A much-hyped Indian thriller
When Ganesh Gaitonde discovers one of his henchmen has betrayed him, it prompts a typically sanguinary response.
Gaitonde's men drag the betrayer through a suburban neighborhood to the top of a nearby hill. Gaitonde initiates the execution. His deputies do the rest.
"Then I walked down the hill, to my basti, to my home," Gaitonde recalls. "In the mirror in the alcove immediately to the right of the door, I saw that my shirt was ruined, splashed all over with blood [so] I took a bath with hot water. I ate a little ... and drank a glass of milk with almonds in it. Then I slept."
Don't rack your brain trying to recall Gaitonde's bestselling memoir or his chilling chat with Larry King on CNN.
Gaitonde, the boss of India's famed G-Company, is the creation of Vikram Chandra. The mafia don's poignant, profane recollections alternate with a traditional third-person narrative encompassing everything from an end-of-the-world thriller to the pleasures of chai tea and tandoori chicken in Sacred Games, Chandra's sweeping, sprawling, and jaw-dropping new novel. It is, more than anything else, literary magic.
Industry hype leading up to the January release of "Sacred Games" has centered on Chandra's lucrative advance after publishers scrambled to acquire rights, as well as winning bidder HarperCollins' carefully constructed promotional strategy to curry favor with readers.
Forget all that. "Sacred Games" is monstrously entertaining, conjuring images of a literary duet between John Irving and Vikram Seth with a dollop of Mario Puzo thrown in for good measure.
Expect critics and readers to gush over Gaitonde as soon as they get their hands on "Sacred Games." He is a stunning creation: a real-life monster.
At the same time, his insecurities and desperate, pathetic attempts to connect with, well, anyone conjures empathy. Gaitonde is no dummy and his sense of humor is sharp. Amazingly enough, he becomes hard not to like after awhile.
Like the best storytellers, Chandra succeeds because he colors in furious grays: heroes and villains don't devolve too far into typecasting. Fittingly, Gaitonde runs his various illegal activities from jail cells and yachts alike, all the while scrambling to answer his satellite phone and discuss existential longings with a beloved TV guru (think Deepak Chopra in a fit of soothing apocalyptic rage).
The legendary gangster's fate isn't a mystery. Forty-four pages into Chandra's 900-page epic, he dies. His body is discovered by Sartaj Singh, a cynical, mildly corrupt idealist and veteran cop.
Mumbai's slang and colloquialisms spice up every page. Despite a partial glossary included in the back of the book, some phrases remain international mysteries even as many others are readily apparent.
Tracing the paths of Singh and Gaitonde – and the worlds they inhabit – provides entrée into the cacophony of Mumbai (Bombay). From teeming trains to impoverished neighborhoods, from petty bribes to political duplicity, here lies the city's head-spinning exuberance – and exhaustion.
Chandra prefers pointillism to broad strokes, adopting the Tolstoyan method many attempt but few achieve.
Chandra himself never lacks for style – or substance. Without seeming to break a sweat in the broiling heat of Mumbai, he gathers up the bursting city without turning eloquence into grandiloquence. Social mores, dirty jokes, and idiosyncrasy abound. Did I mention the secret agent who knits to relieve stress?
This isn't a book with an overbearing message – or even a geopolitical one. It is the rarest of creations, an irresistible story that you simply cannot keep out of your head, one that entertains long after you have stayed up too late reading.
Go ahead. Close the book, turn out the lights. Even then, Ganesh Gaitonde, Sartaj Singh, and their many friends and enemies will whisper in your ear, beckoning from Mumbai and its jarring, joyous madness.
Talk about an offer you can't refuse.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.