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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Desi Godfather Saga

It’s been called an epic, the Mumbai Godfather Saga, the publishers reportedly paid top dollar for the manuscript, but what better compliment can one receive for a 916 page book than Paul Grays critique in the New York Times Book Review, saying "you may find “Sacred Games” as hard to put down as it is to pick up"!
"Sacred Games" is written by a well-educated student of literature, which means that Chandra (who studied with John Barth and Donald Barthelme and spends part of the year teaching at UC Berkeley) knows exactly when to break rules and when to follow them,” says Susan Salter Reynolds, Review in Los Angeles Times. “Chandra's genius is in the way he trusts his readers.”
“One of the coolest things about "Sacred Games" is the crash course it offers in 21st century Indian society and especially the life of Mumbai. This is the city regarded by Salman Rushdie, among other writers, as the country's quintessential metropolis, affectionately referred to as "Wombai," adds Reynolds.
Sacred Games is an epic 19th century novel with the framework of an intriguing detective story that delves into the profane depths of the underworld. Besides calling it an “Epic of Mumbai's Underworld,” NPR calls the novel “Dickensian in scope, and part Godfather as well.”
Skye K. Moody writes in the Seattle Times, “The splendor of Chandra's prose is quite enough to enrapture a reader for 900 pages. Its exotic Bombay setting may inspire readers to consult maps to guide them while following Sartaj's and Gaitonde's exploits. Texturally, the story is lavishly layered with descriptions of Bombay's neighborhoods, with the colors and shapes of typically Indian costumes (sharply contrasted with contemporary Western outfits some characters adopt) and with tough-guy talk and the usual crime-story guns and guts, offering the reader an opportunity to descend into the grittiest, if not the poorest, precincts of Bombay.”
“Chandra's tale is peppered with bits of Hindi vocabulary that add color while occasionally inviting readers to leaf through the short glossary at the back of the book. Even without the glossary, though, the reader will likely understand a word's meaning just by its association to the subject or its placement in a sentence. Whatever challenge "Sacred Games" presents to Western readers, the payoff is grand and satisfying,” writes Moody.
The Publishers Weekly says“…it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ("You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran," Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive.”
Sartaj Singh who first appeared in Chandra’s short story “Karma” is an honest skilled Sikh police inspector who tries to remain as decent and honorable as he can working within a system where kickbacks, extortion, and bribes are the order of the day. He receives an anonymous tip that the legendary mafia crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde is holed up in a nearby safe house. As Sartaj and his colleague wait outside for backup, Gaitonde talks to Sartaj telling him the story of his rise to power from humble beginnings and by the time Sartaj can enter the building the notorious criminal Gaitonde has killed his female companion and committed suicide.
Sartaj’s routine investigation, to his surprise, is overseen by the governments top intelligence agency, and leads him well beyond the morally ambiguous Mumbai he thinks he knows. In alternate chapters, Ganesh Gaitonde tells his own singular story with remarkable candor.
“Though the novel does have its moments and a couple of intermittently interesting central characters, mainly it just wanders aimlessly along, written in a droning monotone and peppered with Indian colloquialisms that are sure to put off all but the best-informed American readers,” Jonathan Yardley says in his review in the Washington Post, “It masquerades as tough-minded about all the bloody, sordid business with which it is preoccupied, but its heart is little more than sentimental mush. It may sound exciting and engaging, but it isn't, and when the novel's climax finally occurs, it's the most anticlimactic climax I can recall. But it is, perhaps, a fitting climax to a book that, for all its ambition and intelligence, ends up going nowhere at all. ·
In The New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra observes, "More ardently than most recent chroniclers of India's most hectic metropolis, Chandra embraces the vitality as well as the vulgarity of the millions chasing the 'big dream of Bombay.” He writes, “As in a typical, multipanelled mandala, “Sacred Games” offers many stories simultaneously, while allowing us to gaze separately at each life in its own moment of being.”
“Unlike those novelists who have much to say but lack the necessary craft, Chandra seems to be able to do anything. His violent naturalism superbly renders the disorder of the contemporary world. Yet it is unable to transcend an equally pervasive intellectual and spiritual complacency,” writes Mishra, “Conceived on a grand scale, “Sacred Games” leads us to expect more than self-sufficient virtuosity from a writer who possesses the rare, prodigious power to make literature.”

Sacred Games
By Vikram Chandra
Harper Collins Publishers
Publication Date: January 9th 2007
Hardcover/ 916 pages/ $29.95
ISBN: 0061130354

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

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