Title: Sacred Games
Author: Vikram Chandra
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: 2006
Genre: Indian Fiction
Purchase Link: Amazon Book 1
It’s rare indeed to want to race through a book without wanting it to end. “Sacred Games” by Vikram Chandra made me feel that way. Having binge-watched the TV show on Netflix, I was invested in the story from before, yet the book is a journey of its own.
Low-ranking police officer Sartaj Singh, the only sardar in the Mumbai Police Force, receives an anonymous tip-off on the location of India’s most elusive and dangerous gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde. The gangster is dead when Singh reaches him, so special agent Anjali Mathur of RAW engages him to investigate the circumstances of Gaitonde’s death in what appears to be a nuclear bunker.
As with the show, the story oscillates between Singh’s investigations, and Gaitonde’s narration of his rise to power in Mumbai. These two distinct stories are punctuated with “Inset Chapters” that fill historical gaps and background stories of the multiple characters in the book. These chapters highlight salient events since India’s independence- from partition to naxalism, from the Indo-China war to class and caste inequalities, from abject corruption to severe religious fundamentalism.
The author Vikram Chandra.
Vikram Chandra has written a unique and riveting tale in ‘Sacred Games’. He deserves accolades for weaving multiple distinct storylines seamlessly. Within the larger framework of Gaitonde and Singh’s narratives, there are numerous interesting characters and sub-plots that never take away from the main story.
Chandra’s historical research is meticulous. He clearly spent a long time collating various historical facts and perspectives. Each tumultuous period or incident is shown through the eyes of someone actually experiencing it. This raw human emotion will make the book attractive to a varied readership. Chandra’s character building is powerful. Each character has good and bad bits openly exposed, so the reader dislikes and sympathizes at the same time.
The writing style is simple and the story flows easily. Without resorting to obvious cliff-hangers, Chandra keeps the reader hooked throughout. The writing differs in tone and specificity when focusing on Singh or Gaitonde or the other characters. This is the book’s strength as well as weakness in my opinion. While the change in writing stops the nearly 1000 page book from becoming tedious, the narratives could clearly have been two separate books with different endings. As a reader, one knows what they like from the start. My preference was Singh’s investigative and personal journey over Gaitonde’s flashy and violent one. I imagine others feeling the exact opposite, where Gaitonde is exciting and Singh is boring. The inset chapters are mini stories in their own right, and readers would either like them or find them annoying!
COMPARISON WITH THE NETFLIX TV SHOW:
The TV show, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, follows the book’s plot but changes the interpretation of characters and events quite liberally. The TV show is more thrilling, but also significantly less poignant and less believable than the book.
The show is over-dramatized and almost childish in comparison with Chandra’s brilliant work of hard labour. Where he takes the time to develop each character making even their flaws lovable, the show makes you pick sides from the beginning. The character building and story development falls severely short in comparison to the book, as well as other TV shows.
The show has its merits though. It’s highly entertaining and makes this gritty story accessible to a world that no longer reads long, convoluted novels! I sincerely hope the show will encourage more people to read the book and savor every nuance of it.
The book is incredibly long and detailed but it’s written beautifully and is a fantastic read. Large chunks of post-independence Indian history are beautifully weaved through a contemporary and relevant storyline. The characters live with you long after you’ve read the book and their personal strife moves you immensely.
I would’ve preferred Gaitonde’s portions to be shorter and Guruji’s storyline to be explored more in-depth, yet the book is strangely complete as it is. It covers everything from history, politics, corruption, class wars, crime and detective fiction, to romance and religious philosophy, and does it seamlessly. I highly recommend this book to ardent readers of Indian fiction, and to anyone looking for a meaty book that’ll have you lost to the world for the duration you’re reading it!
Book Rating: 5/5
If you like this post, do read my review of the TV show here (keep in mind it was written before I read the book!)
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