09 February 2007

Bombay Raconteur

The Interview

‘I Hate How You Made Me Like This Gaitonde Guy’

~ Vikram Chndra's wife, Melanie, to Vikram after reading an initial draft.

Full text of an interview taken on 4 November 2006, published in ‘M’ magazine, Vol. 02, Issue 01. New Delhi.

Hemant Sareen: You were in Europe a few days back, promoting your new book, Sacred Games. How was the response to the book there?

Vikram Chandra: It was a very interesting and generous so far. We got a good reading turnout and good reviews. I was also at Frankfurt [Book Fair]. That was crazy, just in terms of its size. It was exciting to to see all the other Indian writers and meeting people running around the hall and so forth. I‘m trying to rest off all that excitement. It was quite exhausting.

HS: Did you see the 24-page glossary of vernacular words used in Sacred Games that’s been made available as a free download from the Faber and Faber web site?

VC: The American publishers wanted a glossary. And now even the UK publishers have put up a glossary on their web site. I’m fine with that. But by using the the words unitalicised, unexplained, what I was trying to point out to everyone was when we Indians read a book from somewhere else its part of the experience of reading that book is that we don’t get some of the local references in the local language. I‘d hate to think that the reader is stopping in the middle and looking up a term. The way I read something foreign is that if I don't get something by context or can’t get some sense of what’s going on, I just read forward and accept that as a a part of the experience. Part of the pleasure of reading something from a foreign place is that you don’t really get some of what’s going on unless you read further from the book. And then some of it starts to settle into place.

HS: Sacred Games took you seven years to write and research. The research seems to have taken into the labyrinths of the Mumbai, where you rubbed shoulders with criminals, underworld dons, policewallahs. Then you have these little chilling details like the sound of the little finger cracking, and how blood ‘sizzles’ out of a broken skull you must have met forensic and ballistic experts. That must have been some experience?

VC: The way it actually started was that when I was writing my last book, Love and Longing in Bombay, Sartaj Singh was the protagonist of one of the short stories (‘Kama’) in it. At that time I started to talk to some policemen and crime journalists and spent time with them. At that point I was asking them questions pertinent to that story, but in passing, sitting around and having chais, they would tell you something that happened the day before in Bhayandar or some other place. And so it just went on from there. Even listening to them talk to each other I’d pick up little incidental details and so forth. And then you know the way the life in Bombay was steadily becoming more and more strange. I actually met people who were being threatened and getting extortion calls, or had been shot at and wounded. It was then, I started to ask very specific and pointed questions, without thinking it as research for a book: I was just curious about what was going on around us. Then when once it became clear, it was going to be a book, all of the stuff that I knew already became useful. And then through these people, I started to meet some other people. At the beginning it was quite unexpected, in the sense that somebody I’d be talking to would say, ‘Oh, you should meet so and so, they have spent a lot of time on the field.’ If I was offered an introduction to that person, I’d go and meet them. So, it just grew like that and I obviously ended up taking a lot of notes as I went along. You know those small, thick reporters’ notebooks, I was using those to keep track of all my meetings. By the time I was finished I had piles of them.

HS: Did you feel you were learning something new about Mumbai you didn’t already know?

VC: What was odd yet interesting for me, as a writer, to learn about, was about my own writing process: It’s that often, what you think are the most exciting things when you are in the spot talking to someone, actually turns out to be not so. The little incidental details that you half noticed , end up being used later as your writing, and hence become the most important thing. So I think, as a writer, or I suppose all artists do this too, you are in the environment trying to absorb as much information as you can, not just the step-by-step information or what people are saying but also just the colour or the way people carry themselves. So, that’s how the research went. I know people are really interested in the research for the book, because I think it was done in a place where all of us who belong to the more or less [chuckles] law-abiding classes, do not have that much interaction with that side of life. But for a writer, what’s even more important is what happens when you come back and sit alone in your room with your typewriter or computer. Making the life come alive on the paper is much more difficult than doing that other stuff.

HS: Did the experience change you as a writer and as a person? Were you more focussed as a result? The intensity, especially of the Gaitonde narrative, is at times terrifying.

