Vikram Chandra’s 2007 novel Sacred Games weighs in at 947 pages in paperback, and during the course of its epic length, Chandra unfurls an intricate, grand-scale plot spanning decades and dozens of characters, tracing the rise and fall of a Mumbai crime lord and the many lives (and deaths) caught up in his wake. The novel is violent, suspenseful, and deeply influenced by film—Bollywood is a constant presence in its pages, and as I read I was also frequently reminded of police procedurals and film noir. At its extremely dramatic climax, the fate of Mumbai (and perhaps the world) rests on policeman Sartaj Singh’s shoulders, in the kind of moment that you’re far more likely to encounter in a Hollywood action movie than in a lengthy literary novel. But rather than rushing from that climax into a quick, easy, and simplistic Hollywood ending, Chandra then dips back deep into the novel’s backstory, giving more than fifty pages to new characters whose lives and decisions have in some ways shaped the events of the main plotline. The purpose of this move isn’t merely to tie up loose ends so much as to reinforce the novel’s central ideas: that, for all the struggle, passion, violence, patriotism, honor, lust, theft, and betrayal experienced by Chandra’s characters, the specific outcomes (the losses and victories, worlds being lost or worlds being saved) end up mattering relatively little. Near the novel’s end, Chandra gives us the thoughts of the novel’s hero, Sartaj Singh:
There was no calculation that could determine how much had been sacrificed or what had been gained, there was only this recognition of loss, of pain endured and absorbed.
Throughout the novel, many characters are obsessed with accounting for things: both police and gangsters (as well as politicians, Bollywood producers, prostitutes and virtually everyone else in the book’s pages) are constantly tallying up what they have, what they’re owed, and what they might expect to earn in the future. They’re all angling for power, for prestige, for money—except (for the most part) Singh, who sometimes accepts under-the-counter payments and bribes as a matter of necessity in order to continue operating successfully in the deeply corrupt Mumbai police department, but who shows little of his coworkers’ personal ambition for wealth and power. Singh is an obvious foil for the gang lord Ganesh Gaitonde—who narrates about half of the book, telling the tale of his rise from provincial obscurity and the trail of bodies he left along the way. Gaitonde is a fascinating character: he’s completely ruthless, but also both introspective and oddly naive. He kills his rivals and those who betray him with efficiency and brutality—yet he also falls in love with a prostitute with film star ambitions, and labors to learn English in an effort to rise above his provincial origins. He doesn’t feel especially guilty about the people he kills or otherwise brings to harm—but he does wonder about the ultimate purpose of his actions, and more fundamentally, about who he truly is. Throughout the course of the novel, Gaitonde consistently refuses to answer questions about his background when others ask him about it—and yet after his death in the novel’s opening pages, he speaks to Singh from beyond the grave with complete honesty, telling the full story of his life. It’s only in death, then, that Gaitonde faces up to the fact that the whole of his murderous climb to power was ultimately nothing but an attempt to create distance between himself and his provincial origins—and further, that no amount of wealth or power—and not even the plastic surgery he gets in order to remake his face into something more like a Bollywood idea of handsomeness—had in actuality utterly failed to remake him into some kind of new and different and better person.
It’s here here the book’s pervasive allusions to Bollywood (and the fantasy world of movies in general) take on deeper significance: it’s not only a matter of style, but also a device for pointing out the falsity of numerous characters’ dreams of escaping their lives and origins. Some—like Gaitonde—do succeed at least for a time in reshaping their lives into dream-like forms: Gaitonde sometimes believes that he really has transformed himself; and his prostitute mistress Zoya really does become a film star (though in the process she becomes empty and cold, a literal embodiment of her ambitions, her whole appearance surgically re-shaped in order to become a kind of on-screen simulacrum of her provincial girlhood fantasies). Others do not dream of escape from their lives and origins, but instead, destruction: Gaitonde’s guru harbors a dark fantasy of doom, and even Sartaj sometimes wonders what it is, exactly, that he is struggling to save.
Chandra is by no means suggesting that people ought to remain in their place—quite the opposite, in fact. Sartaj’s quiet struggles against the anti-Sikh prejudice in Mumbai’s police department are portrayed as admirable, and Gaitonde’s compassion for hopelessly deluded young people who write to his friend (and madam) JoJo Mascarenes in hope that she will help them achieve their impossible dreams of becoming stars and models comes off as one of the vicious and self-deceiving gang lord’s few redeeming qualities. Instead, Chandra is pointing out the ways in which the desires underlying the grand dreams and hopes of ordinary people often become compromised in the face of the real world: that the great difficulty of achieving success leads many people to betray themselves again and again, until one day (whether their dreams have been realized or not) they can no longer recognize the people they have become.