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Ashraf’s Book Club Pick: Sacred Games: Watch it, but read it too!

7th August 2018


Released in 2006, exactly a decade after The God Of Small Things, Vikram Chandra’s tour de force was referred to in the same breathless tones as Arundhati Roy’s Booker-Prize-winning effort. At 900-plus pages, Sacred Games is a beast of a book. I often joke that dropped from a sufficient height, it could be a weapon of mass destruction. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s an apt comparison. But let me not ruin the climax for you.

Chandra’s novel is a demanding one; it requires you to invest time, effort and thought into it. In return, it gives you epic thrills and a no-holds-barred look at Mumbai’s deepest, darkest recesses. It is brutal, tragic and touching in equal parts and refuses to slow down for even a page. There are enough twists to intrigue both, the pulp-fiction lover as well as the serious reader.

In telling the tale of gang lord Ganesh Gaitonde and a down-on-his-luck police inspector Sartaj Singh, Chandra paints a gritty yet strangely loving picture of Mumbai. The lingo, like in the web series, is full of Bambaiyya gems such as murder being referred to as ‘taking a wicket’.

Chandra is in masterful form from the start. Sartaj, divorced and poorly rated in the police force, receives a call offering him Gaitonde, who the entire law enforcement machinery is chasing. Acting on the tip-off, Sartaj and his sidekick, constable Ganpatrao Katekar, arrive at a bunker in which Gaitonde is apparently holed up. Through an intercom, Sartaj begins a conversation that leads to the gangster telling his story. Gaitonde dies but that is only the start of the investigation.

A narrative can be non-linear, even without structure!

The book takes the story along different tracks told in alternating chapters, often jumping years forward and backwards. Sometimes Chandra refers to an event and then sets it aside for a substantial chunk of the book, then returning to it suddenly. The result is a narrative that works not despite its disjointedness but because of it. Sartaj and Gaitonde are perfect foils to each other, one a floundering loser and the other a man who refuses to lose to his circumstances, rising from the garbage dumps of Mumbai, killing, bribing and burning his way to the top of the underworld.

Why Gaitonde chooses Sartaj to pass on his story and a chance to avert a major disaster is the crux of the book. Read it to find out.

Book or web series?

Now for the question, everyone’s asking: Is the book better than the web series? I’m a bibliophile and, while Anurag Kashyap’s web series is beyond terrific, the book is better. The stench of the gutters, the smell of the blood and sweat seem to waft out of its pages and you feel physically breathless in the paciest parts. The darkness of the prisons seems to envelop you and the cries of the prisoners' ring in your ears. That’s a stupendous achievement for a writer.

Finally, a word on Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays Gaitonde in the web series. He’s operating on a different plane nowadays, peering down on everybody else he’s left far behind. There couldn’t have been a better choice for the role. He brings alive the character, his evil, his rare tenderness, his burning ambition and his warped clarity of thought. Siddiqui would be justified in sitting back, viewing his performance and saying: “Kabhi kabhi lagta hai apun hee Bhagwan hai.”


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