VC: The research and the writing was actually simultaneous. I was writing the book from the very beginning of the research. Its difficult: you can’t spend that much time, not only doing the research—which was just a fraction of the time it took writing the book, and was incidental—but to have all the characters alive inside for so many years, without coming out of the experience unaffected. To wake up every morning, eat breakfast, and what does one have to obsessively think about the whole day? Murder, mayhem, bribery, and corruption. I think it is a sort of dangerous business, in that in bringing alive all these characters inside yourself, you have to partake of their emotions as well. So it can be a little disconcerting for instance for the people you live with—you don’t want suddenly to go ‘Gaitonde’ on them. I think its really important for writers, and for other artists as well, and actors especially, to have some sort of stability in normal life and leave the fiction as much as you can with in its own realms.

HS: You are actually trying to make us fall in love with some very unsavoury characters.

VC: That was really an important part of the book for me, as I went along this strange trip. When I first started thinking of the book, I had this notion in my head—again what I think must be a common way of thinking about crime—is that crime happens somewhere faraway from you. And the people who did it and are engaged in it are somehow very different from you, your family and your friends. The more I got into the book the more not just clear to me, but the sort of knowledge was settling in, that no its not people of a different species, they’re people just like us. Its me , just in a different set of circumstances— doing it. So that sense of otherness vanished pretty fast and I wanted very much in the writing of the book for the reader to feel that. Because if you don’t sympathise and emotionally engage with characters who are supposed to be on the wrong side of the law, then it becomes a very conventional sort of narrative where there is good and evil, you are titillated by the evil, but not completely in sympathy with it. So one of the big formal problems of the book was how to make Ganesh Gaitonde feel real and also engaging. And I was thinking about it all the time I was writing it. And then my wife, who was the first person to read the whole manuscript after it was finished, couple of days after she started reading the book, came out of her study and freshed up to me and said, ‘I hate how you made me like this Gaitonde guy.’ That was one of the happiest moments of my life. I thought at least for her the book works. Otherwise without that the narrative would fall apart.

HS: Has any policewallah or ‘those whom you cannot name,’ and ‘those who know who they are,’ sent you a thank you note for portraying them in such a likeable way? Any Mogambo-khush-hua nods of approval from the other side?

VC: Actually,I have heard from one or two people and I’m very happy about that. And one actually from somebody in the police force, who again I can’t name, whom I don’t know at all, sent me a note saying that he liked the book. And I think like any other writer, when you are trying to represent somebody’s world, you want to do it with some measure of honesty so that other people recognise something of their environment. So these very few people I have heard from have been very kind and generous. And if the book is speaking to them that makes me very happy.

HS: Going a bit back. Do you think Sacred Games is a sort of closure to ‘The Cult of Authenticity’ chapter. In a sense this book is an offering to the god of Authenticity. It represents the Indian reality so directly, so...well...authentically. How do you place the book in relation to that essay?

VC: I wasn’t thinking so much about those questions [of authenticity] when I was writing Sacred Games. For me the essay came more from the practise than the other way around. I guess what I trying to do was to, one, use the material of my world as freely and as unselfconsciously as I could—and that's something of a paradox, how to do something consciously unconsciously [chuckles]. For instance the language that’s been used in the book. If I were sitting in Bombay telling some of these stories to my friends, that would be the English I would use, with all those words from various languages. That’s what we all do in India. And it differs from city to city depending on what the local tongues are. I wanted to get that kind of cadence and diction into the book because it seemed to me rather obvious that that would be the best way of making the texture of the place itself most available to the reader. And like I said, the audience in my head—the people for whom are write first for—are very specific people. Its my family—my sisters, my mother, a couple of other friends and my wife. And most of them are Indians who speak also that kind of language. I am aware of course that there’s going to be somebody faraway reading the book, and that’s really interesting and flattering part, but if you have that as your first circle of listeners than the story that you tell shapes itself up after them. And the communication back and forth between them.

HS: So the book wasn’t a reaction to the earlier criticism or a result of anger?

VC: Yeah, not at all. In fact I can’t tell you dates but I was well into writing the book before the essay was published.

HS: By the way the end of the essay reads, you must have been writing a piece of the Gaitonde narrative?

