This is a moment worth marking. It’s a landmark in the history of Indian English literature. Decades from now, we’ll be looking back at the roster of great contemporary novels, and the title Sacred Games will trip off our tongues blithely and reverentially. So let’s hear it for Vikram Chandra. He’s just written one of the most masterful works of literature, a great crime thriller, a magnificent city novel, and an exploration of the Indian psyche at the close of the millennium that has never been attempted before on this scale, and has certainly never been accomplished this masterfully.
This is a big novel in every sense. Nine-hundred pages in full-size hardcover. That’s impressive by any standards. But unlike so many other doorstoppers, there’s never a sense that the editor was missing in action. On the contrary, every page is a minor miracle of style, empathy and insight… [Sacred Games] is a richly imagined and perfectly rendered realistic novel of the streets, the gullees and the back alleys, the gutters and the chawls, police stations and bastis, slums and skyscrapers. This is a world straight out of Ram Gopal Varma films — the foul Bumbaiya tapori argot, the rough characters, gritty locales, blood, booze and broads. But no Varma production could ever hope to delve so deeply into the psyche of the characters as Chandra does to show us not only protagonist policeman Sartaj Singh (who first appeared in a story in Chandra’s collection, Love and Longing in Bombay), but also his assistant, and Singh’s mother’s recollections of Punjab and Partition, as well as an extended autobiographical rumination by Ganesh Gaitonde — perhaps the most mesmerising character study in the book — and brilliantly achieved vignettes and flashes of hundreds of minor characters and man-on-the-street sketches.
Then there’s the setting. Bombay. It’s more than a setting. It’s the book itself. Chandra brings it brilliantly, deeply alive — in all her foulness, filth and stained beauty. Early on, you see how easily he could have made this just a crime novel — a very good one at that. But within a handful of pages, you see how he’s reaching far beyond genre, beyond literary categories and boundaries. He’s reaching, you realise, with a lump in your throat, for life itself… No other novel has attempted so much, and achieved it all so gracefully, elegantly, quietly.
Chandra coaxes a life’s best performance out of this bar-dancer of a city, this mad metropolis… Sacred Games unfolds in prose just right for its purposes, foul language that has never felt so right and so vital, exterior descriptions and interior monologues that are as real as your own thoughts and observations, building like a Virar Fast with a bomb planted in the First Class Compartment.
This is a great novel, perhaps the greatest book on Bombay ever written. Certainly a contender for the Great Indian Novel. It deserves a standing ovation and a crisp street salute. Smartly done, bhidu. — Ashok Banker, Hindustan Times (India).