Dooty par jaana hai

      Sadat Hasan Manto, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Suketu Mehta and Gregory Roberts are only some of the many writers who have written about Bombay. The city contains a multitude of stories, and books will certainly continue to be written about it. Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra's 900-page epic of crime and punishment, is the newest entrant to this distinguished list.   Seemingly everything about the author's life has gone into the making of this novel. The made-for-cinema style of storytelling draws from his film family. The narrative elegance is shaped by his apprenticeship with the American writers John Barth and Donald Barthelme. The self-assured prose comes with experience – Chandra's debut novel, the magic-realist Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and his collection of interconnected short stories Love and Longing in Bombay won awards and acclaim. Even Sartaj Singh, the compelling protagonist of Sacred Games, comes from one of the stories in Chandra's second book.   Sacred Games is made up of all this, and much more. Meticulously structured and tautly told, it is the kind of novel that one reads hungrily, turning the pages but lingering over every paragraph and sentence, wanting to get to the end but not wanting the book to end at all.   The novel begins with one of the casual, absurd little tragedies that dot the landscape of this unforgiving city. A man has just thrown his wife's pet Pomeranian out of their fifth-floor window. When the police break in, the wife has a knife in her hand. Throughout "Policeman's Day", the opening chapter, inspector Sartaj Singh will continue to encounter absurdities, as he drops in at the commissioner's press conference, puts the fear of the law into a delinquent boy at his mother's request, and makes a preliminary check into a violent killing in his territory. He also fleetingly remembers the words of a murderer who managed to get out on parole: "Paisa phek, tamasha dekh" (Throw money and watch the fun). Which, Sartaj reflects, is the truth about life in this city: "If you had money to throw, you could watch the spectacle – the judges and magistrates trapezing blithely, the hoop-jumping politicians, the red-nosed cops."   So it has been that kind of day for Sartaj Singh, in that kind of world – collecting hafta from a dance bar, informing the bar manager about an impending raid, even fixing up the arrest of a few dancers ("The new shosha is ruthless discipline and honesty," he explains with irony). But he also promises that the girls will be dropped home before dawn. All in a day's work. It is only as Sartaj is dropping off to sleep that he gets a phone call asking whether he wants the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde.   The novel alternates between the story of Gaitonde's rise and fall with that of Sartaj's slow, low-profile, exhausting investigation into the gangster's death. The contrast between the impersonal, task-oriented titles of the Sartaj chapters ("Investigating Women", "Burying the Dead", "Investigating Love") and the self-aggrandising titles of the Gaitonde chapters ("Ganesh Gaitonde Sells His Gold", "Ganesh Gaitonde Acquires Land", "Ganesh Gaitonde Explores the Self") reflects the choices each has made in life. Parallel strands of the plot move in different directions: while Gaitonde tells his life story, from his nightmarish small-town childhood to his comet-like flourish across Bombay and beyond, Sartaj tries to piece together a record of the past to prevent horrific destruction in the future.   The novel achieves its coherence from this puzzle. The basic plot is a cops-and-robbers story, but as this story progresses we see games being played at deeper levels. Gaitonde begins his career by calling the shots, but soon becomes a pawn in bigger games. Sartaj is also playing a part in an operation far larger than himself – but, not being a shooting star like Gaitonde, and instinctively understanding at least some of the rules, he survives.
Duty was love
The narrative is not only about moves and countermoves. It is sustained by its moments of intense feeling – the suddenness of loss, the pain of having to betray a friend – but the melancholy wisdom that it offers is that the losses and betrayals are also part of the game. Meanwhile, other disparate characters wash up on the shores of the story like migrants to this island city by the sea, and the novel manages to hold them all together. Teeming with people and their individual histories, the book races back and forth between past and present, darkness and daylight, like the trains that whip across the cityscape.   One of the striking things about the novel is the sheer ordinariness of its central protagonist. Sartaj is not a typical hero, is not squeaky clean or incorruptible. Rather he is already part of the system, in his forties, recovering from a failed marriage, struggling with loneliness after a day's work. Yet we also see in him a man with a job to do, trying to do his work steadily, a man who has not forgotten how to think or feel, and who is not without a sense of personal ethics.   As Sartaj makes his way through the city's streets, moments of Bombay description are quite remarkable. Here is an ironworks shed in a fictionalised version of Dharavi:   There were no lights inside the workshop, just two livid streams of sunlight pouring through the roof, heating the glow of the molten iron as it slushed into the moulds and the faces of the nearly naked men who worked the bellows with their feet, stepping up high and then down in a slow and endless climb.
This is a novel of Bombay – where ordinary working people read the Mid-day, hang onto train straps, grab a vada-pav after work, while crime and policing are supposed to be side stories that happen around them. But as violence long ago became a central narrative in this city, a great deal of the novel is set within the minds of this policeman and criminal, who are more like each other than they would imagine. Their thoughts curve obsessively around Bombay's streets, inhabiting its spaces, possessing its geography, shaping it with their longings, caring for its safety. "A low, yellow haze flitted behind the buildings as Sartaj drove. The streets were quiet. Sartaj imagined the citizens sleeping in their millions, safe for one more night…"   Sacred Games is also a great novel of India. In one inset, Sartaj's mother remembers her childhood during the Partition riots. In another, a retired intelligence officer remembers the turbulences of later decades – China, Naxalbari, East Pakistan, Sikh militancy, "This constant long war, with its hidden and unsung victories" – and also the sub-plot of a Yadav making a career within a Brahmin-dominated organisation. With notable effortlessness, the novel traverses the history of the Subcontinent, recalling not only the many griefs but also the steady struggle forward.   Chandra's prose is an uncompromising blend of Bambaiyya Hindi and English – no italics, no translation, no glossary – creating an edgy strangeness that keeps us attentive to the nuances of words: a ghoda in the underworld, khoon in Punjab, a 'device' in the language of intelligence agents, moksha in the language of religion. Language is also a powerful way for the characters to shape their destinies. They struggle with its complexity, creating new vocabularies, articulating their feelings, trying to make meaning of their experiences.   Gaitonde hungers to learn English, works hard at it, orders a prostitute to "speak English" while they are having sex. Sartaj remembers his father taking an English word and making it his own, saying "Arre chetti kar, dooty par jaana hai," (Hurry up, I have to go on duty) to fashion the simple sense of duty that guided his life. At the end of this splendid novel is another quiet realisation about the interconnectedness of the world and the inevitability of loss: "There was no avoiding this conundrum, no escape from it, and no profit from complaining about it. Love was duty, and duty was love."  

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