Vikram Chandra: A restless homecoming

Vikram Chandra returns with an epic of crime, corruption and survival set in the Mumbai underworld. Soumya Bhattacharya meets him in the city of dreams

We last met the dashing, scrupulous police officer Sartaj Singh at the centre of Vikram Chandra's moving story "Kama" - part of his extraordinarily affecting collection, Love and Longing in Bombay. After having delivered divorce papers to his former wife's home, he was standing on a posh south Mumbai street, in the middle of the evening rush hour. "He could feel the size of the city, its millions upon millions, its huge life and its unsolved dead... and Sartaj knew that nothing was finished."

Clearly, nothing had been finished because, nine years on, here he is again, this time as one of the central characters of Chandra's ambitious, absorbing novel Sacred Games (Faber & Faber, £17.99). Now, "Sartaj had begun... to feel that he himself had accomplished nothing in his life. He was past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects." Through Sartaj, Chandra explores the world in which this novel is set: a world of organised crime and endemic corruption, of unlikely friendships and inevitable betrayals, and of sudden, redemptive flashes of hope and love.

The novel's other main character is the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde: "The name had a heft, a certain sturdiness. It stood up straight, it didn't back down, it was a strong name." Gaitonde is strong: young and dispossessed, he has come from nowhere and built one of the most feared criminal empires in Mumbai.

Chandra's compelling narrative tells the tales of these two characters (and of all the lives they touch, shape and colour - and, just as often, end). But Mumbai, the city of which they are so much a part, and which is so much a part of all Chandra's books, comes alive as not so much a backdrop but as a character in itself.

Sacred Games concerns itself with all the big themes: crime, wealth, friendship, honesty, the way we live and love. Most of all, perhaps, it is a novel about Mumbai. It is portrayed as a city of infinite possibilities, capable of magically transforming the lives of some of those who come here for a living: "It could happen. It did happen, and that's why people kept trying. It did happen. That was the dream, the big dream of Bombay."

As it turns out, I meet Chandra in Mumbai (he always refers to the city by its old name, Bombay) in the business centre of a five-star hotel in Bandra, the upscale neighbourhood in which the author has a home. I notice that he has three things in common with his namesake and fellow writer: he is, like Vikram Seth, a small man; he speaks softly and with deliberation, as though his every word must be precise and just right; and he has written a wrist-spraining novel, nearly a decade in the making.

"I wanted to write about this city in all its contradictions," he says. "I have a bizarre affection for this broken-down thing that is Bombay." Chandra came to live in Mumbai with his parents when he was 15. He left for America as an undergraduate but used to "come rushing back to Bombay during every break". It is something he still keeps on doing. "The city has been so essential in making me who I am. I am engaged with it, enraged by it and indebted to it," he says. "Just look at it: the poverty, the amazing corruption, the paralysis corruption breeds. And yet you have the unsung endurance of ordinary people. Everyone is trying to go somewhere in this city; everyone feels that it's possible. It's a narrative that plays itself out over and over here."

This is one of the recurring motifs in Sacred Games. As was evident in his sparkling, magic-realist debut Red Earth and Pouring Rain (which is told in part by a typing monkey), Chandra is a terrific teller of stories. He has a tremendous sense of narrative pace. Sacred Games is 900 pages long but nowhere does it flag. Amid the sprawl, there is a control and tightness in the writing; the story unfolds and each chapter ends in a manner so tantalising as to make you catch your breath. It is cinematic.

Did he find that difficult to achieve in what is his biggest book to date? "I had a design. I saw in my head a shape for the book, which was partly circular. Yet I didn't want it to be overly constructed with all the life squeezed out of it. Yes, the cinematic sense helped in terms of form. But it also has a resonance with how the city sees itself and how I see the city."

When he started, eight years back, Chandra thought of the book as a 250-page thriller. But as he came to write it, the connections between crime, cops and politics drove him forward. The book began to grow. The result is this doorstopper of a novel. But it says a lot about Sacred Games that length isn't one of the first things you would mention about it. Form, though, is. Chandra takes the template of the thriller and cleverly subverts it, making it into something quite unlike any other work he has written - or, indeed, anything ever attempted by any Indian writer in English.

We are shown here a very Indian reality: frequent allusions to Hindi cinema (Chandra comes from a family of movie-makers and scriptwriters, and has co-scripted a film, Mission Kashmir), expletive-riddled gangster-speak, the stories of the poor and the helpless who get broken and scarred trying to make a living in Mumbai. But Sacred Games is also an "excursion into the pleasures of realism": the kind of psychological realism that descends from 19th-century European and English fiction.

A lot of that psychological realism has to do with a faithful representation of an entire sub-world of organised crime. As is expected in a book in which the central characters no more think of leaving home without their guns than without their wallets, the violence in Sacred Games is explicit, chilling and utterly pervasive. Was it hard to do all the research, to obtain access to the world he depicts?

"I had friends - journalists, policemen - who put me on to other people. Some of these people were easy to meet: they hold open durbars for visitors. For others, there had to be trusted introductions, one had to make arrangements. Once I was on the inside, I did see myself some of the stuff that I talk about... But most of it was created from the imagination. Research helps give you a sense of the place, but in the end you have to go to your room and imagine it."

Gaitonde and Sartaj are both finely imagined characters. When we had first been introduced to Sartaj, he had been married to an affluent wife and because of her wealth had managed to stay out of the web of bribery and corruption in which the police force is always entangled. Here, we are shown how he has become morally compromised; how he, too, accepts bribes. He no longer has his wife's money to fall back on but there is the suggestion that it goes deeper than that, as though Sartaj has grown too weary to take the effort to remain honest. At the same time, there is a deep self-awareness about how far he has fallen. This Sartaj is more persuasive for his fallibility.

As, indeed, is Gaitonde. Chandra remarkably brings out the fear and the loneliness of the gangster's life; how, despite his enormous power and wealth and reach, he is not really the larger-than-life person that he seems to be to others. "My aim was to make someone like Gaitonde, who sees himself in an epic way, seem palpable and sweaty," Chandra says.

Then there is the writing; Chandra can beguile us with his images. Describing a "tall, blond foreigner" besieged by urchins and beggars on the seafront, he notes that "The privilege of his white skin and money cost him this minor trial, this swirling comet's tail of the needy." There is more beauty in single pages of this book than you'd find in some entire novels.

Finishing this book, Chandra says, felt like "the end of something, but the beginning of I don't know what". He is now on a year's sabbatical from his teaching job at the University of California. Sacred Games is the sort of book that you finish with regret because you won't any longer have the pleasure of going back to it every day. For having given us that, Chandra deserves more than a mere sabbatical.

Soumya Bhattacharya's 'You Must Like Cricket? Memoirs of an Indian cricket fan' is published by Yellow Jersey

Biography: Vikram Chandra

Born in New Delhi, Vikram Chandra went to boarding school in Rajasthan, came to live in Mumbai as a teenager and studied in the US; he graduated from Pomona College in 1984. The son of a screenwriter mother, and brother of director and screenwriter Tanuja Chandra, he started at Columbia film school in New York but left to concentrate on his debut novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995). He later gained degrees from Johns Hopkins and Houston universities. His novel won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book; it was followed by the short stories of Love and Longing in Bombay, which won a regional Commonwealth prize. Sacred Games is published by Faber. Chandra now teaches at the University of California, and spends part of the year in Mumbai.

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