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Literary Ambition Without Borders
With 'Sacred Games,' an Expansive Vikram Chandra Couldn't Contain Himself

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007

OAKLAND, Calif.

Not long after he'd finally completed a draft of his massive new novel, "Sacred Games," Vikram Chandra found himself immersed in a painful literary task:

He had to try to make the thing shorter.

After all, it wasn't supposed to be 900 pages long.

When he started, Chandra thought he was writing "a small, local crime kind of story." It would confine itself to maybe 300 pages and one geographic locale, the Indian city of Mumbai. It would be the sort of tale where you begin with a couple of dead bodies "but the solution is straightforward and it works like a mystery."

Right. Seven years later, he and his wife, Melanie Abrams -- also a writer -- found themselves experimentally excising whole chapters, looking to reduce the weight of the Victorian-size literary thriller Chandra had produced instead.

"Sacred Games" relates, in alternating chapters, the life story of a legendary Indian gang lord and the efforts of a relatively low-level Mumbai police inspector to investigate his death. After retreating to a heavily fortified bunker, the gangster has shot himself, along with a female companion. The fate of the city formerly known as Bombay -- and perhaps the rest of the world -- rests on the inspector's ability to figure out why.

Not much to cut there. But what about the series of what Chandra has labeled "insets," lengthy chunks of back story intended to widen and deepen the central narrative? Might they be cuttable, Chandra and Abrams wondered?

No, they weren't. Without them, "it became to me a flat book," Chandra says.

So he gave up and sent it to his agent.

Who sent it on to a batch of New York publishers.

Who, instead of balking at the length, launched a bidding war that ended with the sale of North American rights for $1 million to HarperCollins.

Which gave "Sacred Games" the Full Marketing Monty. "AN EPIC NOVEL OF CRIME, FAITH, FAMILY AND DESTINY," shouted the outsize type on the advance reader's edition, which also promised that the publisher would spend $300,000 to promote the book.

Hype at this volume can sometimes backfire, distracting attention from the work itself. Veteran critic Sven Birkerts, for example, weighed in with a Boston Globe piece that devoted far more space to the marketing effort (which Birkerts viewed with cynicism) than to assessing "Sacred Games."

In this case, however, a bit of rhetorical excess may be appropriate. For Chandra's book is beyond the merely ambitious. It's the latest, fattest example of what might be called literary globalization -- a 900-page manifestation of the worldwide trend toward culture, commerce and seemingly everything else becoming interconnected.

When Birkerts finally settled in to read "Sacred Games," he wrote (approvingly) that it transported him to "some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior." And it's true that Chandra offers sensory descriptions and dialect-laced dialogue that evoke a unique city.

Yet a crucial thing to understand about Chandra's Mumbai is that it is not entirely exotic to American readers anymore.

The basic nature of the Mumbai underworld, it turns out, parallels that of the Hollywood gangster movies that Indian mobsters sometimes like to watch. Mumbai's horrific bouts with terrorism resonate in ways that require no explanation. Chandra characters, like so many players in the real economy, slip easily in and out of ports of call such as Dubai, London and Singapore.

What's more, the fundamental theme of "Sacred Games," symbolized by the inspector's ever-expanding investigation, is the individual's struggle to make sense of a networked world where cultures blend and clash, money and politics respect no borders -- and a plot thread that begins amid the chaos of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan can end, half a century later, in an upstairs bedroom in a Maryland suburb.

But hey: If all this makes your head hurt, there's another, simpler way to approach Chandra's opus.

Just keep your eye on those two corpses he started out with.

'A Huge Cultural Meeting'

"It's been completely insane," Chandra is saying of the past year or so of his life. "Not just editing the book and trying to get it into shape, but also we got married -- and we actually did it twice. We had a Jewish ceremony in L.A., where her parents live, and then we all flew to India and did it again."

He laughs at the memory. Matrimonial globalization, on top of everything else.

He's a round-faced man of 45 with a warm smile and wavy dark hair. His American book tour is about to begin (he'll read at the Baileys Crossroads Borders tonight and at D.C.'s Politics and Prose tomorrow) but right now he's talking in a recently purchased bungalow just across the city line from Berkeley, where he and Abrams teach creative writing at the University of California. The house is a bit sparsely furnished: When the couple moved west from the District in 2005 -- Chandra taught at George Washington for nine years -- they lost many belongings in a truck fire.

How did he go from a childhood shuttling around India, where his father worked in the chemical industry, to an adult life shuttling between the United States and Mumbai, where he now spends roughly five months a year?

It may have started with his first story, published in a school magazine when he was 11.

He'd grown up watching his mother, now a well-known Indian screenwriter, writing plays at the kitchen table. She wrote in Hindi, but Chandra says it never occurred to him to write in anything but English, the common tongue of his upscale, multi-ethnic schoolyards.

"We were aware of the colonial history of the language," he says, "but always, I had a feeling that it was also one of my languages."

His mother would have preferred he become a doctor or an engineer, because she knew how hard it was to make a living as a writer. But Chandra found himself applying to schools with writing programs in the United States. Accepted by Ohio's Kenyon College, he felt so isolated that on Sundays he'd drive with South Asian friends to a nearby ridge where they could pick up a radio station that offered sounds of home.

"We sat there in the snow," he recalls, "drinking coffee and listening to this Indian music, awash in nostalgia."

