gives us an elaborate glossary at the end of the book. Very convenient and much needed.

2) Sub- Plots:

a. The author repeats the lines - The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab - famously quoted by Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror from the 13th century, that lead me to a brief history lesson.

b. Mr. Chandra refers to a form of Yoga - Abhidyana Yoga - a very old, established and respectable form of Yoga taught by sadhus expert in it. More about it here.

c. The author mentions about the movie "Pyaar ka Diya" playing in the theater in one scene. But I couldn’t find any reference to such a movie. Perhaps in this case, it was the author's imagination in play.

d. Mr. Chandra mentions that the fantastic colors of Mumbai's evenings are largely due to the pollution floating around the city. I wonder if it is true. And if it is, it is scary as well.

e. Mr. Chandra has quite a few Bollywood songs in the novel. At the end of the book, we also get to see some of the author's favorite picks. 

i. Gaata Rahe Mera Dil and Wahan Kaun Hai Tera from the 1965 film Guide.

ii. Jab Tak Hai Jaan Jaan-E-Jahaan from 1975 film Sholay.

iii. Lat Pat Lat Pat Tujha Chalana Mothia Nakhriyacha from the 1952 Marathi film Amar Bhoopali.

iv. Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai from the 1997 film Yes Boss.

v. Reshmi Ujala Makhmali Andhera and Khilte Hai Gul Yahan from the 1971 Sharmilee.

vi. Chala Jaata Hoon Kisi Ke Dhun Mein from the 1972 film Mere Jeevan Saathi

vii. Aaja Gufaaon Mein Aa from the 2001 film Aks

viii. Mere Sapnon Ki Rani from the 1969 film Aradhana

ix. Khwaab Ho Tum Ya Koi from the 1965 film Teen Deviyan

x. Pag Ghunghroo Baandh Meera from the 1982 film Namak Halaal

xi. Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara from the 1967 film Jewel Thief.

xii. Bhumro Bhumro song from the 2000 film Mission Kashmir

xiii. Main Zindagi Ka Saath from the 1961 film Hum Dono

xiv. Tu Kahan Yeh Bata Is Nasheeli Raat Mein from the 1963 film Tere Ghar Ke Samne

xv. Yeh Shaam Mastani Madhosh Kiye Jaaye from the 1971 film Kati Patang.

xvi. Abhi Na Jao Chodkar from the 1961 film Hum Dono

xvii. Chal Shuru Ho Ja from the 1970 film Humjoli.

xviii. Geet Gaata Hoon Main from the 1971 film Lal Patthar

xix. Aane Waala Pal from the 1970 film Golmaal

3) Grammatical / Character / Plot / Geographical / Historical / Mythological Errors:

a. On the preface xii, Line 2, it should be "…mother in Punjab…"

b. On Pg. 147, line 24, there is a repeat of "her profession"

c. On Pg. 636, Line 17, it should be "…He was not courage…"


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