Sunday, February 20, 2011

All About Bombay

(Warning: Very long post.)

Sacred Games is a big, fat, bloated, monster of a book. Subject matters include stuff about Bombay, more stuff about Bombay; and then some more stuff about Bombay.

Indian writing in English has mostly been about grand family sagas (cf. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy), political allegories (Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children), political allegories with a healthy dose of family saga (Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things), deeply felt, sensitive-human-angle pieces (Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance), stuff about Bombay (Rohinton Mistry's ouevre); and of course the ones about ordinary Indian people going about their everyday business written in a language they don't speak (the ordinary Indians that is; the extraordinary ones long ago switched to the master race's preferred mode of communication) (R K Narayan's and Mulk Raj Anand's ouevre). (The savagely funny and biting English, August is the oddball in this sense. All hail Upamanyu Chatterjee!)

It is in this sense that Vikram Chandra's book is so thoroughly, so refreshingly brilliant.

Lest the irreverent tone of the last paragraph suggest that Nanga Fakir has a low opinion of the aforementioned books and its authors, be assured that he totally hearts most of these works and these books form the backbone of the heavy reading NF did in his initial phases of addiction. But he now thinks them more like the mildly addictive semi-gateway drugs that marked the beginning of his lifelong addiction to reading - hence the smug, self satisfied, dismissive tone.

Sacred Games is more crime fiction with literary ambitions. It's about gangwars in Bombay, the business of being criminals (bhaigiri), the police in their roles more as anti-criminals - criminals fighting on the good side - as disorganized as their counterparts, as skilled as their counterparts, as poor as their counterparts, as ordinary as their counterparts; as extraordinary as their counterparts. It's also the only (yes!) book NF has ever read that has people from RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) among its characters. The near absence of any mention of this shadowy Indian organization in contemporary discourse of any kind leads NF to suspect that they must be awfully good at their jobs. (But time and again, experts aver that it's the most lame and incompetent of intelligence agencies in the world and NF has on more than one occasion, detected a secret jealousy in such experts' pieces when they (unfavorably) compare RAW to the (mighty) Pakistani ISI.)1

It also features 'insets' - a look into the past of the more minor characters - and uses these as an excuse to write about the partition, the Naxalite movement and espionage - both national and international. In particular, towards the end of the book (the final 150 pages or so) these insets tie all the not-so-tight ends together and give a supremely satisfying, complete reading experience. The great thing about the book is that the sheer, awesome power of storytelling wins the jaded reader over - no literary gimmicks needed at all!

And yes, how can one forget the use of language in the book! For long now, Indian writing in English has resorted to chutneyfication - peppering their otherwise impeccably crafted sentences with Hindi (mostly) words, thereby giving the impression of telling stories about foreign, exotic locales (nod to Salman Rushdie who championed this trend taking cues from (perhaps) R K Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand). Vikram Chandra does so with a vengeance! And one is tempted to conclude that this is done with a very specific agenda in mind - the very same 'take that' agenda that led Anurag Kashyap to make Dev D as a riposte to the soppy, melodramatic Devdas of Sanjay Leela; and Govind Nihalani to make Ardha Satya - a dark, brutal reply to the gritty, but ultimately very commercial Amitabh Bachchan launcher Zanjeer.

Criminals are referred to as apradhis, Bollywood songs are quoted at length without any attempt to explain their meaning/context in which they are relevant, people burn agarbattis (incense sticks), meet up in akhadas (Indian gymns), feel jealous over the presence of arabpatis (billionaires) in their midsts, stay away from badmash people (bad people). Ass, cunt, dick, sex etc. are unapologetically referred to by their Hindi appellations. And although generally NF is somewhat of a purist when it comes to language, he was totally won over by the savage agenda, raunchy jokes and the brilliant effect such language managed to produce. In fact, such was the frequency and pivotal-ness of this conscious use of Indian languages in the book that Nanga Fakir wonders if the others will not feel totally turned off/miss critical points while wading through the sea of prose. (A glossary of all Hindi/Marathi/other words used in the book is on the writer's website and runs over twenty pages!)

And to those snobbish lit-crit theory gurus who believe that great novels cannot emerge from the dirty hovels of crime fiction - take that and shove it up your gaand (ass)!

Vikram Chandra has made a lifelong fan out of Nanga Fakir. And you'd be one too if you give him a try.



The following is a somewhat obscure joke NF came across many years ago and cannot resist throwing in at the first mention of ISI. As far as he remembers, it was first stated by a Pakistani journalist in one of the English dailies in Pakistan.

In the joke, the journalist goes on to aver that real intelligence agencies are almost invisible to all people - even to the public of their own countries. He then cites RAW and Mossad as the prime examples of such efficient organizations. Building on this theme, he suggests that the popular and very well known intelligence organizations, thus, are either very incompetent or merely decoys. Then comes the punchline - since ISI is so well known, it can't be a real intelligence agency at all. It must be a front put up by the Pakistani government. The real intelligence agency must be well hidden from all political discourse - even from the general public. Hence, he concludes with impeccable logic and a sudden, sharp force of clarity, that the real Pakistani intelligence agency must the Pakistani Agriculture Ministry!


Abhishek Sardar said...

Have a look at this trailer, if you haven't already. it was one of the three indian films at berlinale this year.

Nanga Fakir said...

Yup! Have seen the trailer already. Though its connection with this post is not so clear.

Abhishek Sardar said...

no connection. just thought you would be interested :)


I religiously read ur blog but i hardly ever comment because i mostly feel very stupid :|

but i commend you on referring to so many books and authors, and a lot i know about a lot of favourite books today, has come from some random mention on your blog.

and i am an english student. the sad state of affairs.

i will definitely try to get hold of thisbook now -- nd hello wasnt THE GODFATHER reat book to those who say crime fiction cant produce great literature ??

have you read amitav ghosh ?? would love to hear ur take on him.

keep writing nf :)) i loveee your blog !!!

Shishir said...

Slightly surprised that you hadn't read this book till now, its been around for a while.

On the other hand, you are a hippie after all, so its not all that surprising :D

But agree with the review, its a really well-written book.

Nanga Fakir said...

@Photogenic: Haven't read any Amitava Ghosh. Plan to do so in the future though.

And as regards the greatness of crime fiction, you should see the snobbish literary people who turned their noses up at any mention of anyone less experimental and 'avant-garde' than John Barthe, Donald Barthelme and the likes.

(Interestingly Vikram Chandra studied under both of the aforementioned crazily experimental authors!)

@Shishir: Nanga Fakir is NOT a hippie!