Mild-mannered author delves deep into India's underworld

Book's characters become entangled in bloody scrum of Indian politics

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2007

BERKELEY, Calif. - Baby-faced author Vikram Chandra, in brown V-neck sweater and sipping a skimmed latte, does not immediately strike you as a guy who has spent most of the past decade hanging out with gangsters.

Nor does the soft-spoken novelist swagger like someone who has become an international publishing phenomenon and the center of a million-dollar bidding war.

Instead, as he sits in a coffee shop a block from his oak-shaded bungalow, the 45-year-old writer blends in with other intellectuals from the nearby University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches creative writing.

To write "Sacred Games," his best-selling Indian crime epic that came out this month, Chandra plunged deeply into the Mumbai underworld. Through crime journalist friends and police contacts, he met with nervous hit men in grimy cafes and gained audiences with Tony Soprano-style dons in penthouse apartments.

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And, unexpectedly, he found himself feeling very much at home.

"There were a couple of moments where I found myself laughing at somebody's jokes, and there's a part of me that's going, this guy's OK, I could hang out with this dude," Chandra says. "Then your mind suddenly flips over and you realize, yes, but also tomorrow morning he's going to go out and kill somebody he doesn't know for money. That paradox is what fascinates me about the human heart."

The all-too-human face of evil also anchors "Sacred Games" in the person of Ganesh Gaitonde, the urchin-turned-godfather whose apparent suicide at the beginning of the book sucks its police detective protagonist, Sartaj Singh, into an international conspiracy.

Gaitonde returns to the story soon enough as a sometimes-narrator who tells the story of his rise to power while Singh tries to solve the mystery of his death.

But Chandra's novel aspires to much more than the conventional police procedural or spy thriller. Shot through with Mumbai slang and pop culture references, "Sacred Games" sprawls and churns like the city itself, as its characters become entangled in the bloody scrum of Indian politics, driven by ancient religious rivalries and intricate class divisions.

"I got really interested in this mesh of inner lives and historical forces and organizations and nation states," Chandra says, "how all of them connected together, and individual human beings were caught up in this enormous sort of network and sometimes had very little inkling of why certain things were happening to them."

Chandra's prodigious ambition for the book, which he started writing in 1997, has spurred breathless talk of "Sacred Games" as 21st century Indian fiction's breakthrough epic.

"This is a great novel, perhaps the greatest book on Bombay ever written. Certainly a contender for the Great Indian Novel," wrote one reviewer in the Hindustan Times.

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