VC: [Laughs]

HS: The essay is wonderful advice to aspiring and practising writers. But do you have some sympathy for that kind of authenticity-anxiety some Indian critics may have about Indian writers writing to pander to the Western readers and in doing that glossing over rather than capturing the elusive Indian reality faithfully?

VC: I think any artist should create art for whatever audience they may choose and I think this tendency to always assign a bad motive to that is senseless. Its a form of critique that seems to me lazy because it imposes on the art a frame of reference that often is coming directly from the mind of the critiquer and doesn’t actually deal with the intent or the shape of the art itself. So yes, to speak in paranoid terms, there are always market forces and historical trends and so forth working in the world but what artists try and do is to find a way to speak personally in the middle of all this, to make their voice as truthful for themselves as possible. If you are not trying to deal with that urge with in it the art, [its hardly art]. All I am saying is that the paranoia about all these things is a trap. And people should always be aware of that. You paint yourself in a very narrow corner if you always define yourself in terms of opposition to something else.

HS: How do you view your earlier two books after having written Sacred Games? How you outgrown them by any chance?

VC: [laughs] I wouldn’t say that I have outgrown them. Its just that you yourself as a human being change and are changed by your experience as you stumble on and walk along. And so what happens sometimes is that you look at stuff that you’d done earlier and think, ‘Wow! this is written by another person.’ And that other person was also you in a different incarnation. So its you at a different stage and sort of juncture in your life where you might have been dealing with or trying to deal with other issues, other things. But they still remain valuable I think, right? I think that's the kind of relationship I have with my earlier works. I still feel close to them but I can see they were written by another self.

HS: You have said somewhere that you don’t regard Sacred Games as a book on Mumbai, which seems a bit strange considering Mumbai’s so central to the book. This 900-page paean to the city should have strengthened your claim to the city, coming as it does in the wake of Love and Longing in Bombay, another book that owes its raison detre to Mumbai?

VC: For me the book starts in Bombay, but both, its geographical spread and also its thematic interests’ range, are far outside of Bombay. For instance, the notion of crime in the city which at first would seem a local occurrence defined by the local politics of the city and who is trying to kill whom, slowly reveals itself to be connected to much larger forces. In that sense, that which is local turns out to be part of much larger mesh of events. And so that’s the sense I meant [when I said the book isn’t about Mumbai]. Its not a book that confines itself in dealing with, in some sense the city issues, and what’s happening on the street next to me. In that sense it is quite different from Love and Longing which operated mostly within quite a geographically limited area, and also when it left the city in the last story, that story is about what Bombay represents in a sense to the people outside Bombay. The focus is always coming back one way or another to the landscape of Bombay.

HS: You go to lengths to convey a sense of how hinterlands converge to become a city and how a city is composed of various parts and its consequences. Speaking of the provincials, you have got Sartaj Singh nailed down to the last detail, his Punjabi-Sikh background, not to mention the Delhiites, U.P.-wallahs, and the Biharis. You have got them just right, but it added to the volume of the book.

VC: That was something I was really interested in and am still interested in—the specificity of the different regions and peoples and even in that, how it makes itself known in Bombay or in any other larger city in India. One way of thinking about the city is as this huge modern monolith. But what you actually discover is that there is this whole bunch of small towns within it, like somewhere in the book it says that, it is perfectly possible to live in a perfectly Tamil city in Bombay, where you never have to speak anything but Tamil. I think that’s one of the strangenesses and delights of a place like Bombay is that you have these pockets of differences sitting right next to each other in the country as a whole.

HS: In the book these ‘pockets of differences’ seem to be floating in a kind of gooey intimacy where the criminals and the policewallahs live together happily in easy familiarity. This intimacy lends the otherwise, at times, very violent narration a glow of warmth. Is that a contradiction or were you trying for that effect?

VC: To me that is very much the reality of the city. Its these unexpected connections that you find and then how sometimes people and things that are seemingly opposite or opposed to each other, turn out to have these intimate connections, they know details about each other or even are on friendly basis, they have a relationship with each other. I’m thinking of say something of Sartaj and Iffat-Bibi know each other and they end up... Each of them is aware the other is on the other side. And they are aware of the issues of who is using whom and how they have to be careful. Yet they end up having a relationship that’s not just business. Its also marked by differences in gender, religion, and age. I certainly have these kinds of connections. I suppose they exist everywhere. You, maybe, don't even describe yourself as a friend of somebody, but they might know about you. In a city like Bombay, there is so much difference hidden away in this mass which you look at it from a ship on the sea, seems like one big blurry blob. There’s no sharpness to it, there are no [contours]. They just all look like the same. If you are in a flight coming down to land in Bombay you look down and it seems like one big mess. Unless you know the city, it seems very forbidding and anonymous.

