Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“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.”

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

  1. S M Rana said

    I’m not familiar with this writer. I read Serpent and Rope ( articles are such a waste of type ). As you note ,issues of language are paramount to us Indians because we seem to be wedged into a tower of babel. English is more than a language–it has been a status symbol, a passport to climb the ladder of society, and a window to the wide world.

    But it remains a borrowed thing which can never become your own, and our fluency can never match that of natives born. At the same time we lose out on our own.To quoye the poet Darwich ( god bless him ) from the film Notre Musique:

    …. those who write

    their own story

    inherit the earth of those words.

    There is no more room left for Homer.

    You try to be the Trojan’s poet.

    Euripides was Greek.

    Troy never told its story.

    Does a people or a country

    that has great poets

    have the right to defeat

    a people that doesn´t have poets?

    Can a people be strong

    without writing poetry?

    If they defeat us in poetry we are done for….

    Which English guy said they would rather keep Shakespeare than the British Empire, if such a choice came about?

    Poor in words is poor indeed…

  2. All very interesting. The problems of translation are immense.

    PS – I’ve added you to my blogroll

  3. Tom: Thanks for adding me. Feel honoured.

    SM: Can you say who wrote that Serpent and Rope article? Sounds interesting.

    • S M Rana said

      “The Serpent and the Rope” is a novel by Raja Rao. It used to be quite famous as an example of Anglo-Indian writing. All that remains is a whiff of a phrase…”bred brahmin, chanter of hymns”…and such stuff, with a rather melodious style…I think I never completed this rather thick one…I thought you had mentioned the guy in your article…

      • I did, but I didn’t make the connection, when you mentioned ‘articles’ I thought you were referring to the things you find in magazines.
        I’ve only read Raja Rao’s short stories, where I found that awkwardness I talked about.

  4. S M Rana said

    By article I meant the definite and indefinite articles…a, an, the…since I had omitted them in my citation of the books title…

  5. Niranjana said

    Lots to discuss here, but this stood out in particular:

    “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.”

    I’m not sure about “always” getting the sense. As I said earlier, I think Chandra wants the reader to work, to make that investment, and sometimes fail, almost as a point of honor. Here’s an interview where he talks about this:
    I hasten to add that my review appeared before this interview was published.

    Holy crap, can you write. And you’re eighteen. *puts gun to temple*

  6. Niranjana:
    Thanks for coming over and commenting, not to mention the encouragement.
    As I said on your blog, we’ve taken different views on the subject of Bambaiya slang. I might be wrong about always getting the sense of it; I knew around half the words (I’d probably know more if I’d heard it) and the rest I got the sense of. Also, at least two American reviewers quoted in the front of the book felt that way. Which is why I felt justified in writing that.
    Anyway, as he said in the interview, this obviousness seems to have resulted anyway. 🙂
    I didn’t think of the foreign fiction till I read your review (I remember hating it when good writers used French). Now, it seems stupid not to have thought of that.

    As for that gun, don’t shoot. A professional critic’s encouragement is too valuable for budding writers like me.

  7. Thanks for this — I was reminded of Sacred Games again yesterday when the Toronto Globe and Mail included it in a list of “longest novels of the decade”. Your review pretty much convinces me that I should start with Love and Longing in Bombay.

  8. In case “pretty much” is not enough, let me tell you again that that is the right path to take.

  9. Ronak, great review, I particularly liked your end note. I loved Love and Longing in Bombay, and I own this, so I shall be reading it. I can see why you conclude it’s not his best, but it still sounds hugely entertaining.

    But yes, there’s a sheer vivacity to Love and Longing which is hard to equal.

  10. Vivacity. Yes, that’s the thing. Love and Longing rarely has any vivacity in the writing itself, but there still is, because of the interplay of different writings. Red Earth and Pouring Rain had some of it too, even if I don’t consider it to be as good. Sacred Games almost completely lacks in it, and that’s why I liked it less.

  11. So you think Love and Longing in Bombay is Chandra’s best work?

  12. LD: Yes.

  13. […] plagiarised by Vikram Chandra for the beginning of his Sacred Games, which I wrote about here. Of course, knowing Chandra, it’s significantly more likely that he’s trying to use it […]

  14. […] you know, when within the space of two weeks I heard that Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games would be adapted into an American show (coming out this year) and then that Bejoy Nambiar of […]

  15. […] you know, when within the space of two weeks I heard that Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games would be adapted into an American show (coming out this year) and then that Bejoy Nambiar of […]

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