Life as it ain't

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Archive for December 22nd, 2009

“I am, he thought one day, part of the twentieth century.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 22, 2009

Cover of Vikram Chandra's 'Sacred Games'

You might have read or heard Indians telling people to “think deeply” about something. In fact, if you are an Indian, you are probably wondering what point I could hope to make with this. We Indians are bombarded with this phrase so often that we don’t notice that it actually sounds somewhat clunky in most sentences; most Western texts prefer to perform an “involved inquiry” or something similar. If you aren’t Indian, forgive the next one who says that, because it’s just the literal translation of a popular Indian idiom which isn’t clunky in our language. Translations from Indian languages are full of these, which make novels which try to translate everything into English sound either unbearably clunky (for a well-handled example, read Raja Rao) or, if you change over to more common usage, unbelievably artificial. Vikram Chandra, in his latest book Sacred Games, has found a way out of this quandary in a remarkably simple way:

Her Hindi was accented, functional and fluid, but improvised, it stumbled confidently past feminine possessives and tenses. Sartaj was sure her English was better, but his own English had rusted into awkwardness. They would get by in some knocked-together mixture, some Bombay blend.

When I read this, I noted down the page number because I thought it sounded very nice. It is only now that I realise how perfectly it describes the style of the book, and how it anchors it in what is obviously the book’s point: to Bombay. Which means to describe it, to serenade it with an ode about it.

Every Hindi/Marathi word in the book, of which there are plenty, is sufficiently comprehensible; we mostly don’t get what exactly the word means, but we always get the sense of it. For Chandra, to sprinkle these words in the book was downright necessary, because he has taken on the task of describing Bombay, and he chose the underworld because cops and robbers between them make their way around every level of life in the city. And if you’re choosing the underworld, you have to use the local slang (imagine a Scorsese movie in immaculate English). You can’t translate it because for a gangster to describe a woman he’s taken for a night as a “to be beaten” (“thoku”) is a way to make Stephen Hawking’s publisher say, “Every translated piece of slang means hundred less copies sold.” For a nine-hundred page book, that would be in the negative infinities.

But saying it’s necessary doesn’t mean that Chandra doesn’t enjoy it. In his previous outing Love and Longing in Bombay, he managed to keep the language by providing translations after the word. Most of the time, that is. For this new book, he went back to those instances of no translation in that book and copied the method to every page of this one.

Focusing on this fact so much makes it sound like this was the best thing about the book. Let me assure you, no. This was just a part of the style, like diary entries or psychedelia. It just gains importance when you are writing about the book. The best thing here is the characters, and the world they live in.

The world is brought to life with painstaking verisimilitude. Take, for example, a moment when an inspector – Sartaj Singh from the story ‘Kama’ in the last book – and his constable partner – Katekar, also from there –  bond while

Katekar drove with an easy grace that found the gaps in the traffic with balletic timing. … You went forward, and someone always backed off at the last moment, and it was always the other gaandu.

Or take how within one dialogue we can see the influenc e of Bollywood and Hinduism (the modern form):

‘So don’t choose that one. Make a shortlist. Then we’ll consider family background, education, nature of girl, horoscope, and move on from there.’

‘Move on?’

‘See the girls, of course.’

‘We’ll go to her house? And she’ll bring in tea while her parents watch?’

Or how alien Sartaj finds the West (if you look closely enough, you can also spot alienation from his own culture):

Some entertainment could be exactly what would fix him up, and revive him like a good morning walk in Buffalo. Where in America was Buffalo? And why was it called Buffalo? Sartaj had no idea. Some more of life’s mysteries.

Now that I’ve overdone that, let me give short shrift to the characters (hey, at least I’m giving them some shrift). There’s Sartaj, who’s not as interesting as he was in ‘Kama’. There’s too much happening in his parts, not giving us enough time to get into his head. He’s just like a pawn for the plot. We catch him himself thinking that he’s a pawn for bigger events; ironically, this gets less and less true as the events progressively blow up. There’s Gaitonde, one of the city’s two biggest gangsters who’s narrating his life story to Sartaj from what would seem at first to be beyond the grave (he dies in the second chapter itself). This narration takes up nearly every alternate chapter. And there’s Swami Shridhar Shukla, who doesn’t mind people not believing in God, who is taking Hinduism back to its philosophical roots in the Vedic texts, who answers at least two of the big questions in Waking Life. And there are a multitude of others, but these are the ones that stick most strongly in the head.

I said that these characters and their world was the best thing about this book. True, but also extravagantly false; from another perspective of ‘thing’, the best thing is the ‘insets’, little vignettes that in some way relate to the main story. These could be short stories in their own right, and lovely ones at that. It is in these that Chandra exercises his enjoyment of portraying a multitude of different voices, and since this is one of my favourite things about his writing, I loved the insets.

All in all, I would recommend the book, but I strongly feel that this is his worst book. While this is unmistakably a Chandra book, it is too… conventional. Take away the insets, and I would say that the job could have been done better by someone else. His love of storytelling, as done by his characters, only comes through sometimes. Oppose that to Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which is the narrative of a monkey telling the story of a man who’s narrating the story told to him by a woman who’s seeing the story of the monkey’s past life through a bit of water(and some divine intervention). Or Love and Longing in Bombay, which is a set of stories told to one well-rounded character by another. I have come to love Vikram Chandra books for being different, completely madcap. About Red Earth and Pouring Rain, I wrote “The only accurate word I can think of to describe this book is big. Not in terms of length, not even in terms of scope and imagination but in terms of the realistic universe Chandra creates. Here, by realistic, I mean rooted in reality: it could very well have happened and we don’t know about it because we just didn’t see it. Every new element of fantasy he brings in first looks like it is only there to satisfy Chandra’s sense of humour. Then, we eventually get to see the self-wrapped ness, so to say, of the universe he’s created and how every element fits in.” Sacred Games, by contrast, ends up having the plot like that of a Hollywood action movie. Yes, considering the plot, the book is remarkably good, but… I want to say to Chandra about Sacred Games what Ebert said to Tarantino about Reservoir Dogs, “OK, now you’ve shown you can do this, now go and do something better.”

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