HS: You seem to have gone out to celebrate popular culture—cinema, popular vernacular literature, language. The whole book smacks of these elements. Some sniff lot of pulp here.

VC: Actually, its because I myself personally enjoy popular culture very much. I am not even saying that necessarily in ironic or academic way. But I get involved in it and it gets to me and haunts me. If you start thinking in terms of its importance in the life of the city, and of especially of films, I don’t know how could you write a story set in Bombay which didn’t have the entrance of a some sort of filmic reference, because talking to people and my friends, you realise that often certain references that you have in common are from the Hindi movies. I guess you could argue something of the same about Rock music. Suppose you’re writing a big book set in New York you might feel the same way about Rock music. Its the same way an American in her late thirties would associate certain songs with certain periods in her life. So for me its certain songs from Hindi movies and television shows that I saw and the actress I had a crush on at that time. So [this surfeit of filmy references] just grew out of the milieu and the texture of the book especially in reference to the police and the bhais. Often when I was talking to these people, they would use scenes from films to illustrate some point that they were trying to make: they’d either say, ‘Oh, uss pikchar mein wo theek dikhaya thaa,’ (That was just like they showed in that movie), or they’d say, ‘Bilkul galat thaa,’ (It was totally wrong, it never happens like that). But popular culture would enter the discussion as a point. I wasn’t making a high political point about it necessarily, but it just seemed to me very much part of the texture of the milieu I was writing about. And certainly, I enjoyed doing it. My British publisher suggested, half kiddingly, at one point that we should put together a DVD of the soundtracks of the book. [Laughs] I thought that was a brilliant idea. I was thinking later when I have time I will go through the book and pick out all the songs and hopefully I’ll find them, I think that will be great.

HS: Yeah, I think you should go ahead with it. At times the book reads like a very well-written, literary version of a of Bollywood movie screenplay. For instance, I recently watched a scene from the original Don yesterday where the police inspector, played by Ifthekar, calls out through a megaphone to the Don, Amitabh Bhachchan, to surrender and come out of the building in which he is hiding. And I said that’s Sacred Game-scene where Sartaj Singh trying to ferret Ganesh Gaitonde out of his hiding in a bunker.

VC: [Laughs] The strange paradox of our times is that so much of our experience is transmitted to us through films, that we start to distrust it. I have talked to so many people again and again from New York who were actually a few blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11 as the planes hit. And again and again I hear the line: ‘It was just like in the movies.’ And if you think about that here you have just seen this incredibly violent, completely real act, that is actually physically making its presence known, you know, you smell the burning, and the ashes are raining down, but somehow because we live in a world saturated with various kinds of media, we tend to think that our own lives become unreal when they start to look like things that have been depicted in the media. And Gaitonde makes that point early in the book when he describes that first incident in his life when he kills the local dada who steals his cement, that its been shown so many times in films that it seems like a lie, but its actually true. So that again I feel that mixture of reality [and media images] and our resistance to it is very much part of our times. And I was also very aware when I was writing of the whole tradition of noir cinema, noir novel, not just in the West but also in India. And so the texture of the book and the, I guess you could call them the ‘quick cuts’ and all of that, are specifically, cinematically observed. I was quite aware of that.

HS: The aspiring screenplay writer Vikram Chandra and the writer Vikram Chandra were happy working together?

VC: [Laughs] I don’t think I want to be a screenplay writer.

HS: Or did you like you said earlier distrust your instincts as a writer about letting in too much cinema into your writing?

