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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra

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To purchase Sacred Games

Title: Sacred Games
Author: Vikram Chandra
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 900 pages
Availability: Sacred Games - US
Sacred Games - UK
Sacred Games - Canada
Sacred Games - India
Le seigneur de Bombay - France
Der Pate von Bombay - Deutschland
Giochi sacri - Italia
Juegos sagrados - España
  • Sacred Games was made into a mini-series in 2018

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fairly thoroughly entertaining, but doesn't amount to quite enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A+ 16/1/2007 Erik Spanberg
Entertainment Weekly B+ 5/1/2007 Jennifer Reese
The Guardian B+ 23/9/2006 Kevin Rushby
The LA Times . 7/1/2007 Susan Salter Reynolds
The Nation . 12/2/2007 Carl Bromley
NZZ . 30/9/2006 Ilija Trojanow
New Statesman . 4/9/2006 Andrew Holgate
The NY Sun A 3/1/2007 Eric Ormsby
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/1/2007 Paul Gray
The New Yorker . 15/1/2007 Pankaj Mishra
The Observer . 20/8/2006 Adams Mars-Jones
People A 15/1/2007 Francine Prose
Salon . 5/2/2007 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 7/1/2007 Sandip Roy
Sunday Times . 27/8/2006 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
The Telegraph A 3/9/2006 Jane Shilling
The Telegraph . 15/10/2006 Siddhartha Deb
The Times . 16/9/2006 Marcel Berlins
TLS . 1/9/2006 Navtej Sarna
USA Today . 8/1/2007 Deirdre Donahue
The Washington Post D 7/1/2007 Jonathan Yardley
World Lit. Today . 7-8/2007 Ramlal Agarwal
Die Zeit . 28/9/2006 Tobias Gohlis

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though most quite impressed (if also often overwhelmed)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sacred Games, Chandra's sweeping, sprawling, and jaw-dropping new novel. It is, more than anything else, literary magic. (...) Sacred Games is monstrously entertaining, conjuring images of a literary duet between John Irving and Vikram Seth with a dollop of Mario Puzo thrown in for good measure." - Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor

  • "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. (...) 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." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "One thing Chandra does superbly well is give a sense of the changes and the continuities of modern India. (...) Chandra works hard to keep the reader on board: after all, this is a mixed-up, muddled-up India where illiterate farmers chat on mobile phones and respectable people kill their daughters for marrying out of caste. It didn't, however, quite carry me all the way." - Kevin Rushby, The Guardian

  • "One of the coolest things about Sacred Games is the crash course it offers in 21st century Indian society and especially the life of Mumbai. (...) It is not until about halfway through the novel that we firmly hold all the cards we will need to play the game he has set in motion, and even then, Chandra is merciless with our memories. (...) Chandra's genius is in the way he trusts his readers. Still, there are a few too many balls in the air. Reading Sacred Games is a bit like watching an extremely talented jazz musician improvise. He's having fun and that's contagious, but too often the audience can feel on the wrong side of an in-joke." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Like a sculptor making small, delicate chips in stone, Chandra moves things along at a measured pace, building his characters, finding glorious little details in the minutiae of everyday Bombay life, yet remaining sharply focused on the main thrust of his detective story. (...) Sacred Games quakes with seismic historical shocks, as if Chandra were intent on blasting open India's historically amnesiac present, a time when India (or at least its media and its political class) is intoxicated by its glorious future." - Carl Bromley, The Nation

  • "Chandra hat sich dafür entschieden, die Dichte des Lebens in Bombay durch Überfülle zu vermitteln (...) Chandras Strategie geht zumindest in einer Hinsicht zur Gänze auf. Beim Lesen stellt sich oft jener Überdruss, jenes Mattsein ein, welche man nach einem langen und anstrengenden Tag des Hetzens und Hechelns in Bombay verspürt." - Ilija Trojanow, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Chandra is a subtle, undemonstrative writer, and the novel has many virtues, not least its depiction of the city's endemic corruption. Everyone is on the make in Mumbai, and as the book develops, the web linking police and politicians with criminals and gangsters becomes ever more complex and convincing. Moral relativism is rife (.....) But it is the sheer scale of the project that finally defeats Chandra. He cannot leave a detail alone, cannot pass a side street without wandering down it to see what he can find. The result is a novel that sprawls as fatally as the city it seeks so resolutely to encapsulate." - Andrew Holgate, New Statesman

