If there is any justice in the book-publishing world, Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (HarperCollins, 916 pages, $27.95) deserves to become a million-copy bestseller, alongside the next Harry Potter novel or the latest James Patterson thriller. The Berkeley creative-writing instructor from Mumbai has crafted the biggest novel about modern India—in ambition if not sheer bulk—since Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Like Suitable Boy, this is a 19th-century-style novel of manners with a Dickensian cast of characters (duly listed at the front of the book), but it's also a 21st-century crime thriller with enough action to rival The Godfather by Mario Puzo and the spy novels of John le Carré.
Chandra's novel builds on a short story he published in The New Yorker almost a decade ago: Inspector Sartaj Singh receives an anonymous tip that Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India, has returned to Bombay, where he has holed himself up inside a concrete bunker. As Singh awaits a bulldozer to break down the steel doors to Gaitonde's hideout, the gangster recounts his life of crime, beginning with his first big score. Before Singh can make his big collar, however, Gaitonde shoots himself, leaving behind a hoard of illicit cash as well as more questions than answers. There, the New Yorker story ends. In Sacred Games, Chandra adds to the mystery with the discovery of a second body in the bunker, that of a talent agent who acted as Gaitonde's madam, procuring high-class prostitutes for him and his organization. Officially, the Gaitonde case is closed, but unofficially Singh is assigned by Indian intelligence to investigate the reasons for the murder-suicide. The Indian godfather's first-person recollections continue after death, and interspersed with narrative of Singh's investigation in the present, we learn that Gaitonde, a Hindu, was recruited to spy for the Indian government. Suddenly, Singh finds himself following a bewildering trail of counterfeit money, shadowy terrorist groups, and hints of an atomic bomb hidden somewhere in Bombay. Meanwhile, the middle-aged Sikh detective must continue to work his everyday caseload of burglaries, gang murders and blackmail, not to mention find time for his new, Christian girlfriend and keep his aging mother from giving away all her earthly possessions. In other words, get on with the messy details of life in the world's most populous democracy—a nation of breathtaking beauty, debilitating poverty, hair-trigger political violence, police corruption, rampant crime, implacable religious strife and ancient caste prejudices.
Sacred Games is filled with Hindi street slang and references to Bollywood movie culture that may leave the reader reeling, but context usually comes to the rescue (if not, there's a glossary). When one gangster threatens to stick his "lauda" up another gangster's "gaand" or squeeze his "golis," it's not too difficult to figure out which anatomical parts are involved. The profusion of slang only enriches the reader's sense that Chandra has produced a maderchod dhamaka (or "mother-fucking explosion") of a book, as epic as the subcontinent it portrays.
Vikram Chandra reads from Sacred Games