VC: I am aware of it, but don’t think it interferes either way. I know that I am a fiction writer. My experience with film has been quite ambiguous. When I did work in films it was fun but also infuriating, precisely for the reason that it was unlike writing a novel where you have such complete control and nobody is telling what to do and you are not constrained by budgets or physical reality. In films you have got to be obsessive about those things which makes screenplay-writing fun on a certain day, and on another it will drive you nuts. I am not sure I want to be involved in films in any large sense. [Laugh] I’ll stay within the realm of the novel and the short story.

HS: Did you enjoy writing those pas de deux between Sartaj Singh and Iffat-bibi and Gaitande and his girlfriend Jojo. They are reminiscent of Humphery Bogart-Lauren Bacall repartees.

VC: [Enthusiastically] Yeah, yeah. I had a great time with those characters. You know its strange how the exchanges happen. That kind of repartee came from theatre and before that in certain kinds of 19th century writing. So there is always been trade back and forth of these kinds of techniques [between theatre, cinema and literature]. I mean most famously in the last century and certainly mot apparently was is the whole Hemingwayesque stripping away of over blown narrative and getting down to just the purely descriptive elements which are often visual or central to the scene, just have these spare lines coming one after another.

HS: Have the bull shit detector in place.

VC: [Laughs] Yeah.

HS: Considering your background, it has much to do with cinema. Do you acknowledge that the grip on reality your literature has, could be a product of your being in that milieu where your mother and sisters are in some major ways involved in the films?

VC: Absolutely. I am a great fan of films, and Hindi films in particular, and its technique, and its history. And I think, absolutely, growing up in that environment with its mix of literary talk and film talk is something that is part of who I am. And we still live that life. My wife and I are fiction writers but we are both obsessed with films, and, in certain ways, with what television does. We talk about it all the time. So I think, its such a powerful part of the global view now that avoiding it would have to be a very self-conscious act of abnegation—you would have to literally put a fence around you. And I think its only going to move more in that direction. I am quite a geek who tends to think about this stuff a lot. What I am talking about is the increasing closeness of various kinds of media to our bodies for instance. Now, for instance, I can watch a movie on my cellphone. I can rip a movie from DVD put it on a flash card put it on a pocket PC, which is also my phone, and can be standing on a bus watching a movie. As the convergence of the internet and traditional film and television media continues to happen, I think things are going to get very strange indeed [chuckles]. Like, in the way the viewers can enter these virtual environment, which is happening now in computer gaming over the internet. What does that do narrative? And how are we going to deal with that, that’s another huge can of worms and a very interesting one to be dunked into. I am rambling a bit. It’s just a hobby horse of mine.

HS: Was the heft of the book an assertion of the primacy of novel as the foremost narrative in this jungle of narratives, you mention, growing around us, and even on our person?

VC: No, No I don’t think it was as conscious, or as political. I mean I don’t even know if I would argue that.

HS: Any writerly vanity involved by any chance? Or did you see a compelling reason to get the whole thing in?

VC: No, no, none. I actually had no intention of making it a long book. It was just that first the lives of the characters led me to places where I didn’t expect to go. And the connections that I discovered along the way made the book grow in terms of themes, in terms of how all these events and people are connected with each other. So no, it didn’t have anything to do with essentially the primacy of the novel. Actually I am not interested in that idea at all, because I think, and this is another hobby horse of mine [laughs], what we think of the novel nowadays is very much an artefact of the last two or three centuries. But there is a much longer tradition beyond that, stretching back to classical Greece and Rome and India, of long stories. Whether you want to call that a novel or not, and what we think of as a novel, is one incidence in that much longer history. So I think as we go into the 21st century, there will be other forms of this long story that will spring up. And it might not be at the centre of the culture: I mean, the 19th century novel at one point was the new big thing, libraries were fashionable places to go to and when Dickens’ next number came out, very fashionable people would be the first ones to read that book or magazine [Charles Dickens’ ‘novels’ first appeared in instalments in 19th century journals]. May be that position is now occupied by something else altogether in terms of popularity and centrality. But I think telling stories is what is important to me, and because of who I am, and because of my nature, I suppose , I like to do it in the written form. So that’s what I like to do. But I see a big value in telling stories in other forms as well. I wouldn’t pit one against the other necessarily.

HS: Coming to the language part of the book, you have chosen, not descriptions but, language to convey the city. Firstly the expletives. How did it feel to write so many in one page?