From Kenyon he transferred to Pomona in California, where he wrote a novella as his honors thesis. Thinking the movies would be a better way to make a living, he headed for film school at Columbia. But his plan was foiled when he stumbled across the autobiography of a half-English, half-Indian 19th-century soldier, Col. James "Sikander" Skinner.

"His story and the story of his family contained all the pain of a huge cultural meeting," Chandra says. He knew right away that it was a novel, not a film.

Begun in 1986 and published nine years later, "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" evolved into a complex web of interlocking narratives whose form reflected Sanskrit epics and whose large cast included an Indian student in America. Chandra wrote it while studying with John Barth at Johns Hopkins and Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston. Barthelme alerted his agent, Lynn Nesbit. Eric Simonoff, a Nesbit protege, got Chandra a contract with Little, Brown.

Around the same time, he began writing the short stories that would become his second book, "Love and Longing in Bombay." One showed up in his 1994 application to George Washington. Poet Jody Bolz headed GW's creative writing program at the time.

"I remember thinking, 'What is this?' " Bolz says. Chandra's work felt "ancient and modern and everything at once. You just stop. It arrests your attention, and you can't pigeonhole it."

You couldn't pigeonhole the writer, either. When Bolz checked his references, she reports, he got raves "and people said, ' and he can fix your computer.' " Chandra, it turned out, had been supplementing his teaching income as a programmer and consultant.

And speaking of global connections: By the time he got to Washington, he no longer had to shiver on snowy ridgetops to get a taste of home. Bolz watched in amazement as her plugged-in colleague "surfed" a new thing called "the Web" whenever there was breaking South Asian news.

Globalization's Children

If you surf the Web in search of Vikram Chandra today, you'll likely run across a reference to a special New Yorker fiction issue from June 1997 -- and to the telling portrait of Indian literature it contains.

Published on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, it featured an essay by Salman Rushdie celebrating the flood of emerging "Indo-Anglian" authors: talented Indian writers who wrote in English and were taking their places among the international elite. The accompanying photograph underlined Rushdie's point. In it, the author of "Midnight's Children" is surrounded by the mostly younger writers his breakthrough 1980 novel is credited with inspiring.

There is a beaming Arundhati Roy ("The God of Small Things"), with Rushdie's hand resting on her shoulder. There are Rohinton Mistry ("A Fine Balance"), Vikram Seth ("A Suitable Boy") and Kiran Desai ("The Inheritance of Loss"), among a number of others.

And there in the lower left corner is a thinner, more rakish-looking Vikram Chandra, sporting a dark beard and mustache. At the time, he was one of the lesser-known authors in the photograph -- though the New Yorker had given him a vote of confidence by publishing, in the same issue, a story that would become the second chapter of "Sacred Games."

Much had changed, of course, in half a century of South Asian freedom.

"Midnight's Children" arrived in 1980 as a breath of stylistic fresh air whose influence is hard to overestimate. Yet it was also the quintessential post-colonial novel, focused on the 1947 emergence of India and Pakistan from the British Empire, which Rushdie was born just in time to live through.

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."

'The Great Game'

But what about those corpses Chandra started with so long ago? How does the mystery of the two dead bodies, which show up on Page 44 of "Sacred Games," relate to the larger job his swaggeringly ambitious book sets out to do?

The complete answer won't arrive for 800 pages or so. But the research Chandra did to help understand his twin protagonists -- gang lord Ganesh Gaitonde and police inspector Sartaj Singh -- is suggestive.

Singh is the character readers will likely find most attractive. So does his creator, who first wrote about the handsome Sikh inspector in one of the stories in "Love and Longing in Bombay."

"I like the guy," Chandra says with a laugh, citing the "strange mixture of cynicism and a kind of sentimental romanticism" that makes Singh shun professional advancement. Too much ambition, he knows, would involve him in corruption beyond his tolerance level.

To better evoke Singh's world, Chandra hung out with crime journalists and policemen. As the character of Gaitonde took shape in his mind, he sought introductions to criminals as well. He consulted vain gangsters who favored Paco Rabanne cologne and ruthless shooters chosen for their unexceptional looks. Once he called on a big-time Mumbai Don, Arun Gawli, who received petitioners in a luxurious "fortress-home" while his children, still in school uniforms, watched cricket on television.

All the while, he kept hearing that to understand what was going on, he needed to think bigger, to widen his scope. That crime in Mumbai could also be "about religion and the great game of international politics." That to comprehend a seemingly local incident, he should go see some guy in Kashmir, "because what's happening here is really that they're running guns down from the north."

But thinking big, for Chandra, came to mean more than just expanding his thriller plot.

It meant giving Singh lesser cases that involved him in different kinds of transnational phenomena -- the influx, say, of poverty-stricken immigrants into Mumbai. It meant writing those apparently digressive "insets," including one 53-pager that draws readers deep into the stories of two minor characters after the main plot has climaxed. Even his wife thought that one could be cut.

And why not? We're talking 900 pages here!

The novelist of globalization explains:

That final inset, he says, was a way to recognize those on the margins of his narrative -- people who played roles in the larger story, but who've been "forgotten by history." He needed to show how "this new India that we're all building" had left a lot of Indians behind.

Chandra is on sabbatical this year, but he has no plans to stop teaching. And he intends to keep shuttling between the increasingly connected yet still separate worlds of Berkeley and Mumbai.

"It's a kind of purposeful alienation," he says, "that allows you to see everything new."

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