Sacred Games: A Riveting Saga of Crime and Punishment, Good and Evil

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As a boy in India, Vikram Chandra -- author of Sacred Games (HarperCollins), the number-one January Book Sense Pick -- was surrounded by stories: the traditional tales of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana told him by his aunts and grandmothers; a cornucopia of American, English, and Indian books displayed by sidewalk vendors; lurid-covered detective, police, and spy stories read at the house of an aficionado uncle; and radio, television, and movie scripts written by Chandra's mother at the kitchen table.

"I was a strange little kid," Chandra said recently with a chuckle. "I've been making up long, long stories in my head for as long as I remember. I actually used to construct these sort of epic tales which would continue from day to day -- sometimes for weeks and months."

Vikram Chandra

He began writing those stories down, and when he was 11, one of them, a science fiction tale, was published in his boarding-school magazine.

"But in India, at the time," said the 45-year-old Chandra, speaking from Northern California, where he now spends about half the year teaching, "to try and imagine yourself as a writer professionally was very difficult. Especially since my mother was a writer, I knew how little money one made. The question 'How are you going to make a living?' was always at the edges of your consciousness. So ... I loved films; I always thought I would end up in the film industry."

Chandra was in fact a graduate student in the film school at Columbia University in New York when by chance he came across an old volume that changed his life and career like a bolt from above: "It was the translated autobiography of Colonel James Skinner, a soldier in the early 19th century in India ... The court language in India at that time was Persian, so he dictated it in Persian, and a contemporary of his translated it into English ... which was then published in the 1840s. Columbia, amazingly enough, had the original first edition sitting on its shelf, which I think nobody had checked out in about a hundred years."

Chandra became "obsessed" with this old account, and with turning it to his own artistic purpose. "I knew it couldn't be a film. The way I was imagining it, I knew it was going to be a novel. So I dropped out of film school and then went to a couple of graduate programs [in creative writing], one at Johns Hopkins ... and then at the University of Houston."

As he worked on what would become his first novel (Red Earth and Pouring Rain), Chandra was tutored by two of the most highly regarded American writers of post-modernist fiction: John Barth, and Donald Barthelme.

"Both ... were incredibly valuable to me, in my growing up as a writer," Chandra said. "Jack ... was able to talk to me about structure in a way that was really great. And then with Donald ... I learned from him -- I mean this sounds really simple, but -- how to read a sentence ... How a sentence actually worked on the page, and the weight of the word, and how a single misplaced syllable could actually destroy the effect that you were looking for."

Critics and readers were impressed by the effects achieved by Chandra in his first book, which he says was much concerned thematically with "how different traditions of storytelling encounter each other as forms of culture ... I still, to a large degree, am very interested in storytelling form: in how the way that we construct story influences how we actually perceive the world."

Such concerns also informed Chandra's second book, Love and Longing in Bombay, a collection of stories, one of which ("a kind of meditation on the nature of detective stories ... also a kind of police-procedural") featured a police inspector named Sartaj Singh.

When Chandra started work, around the turn of the 21st century, on what would be his second novel, he noticed this character was still accompanying him: "I found that I was still carrying Sartaj Singh within me, somehow. I thought I'd finished with him, but he was still around."

The fictional inspector became a key figure in what the author thought at first would be "quite a local book" of about 250 pages "about crime down the street" from him in Mumbai (Bombay), where the married Chandra spends the other half of each year in a house he shares with his parents. But as the novelist became immersed in real-life research, the scope of his novel grew and grew.

"I would talk to a police officer and he would say, 'You know, here are these two people in Delhi that I think you should talk to, and if you want I can call them and tell them who you are.' And I would take them up on that.... The people who were actually in this world were the ones who revealed to me how what I thought of as local was actually part of a much larger web ... so that became important to me ... trying to describe or replicate or at least echo how all these disparate [types] that passed each other, and you would think that on first glance had nothing to do with each other, actually had profound effects on each other's lives."

With a sort of "resigned acceptance," Chandra settled in for the writing of a book much larger than he had imagined. "My agent got an offer quite early from a publisher," Chandra recalled, "who had read a chapter of the book in The New Yorker, in 1997. That was interesting, because that had never happened to me before. But -- I had to tell him we couldn't take it, because -- I had no idea how long it was going take to write this damn thing."

When finished at last, Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games -- a sprawling, riveting saga of crime and punishment, good and evil, centering on an Indian gangster named Ganesh Gaitonde and his ultimate encounter with inspector Sartaj Singh -- printed out at an even 900 pages. Its structural "operating figure," says Chandra, was "a mandala ... a representation of the world ... with inset panels within the outer circle ... All of it together makes the [artist's] vision of the world."

All this is conveyed through a prose flavored by the many languages and dialects that swirl in metropolitan India's streets, and in a narrative that echoes and evokes all the texts -- Indian epics, English detective stories, South American magical-realism, American post-modern fiction, Victorian triple-deckers -- that have entranced Vikram Chandra since boyhood and beyond.

Such a dazzling work provoked a dizzying reaction from publishers around the globe.

"You've sat in your cave for seven years, and you write and write and write," Chandra said, "and then -- there's no way to predict what happens when you send the book out in the world ... It was a greatly pleasurable surprise to me. I mean, really a complete surprise ... People started making offers, and it worked itself into an auction ... HarperCollins bought it for the U.S. and Canada, and then Faber for the U.K, and Penguin for India."

Press reports mentioned a million-dollar advance -- a sum that a laughing Chandra can neither confirm nor deny: "Contractually, I'm not allowed to say. Let's just say -- it was more money than I'd ever seen before. It was good. I was happy."

Happy also were Chandra's parents: his father, "a corporate guy" who'd encouraged all his children (including Chandra's two sisters, who are also writers) to follow their dreams into whatever work they most wanted, and, especially, Chandra's scriptwriting mother.

"Well, I think my mother's very glad!" the author said. "Because she is a writer, she was very afraid for me ... I was 35 when I got my first real job [teaching]; my mother by that time was quite worried. And so, when it all seemed to start working out -- I think she gave thanks to every god and goddess in the known universe." --Tom Nolan