VC: [Laughs] It was [Laughs], kind of fun. May be its not a good thing to say in an interview, but I like listening to people’s creative, sort of, urges in that direction, because people can get really get quite poetic almost [Laughs]. There is something very primary about them [expletives]. In the sense that often, when you, as an adult at least , go to a foreign place, some of the first words you pick up, are the bad words. [Laughs] So I think, partly because of that pleasure in them, and also, in the world that I was writing about, they are such an inseparable part of the daily exchange, that it seemed obvious to represent them, along with all the other touches of language. Like, I was saying, if I was telling the same story mainly to a bunch of friends , I would mix in a lot of other words , like we do in English anywhere in the world, or in fact anywhere in the world which is a non-native-English-speaking place.

HS: Writing the first person narrative of Ganesh Gaitande, did you sleep particularly well, feeling you have done some of your best writing?

VC: [Chuckles] Yeah, it was an interesting exercise, because, as I said earlier, it [writing] is a kind of method acting. You have to find, as a writer, some part of yourself that resonates with whatever it is you are writing about and then amplify it and make it come alive. And then I think there is a certain kind of vicarious pleasure that one gets, not just as a writer, but also as a reader. That’s why villains are so important and interesting to audiences, because you can see bad people commit all those repugnant acts, you yourself might not do, because of morality or opportunity or just lack of courage. But in fictional arenas, we can watch people behave very badly and in a sense participate in that, and often, when they are punished at the end of it, we also get the pleasure of virtue at the end of it. So, what Gaitonde does, is certainly an extension of something that is in all of us at some point or the other, in some varying degrees. I find it hard to believe that there is no human being in this world who has never felt the urge to lean across the bank counter and slap the really annoying clerk who is torturing you because he or she can torture you. And, of course, we don’t do it, because that’s not how we function, and if we did, it would be a bad thing for the world in general. But along with the pleasure of watching someone like Gaitonde act out that urge, we get to participate and not pay the price, or pay any of the prices.

HS: Were you ever concerned about the total amorality or cynicism of the Gaitonde character and his world. Did you ever feel that you were crossing a line, or you had over imagined or overwritten him?

VC: Not really. What I was very careful about, and thought about a lot, was that inside their head, every one has a narrative through which they see their lives and understand how they have become what they have become. I mean there are not very many people in the world about whom you can truly say that they are bad or evil. Every one operates within certain range of immorality tilted towards their own side.

HS: And yet, Gaitonde is very real: when the reader reads his disembodied voice, it seems to be coming out of his or her own mind. Yet, he feels very larger life, there is something mega blockbuster about him.

VC: He certainly enjoys that [being larger than life]. But what I was going to say was that he lives within a universe which he wants to see as a comprehensible place. And he wants to believe that he is doing the right thing. So in his own terms he has morality, and he has right, on his side. This was clearly something that I see in the people I meet [in connection with the book]. I met this hitman in Bombay, this very interesting young fellow who did yoga and was a vegetarian. So the question was put to him, ‘So how do you justify what you do---you go out in the morning, your boss has told you to shoot someone you have nothing against, no enmity?’ He just looked at us and said ‘I am just playing my part. Uppar wallah ne uski maut leekhi hai, I am just delivering it.’ So in a clever twist, he was using the argument that Krishna put to Arjun in The Gita, that the guy on the other side of the [battle]field is already dead, you are just the instrument. And so, however appalling I might find this guy, he himself has to find some way of living inside his own head where his universe makes sense. That’s why, not just in Bombay, gangsters all over the world tend to be very religious people. This is the contradiction of all those people that we find are unlike ourselves, doing things, we think are foreign to morality or to human nature. Like the concentration camp commanders who would go home for lunch pat their dogs and play with their children and then go back for an afternoon of killing. Finally, the horror of it is not that they are monsters, but what Hannah Arendt discovered at Nuremberg that when she wrote that famous line about the ‘banality of evil’, that ‘they are people like us.’ Certainly this becomes clear in a particularly ugly way all over the world when riots or genocide happens and neighbours turn on other neighbours, people who have known each other for 40 years will suddenly find it within themselves to be able to do horrible things. So I think we are all mass of these contradictions that makes us squirm around each other, and we very lightly wound.

