Suddenly there seem to be a rash of novels that are the antithesis of India Shining. Many of them are set in Bombay. It probably started with Shantaram, the written version of Slumdog Millionaire (which I haven’t watched yet so just going by reports) because it was written by a foreigner but captured so eloquently all that many of us that live/d in and love the city were unable to articulate. Then there was Maximum City. And now Sacred Games.
One of the critics on the overleaf of Sacred Games says Vikram Chandra tried to achieve the Great Indian Novel. Actually, I read somewhere that another Vikram – Seth – won the Booker for A Suitable Boy for achieving this. When I first read A Suitable Boy, though I enjoyed it, I wondered why it was eligable for so great a prize. There were no stylistic innovations there, even though it was awesome in scale. Later, on reading Two Lives and understanding a bit of went into producing that novel, the depth of research to produce that breadth of reach, I concede that the size itself is a feat. But, the novel on the whole seemed to me a little trite, a little like something a foreigner would appreciate.
Sacred Games gets it right. The writing is uplifting even as it captures the very grotty underbelly of Mumbai life that is so much the essence of Bombay. Amidst its chaotic sprawl, there is almost perfect symmetry in the oldest of devices – the good cop set against the gangster. It’s axis turns on all manner of grey, holding it up to the light so that we see it’s multifaceted hues. And then there’s the realism, the exploration of the real streets and the unreal – at one earthy and dirty – wheeling and dealing that make the city tick. It serves up the glamour of the shady that affects every citizen of Mumbai. And best of all, it’s a potboiler. There’s a mystery running through it’s heart and it’s a very current mystery, touching on terrorist plots and the complicity of good in bad.
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I really do wonder on what basis they hand out these awards. There is no doubt that The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga is a great read and a topical one though could it be possible that there was no better writing this year anywhere in the world? Again, it turns the India Shining proposition on its head, offering the other side of the story but not undermining the poor by making them the whining, powerless masses. It cocks a snook at the glorification of Indian democracy and by addressing the premier of China, allies the two countries. It is a bildungsroman but what makes it a little different is the voice.
It’s a good book for the complacent wealthy to meditate on while they order their servants around (in the nicest way possible of course), hand out largesse of 1 rs coins to beggars etc. There is always a ruthlessness in the making of fortunes, noone ever got rich out of being good unless they were already somewhat rich to start with, and morality can sometimes be the cage that the rich use to keep the poor from making that essential leap.
The difference between Laxmangarh and Bangalore, the novel’s protagonist says, is that here, if a man wants to be good, he can be good. “In Laxmangarh he doesn’t even have this choice. That is the difference between this India and that India: the choice.”
This book has added to my sense that morality is a luxury of our situation – something like Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light” – and that for all the feel-good factor of being a democracy, for the vast majority of people, there really isn’t much difference between us and China except that they have ten ring roads.