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'Sacred Games:' An Epic of Mumbai's Underworld

Jan 11, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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To enter the world of author Vikram Chandra's new book, Sacred Games, is to be immersed in the crime and corruption of India's financial and movie capital, Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.

Weighing in at 900 pages, the novel is Dickensian in scope, and part Godfather as well. Sacred Games follows a world-weary cop and a larger-than-life crime boss. Add in the world's largest film industry, Bollywood, a shady guru and the ever-present tension between India and Pakistan, and you have a full-blown literary potboiler.

Recently divorced police inspector Sartaj Singhis is a man "trying to keep afloat the best way he knows how," Chandra says of one of his main characters. "He's surrounded by corruption of all sorts" and asks himself the daily question: "How do you maintain yourself in this world?"

Singh soon encounters Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous crime boss, and becomes unwillingly involved in a big case. The cop is "slowly pulled into it and by the end of the book, he's forced to make some very painful choices," Chandra tells Renee Montagne.

Mumbai is not just a backdrop but also a character in the book.

"There's an energy about the place that is unmistakable and very, very seductive," Chandra says. "The citizens of Bombay love to complain about the city endlessly, but [they] also will defend it fearlessly against outsiders making the same complaints. As Sartaj puts it at the very end of the book, 'When you're away from it, you can miss it, physically you can ache for it — even for the stink of it.'"

In the seven years it took Chandra to write Sacred Games, the author spent a lot of time with real cops and gangsters.

"It was surprisingly not that hard to make contact with people on the other side of the line and actually get to meet them. And you want to believe that they are very different from you. Language itself encourages us to make them 'other.' In Hindi, you would say he's a rakshas, a demon. And once I actually started meeting these people, it became more and more clear to me that they were not different at all. They were just people like me who operated in a different moral context."

The book is so full of gritty underworld slang that there's a glossary to help readers navigate the language. For example, criminals call jail sasural, the Hindi word for the in-laws' house.

"Your in-laws' house is a home that you visit quite often... so that you're familiar with it," Chandra explains. "So, therefore jail becomes your sasural — it's where you have to go all the time."

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