HS: You teach creative writing, at Berkley How your students read the book?

VC: Not yet. The American edition is releasing in January, so unless some of them are in the UK for the summer, where the
book is already released, I don’t think they have read the book. I am on sabbatical this year, so I don’t have very close contact with people this year, but I did use one of my classes for the test audience for the title. So they know what was going on and what the book was about.

HS: Were they ever treated to a chapter or reading from the book?

VC: No, just for the title when we were trying to think about. Its strange with this book. With the last two books, the title just came up during the writing of the book. And in this one nothing actually happened while I was writing the book. I waited eagerly. Then, after my wife and I had read the manuscript, we sat down and tried to think of something. Still nothing happened. So then finally when it was coming down to the wire for a publication, the various publishers and editors and friends of mine, we had this brainstorming session over the email. So the ideas that looked promising, I would take it to the class and try it out on the students and ask them, ‘What do you think of this ?’ And it took a while before we actually discovered the correct title.

HS: What are you reading these days?

VC: Good question. Reading a lot of non-fiction. I am in beginning of a biography of Samuel Johnson [the 18th century English lexicographer, biographer, and critic]. And I just have not read any fiction for some weeks now.

HS: Have you read any Indian writers recently?

VC: Um [thinks hard] No, I have a pile of books that I bought while I was at home in the summer but I haven’t started any one of them. They are sitting on the shelf.

HS: Do you generally keep track of the literary scene in India?

VC: I read a lot. I read books that people tell me are interesting, or if I read something about a book, I go out and get a copy. Or somebody will occasionally hand me an essay that has come out recently. So, yes, generally to a degree.

HS: What’s your take on the Indian literary scene? Do you subscribe to the view that has given up hope on a big book on India out of India, and that we should be content with small books, about small people about small places in India?

VC: On small versus big , I’m pretty impartial. I think there is much space for both. And I think, to value one over the other is a kind of foolishness that actually result in a kind of poverty. The more variety there is the better. And people are going to have varying kinds of impulses. So if we tell someone who wants to write a small book, to write a big book, or the other way round, seems to me kind of nutty. I think that the spread out geographically, in terms of themes and interests, in English at least, from fiction set in large cities to fictions set in small villagers and towns, I think that is a really interesting and happy trend. There has always been that interest in the regional literature, but I think because of history and backgrounds, people writing in English tend to write about the great cities. I would love to find a greater variety in thematic interests and forms which people use. So for instance, even in realm of literary fiction, I certainly like some of the domestic fictions that are written, but we could have more historical fiction. We are talking here in one sense of the popular forms, but the what about the genres? There’s not much of science fiction which I would really like to see more of in Indian literature, which could be amazing, very useful. I am happy to see the chick-lit that’s coming out of India.

HS: Have you thought of doing science fiction? You did start your writing life as a 12-year-old when you wrote your first short story, a science fiction piece, at school?

VC: I certainly read some of it now. At this point I am not thinking of what to write next. But you know it’s a possibility years. Certainly not so much science fiction, but trying to think what the impact of the current technologies on the way that we think and behave is going to be over the next 10 or 20 years. That’s quite interesting. So yeah.

HS: Here in India, we have been hit by another big book, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, a very readable and well-researched book about a city going through one of it’s most traumatic phases in its history. You were born in Delhi. Do you think Delhi is as novel-genic (as in photogenic) as, say, Mumbai?

VC: I am very much looking forward to reading that book.
But yeah, absolutely, certainly. I intensely so. In a couple of ways one is that of course it’s the political centre. And other also the city is made up in a large parts of immigrants. And then, history is so visible in Delhi. That would add really an interesting layer that writers could use. So there is no reason Delhi should be any less conductive to a novel than any other city.

HS: Has it ever tempted you to take up the challenge?

VC: I have been [chuckles] sunk in Bombay so far that every other place seems like a distant cousin to me. As I said, I’m not even trying to think what to write next, but yes, I wouldn’t mind thinking about Delhi or some other place north.


Review of Sacred Games published in 'M' Magazine, Nov-Dec 2006.

