A very long book can immerse you in a thrilling new reality, providing voluptuous satisfactions no slender novel ever could. A very long book can make you resentful of the presumptuous writer who expects you to spend large chunks of time on his bloat. By my estimation, it will take the average reader at least 30 hours to soldier through Vikram Chandra’s massive slab of a novel, Sacred Games, and the question is: Which kind of very long book is this?
The answer is very short: This is a ravishing, overexuberant stab at the Great Indian Novel, an extraordinary work of fiction that will reward you in full for your investment of time, though not without occasionally testing your patience. The challenges of writing the Great Indian Novel turn out to be similar to those of the Great American Novel: how to encompass the conflicts and contradictions (and comedy) of a wildly pluralist society populated by strivers and self-inventors. Chandra, like plenty of ambitious American authors, chooses the maximally maximalist approach.
The book begins with a scene of morbidly funny domestic violence, as a jealous husband throws his wife’s Pomeranian out the fifth-floor window of their Mumbai apartment (”Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam”) and Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police inspector, arrives to investigate. ”Love is a murdering gaandu,” Sartaj comments. ”Poor Fluffy.” (Chandra’s offhand use of unexplained Indian words like gaandu may initially stop you; by the end you won’t even notice.)
Sartaj is a familiar type from U.S. crime drama: honorable (but not too), divorced, fond of whiskey, leery of emotional attachments. After an anonymous tip, he finds the corpses of legendary gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and an unidentified woman in a state-of-the-art bomb shelter. Soon, Sartaj is drawn into a sprawling mystery incorporating religious extremism, a sketchy guru, terrorist plots, and a Bollywood star named Zoya.
While Sartaj methodically pieces together his end of this puzzle, the late Ganesh recounts his blood-soaked rise from urchin to godfather, wars with rival gangs, experiments with penis enlargement, and spiritual malaise. In chapters called ”insets,” Chandra broadens his scope to include the long-ago sectarian violence that tore apart Sartaj’s mother’s family, the complicated backstory of a small-time criminal, and the deathbed musings of a spy. There’s a superabundance of tumultuous narrative, acres of magnificent prose, and maybe a dozen too many characters. Yet these unruly parts ultimately fit together into a chaotic and luminous whole, one that mirrors Chandra’s capacious vision of his homeland.