INDIAN EARTHMOVER

Author brilliantly weaves a story of crime and crushed dreams into the critical mass that is contemporary Bombay

Sacred Games
Publishing House: HarperCollins
Rated: NONE
WorkNameSort: Sacred Games

I know what you're thinking. You took one look at that page count and thought: 'Do we really need another epic novel about India? What about Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance?â?� Great books create their necessity, though, and if you can lift this tremendous story into your shopping cart, bring it home and read it, you'll probably wonder how you got by so long without it.

Sacred Games tells the tale of a crime boss and a Sikh police inspector, and the way their lives connect and overlap in Bombay and beyond during the '80s and the '90s. It is a terrific, brilliant earthmover of a book, Crime and Punishment crossed with The Godfather, with some Sopranos-inspired irony thrown in to boot. It has understandably made Chandra a bit famous back in India.

The question remains how it will be received here ' and it's not an idle one. Chandra has written a very Indian novel about a period of Mumbai life when it began to resemble Chicago in the '20s. Gangsters had a stranglehold on street crime, their riches so vast they could plant their own mythologies into the Bollywood film world ' something Ganesh Gaitonde, the book's crime boss, does with great gusto. Imagine if Al Capone funded and micromanaged Frances Ford Coppola's trilogy and you'll get an idea of how bizarre this would be.

To capture how this state of affairs came to be, Chandra has made the very 19th-century decision ' the very Dickensian decision ' to show us India across all spectrums of life. In this sense, the book's criminal element proves a boon. Sartaj Singh, the novel's hugely likable, down-on-his-luck 40-year-old police inspector, has the ability to enter and leave all levels of the caste system at will. He can look down on them from high above while being knee-deep in their muck.

His job presents a fascinating portrait of recent-day India, one potently topical during the so-called global war on extremism, for it highlights how poverty and opportunism have more to do with spreading violence than ideology. Gaitonde narrates his life story to Sartaj first from a cornered bunker and then (here's a leap) from beyond the grave. It's remarkable how much his early pennilessness seems like a creeper vine he has to beat back with violence. First he is paying off municipalities to steal land. Later, he is used by the government in proxy wars.

Following Sartaj as he untangles this world is not always a cakewalk. As he snakes back and forth across Bombay and out into wider Asia, Sacred Games drops references to dozens of Bollywood films. There are place names and food titles and dozens upon dozens of localized details that will be foreign to many American readers. When Sartaj shows up at work and hears the 'steady rasping of a jhadoo,â?� a reader had better have a dictionary handy. So, too, when an interrogation gets tough like this: ''Why don't we take them out behind the dhaba?' Kamble said. 'And give them a lathi up their gaand?'â?�

One of the miraculous things about Sacred Games is that these details, which look so foreign out of context, are actually a large part of its appeal. Chandra has decided he is going to wave with beckoning finger to a world only he can show. But there will be no translations. Nothing happens in Mumbai without a bribe, something Sartaj could fight when he was married to an affluent woman. With his marriage in the tank, though, and his sights set on Gaitonde, that lofty incorruptibility is much harder to maintain.

And that's how it starts, Chandra reveals. A city squeezes and squeezes its citizens together until they have no choice but to fight back or carom outward, make unholy alliances. In addition to Sartaj and Gaitonde and a shadowy Muslim capo, Suleiman Isa, there are dozens of characters, all banging and bumping into each other: models and dames, poor mothers whose sons have turned up dead only to discover Sartaj bringing the bad news of where their desperation led them.

Mumbai rises out of this thronging action like a vibrant, living metropolis, where everything is connected to everything else. It feels like a relentless life force that rewards its toughest citizens and crushes the weak.

Driving out of Mumbai one day, Sartaj turns to see 'the city spreading, working itself out into the soil and through the earth.â?� Then he thinks: 'Maybe there were still some tribals in those hills, hanging on to their little patches of land and quaint customs. These trucks would bring out cement and machines and money, and long legal documents, and the tribals would sign and sell, or be moved out. That's how it worked.â?� And now we know.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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