Tropes from Vatan
By Hemant Sareen

Sacred Games
By Vikram Chandra
Pages 912
Rs 650

Vikram Chandra’s first two books -- the inventive, crtically-acclaimed first novel, Red Earth, Pouring Rain and an equally accomplished collection of short stories Love and Longing in Bombay -- displayed rare nous for a new writer to experiment with form and structure. Yet, Chandra, who teaches creative writing in Berkley, was accused by some of his compatriots of pandering to a western audience. The post-modern cast of the magic-realist Red Earth of Hindu gods and hybrid beings jostling with a clutch of firangis bearing unpronounceable names, was considered equivalent of illustrated Kamasutra, something made keeping exports in mind. In Love and Longing too, the mystical titles -- Dharma, Shakti, Kama, Artha, Shanti -- for his very contemporary stories, were similarly dissed.

Chandra struck back. In a robust rebuttal, his now widely-read manifesto-essay, ‘The Cult of Authenticity,’ in the Boston Review (2000), he at length took apart the moralising critics and their ‘anxiety about the anxiety of Indianness.’ One thought then, Chandra having had his say, the matter was over. But no. It now seems that The Cult was only theory. Now comes the praxis: a literary exemplar of how an Indian writer could express his Indianness, or rather how Indianness expresses itself through an Indian writer, regardless of his or his ATM’s geographical location -- the 900-page monumental Sacred Games, a book that took Chandra seven years to research and write.

Set in Mumbai, Sacred Games, is ostensibly a whodunit. Sartaj Singh is a genial-but-tough, intelligent Sikh police inspector in Mumbai (revived from the pages of Love and Longing), who, amongst the blackmailers, pickpockets, bhais, and pimps he is chasing, interrogating, beating up or keeping an eye on, willy nilly gets sucked into the case of Ganesh Gaitonde, an underworld don who intriguingly kills himself. It is Sartaj’s brief to find out why.

Two main narratives, an antagonist-protagonist diptych of Gaitonde and Sartaj, form the backbone of the novel, but not the novel. Whether it is examining Sartaj’s well-calibrated, borderline integrity or Gaitonde’s fear of anonymity or his Faustian pact with the devil, Sacred Games uses the role-playing duo to propel and keep a long game, the moral order of the universe, going. And there are no winners and losers: ‘The game always wins.’
Deeply implicated into their crassly materialistic, carnivorous, ambivalent reality, both provide good excuses for Chandra to explore every irony of their and others’ lives that branch from them. In fact every minor character’s thread is picked up and followed to locate the six degrees of separation and to discover what the numerous hinterlands converging do to ‘that great whore of city’ Mumbai.

The book’s enduring contribution to Indian literature and Indian-writing in English, however, is the unembarrassed populism of its sources of inspiration, be it the vernacular literature, street language, or Bollywood. For starters, it flatly refuses to acknowledge western readers, or the pieties of critics who couldn’t swallow those five Sanskrit words in Love and Longing: a veritable lexicon of Indian words and expletives -- bhai, maike, vatan, randi, bhenchod, chutiya, gaandu, to list just a few-- are left unapologetically unitalicised and unexplained.

To drive home the point, that people make a place what it is, Chandra evokes Mumbai through the spoken word, rather than wordy descriptions. Chandra’s ability to translate the syntax and inflections of the colloquial into English results in breathtaking directness and fidelity with which Indian reality and experience are expressed, owes a lot to his interest in Hindi movies. Chandra was enrolled in Columbia Film School in New York before accidentally becoming a writer, and he co-wrote the screenplay of Mission Kashmir. Along with the fluency of Salim-Javed’s Gabbar, Gaitonde’s narrative has the force and authenticity comparable to the titular confessions of a similarly brutalised black leader of a slave uprising in William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner set in pre-abolition America.

It, along with the rhythmic and sexual charged pas-de-deux exchanges, between Gaitonde and Jojo, his girl friend and supplier of virgins, and between Sartaj and the old moll Iffat-bibi, contains some of the best writing revealing the self-assured stylist Chandra has become.

Many crib about the heft of the book. It is actually the key to the book, and perhaps to Chandra’s literary agenda. It is the clinching proof of his infinite insight into the many cosmos India contains, and of his ineluctably inherent Indianness which alone could have delivered this awe-evoking, grand narrative -- of a nation speaking to itself.