  • "His novel is one of the most brilliant shaggy dog tales I've read in recent years. Ostensibly a detective novel, in which a lurid panoply of murders unfurls in gruesome detail, Sacred Games, despite its length, is compulsively readable. Clever as the plot and subplots are, the characters carry the narrative." - Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun

  • "If Vikram Chandra were a swimming instructor, he’d be one of those no-nonsense types who toss pupils into the deep end of the pool and then walk away, confident that immersion and panic will provide sufficient motivation for staying afloat. (...) The appeal of Sacred Games lies in its mix of several commercially reliable formulas (the thriller, the mob saga, the police procedural) along with considerable helpings of sex and violence plus enough genre-bending twists to keep pulp aficionados off balance and intrigued. (...) Those who like their tales of potential apocalypse served up lean and bloody may find Sacred Games a little too well done." - Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review

  • "As in a typical, multipanelled mandala, Sacred Games offers many stories simultaneously, while allowing us to gaze separately at each life in its own moment of being. (...) Loving his characters equally, Chandra endows many of them with an unexpected dignity (.....) The philosophical ambition of Sacred Games owes much to Bollywood films. To Chandra, these seem to capture the flexible nature of non-bourgeois self-perceptions, moving as they do from documentary naturalism to an epic mode of storytelling without getting bogged down in psychological realism. Dropping his characters into the tumult of recent national history, he occasionally seems to adopt a more conventional mode of novel-writing about India. But his stance, unlike Salman Rushdie’s or Rohinton Mistry’s, is of a calm Homeric objectivity, as he tries to realize afresh what seems, after many long novels from the subcontinent, a particularly Indian ambition to retool the novel as an epic form." - Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker

  • "This book has everything, perhaps a little too much of everything. Sacred Games is an epic thriller which doubles as an anatomy of modern India, concentrating on Bombay but making confident sweeps into various hinterlands (.....) His control of his material is remarkable. (...) Chandra could have made it easier on himself, not to mention the reader. Four of the chapters are called 'Insets' and don't contribute to the story." - Adams Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Sacred Games, Chandra's ambitious, sprawling novel, combines the attractions of 19th-century fiction and a modern police procedural as the plot broadens to include law-abiding citizens and corrupt crime bosses, movie stars and celebrity madams, undercover spymasters and a sketchy guru." - Francine Prose, People

  • "Sacred Games, though often suspenseful, is never filmi. Although the meat of this novel clings to the bones of a crime story, and there's certainly plenty of crime in it, the book is really a passionate tribute to contemporary India in all its vigor and vulgarity." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Make no mistake, Sacred Games is a thriller. It has shootouts, sexy sirens, cops and robbers, double-crossers and hardboiled gutter-pungent lingo. It's not for the squeamish. The violence is bone-crunching. (...) But Sacred Games is also a cocky experiment with the conventions of a thriller, breaking every rule a film director tells Gaitonde is needed for a successful formula film. (...) In the end, the book is about this city, the dream factory of India, which remakes everyone and where no one is what he seems" - Sandip Roy, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "That city is the real protagonist of Chandra’s book, as well as the stage on which his Comédie Humaine is played out." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Sunday Times

  • "Seven years it took Chandra to write, and such is the haunting precision of its observation and the resonant authority of its narrative voice that one could read it seven times over and still be finding new treasures; missed flourishes of virtuosity. One uses the terms 'epic' and 'classic' with caution. But if eloquence, confidence, humanity, grace and fine observation are their raw materials, perhaps Sacred Games deserves those epithets." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph

  • "That a book this big cannot always be balanced seems reasonable enough. Its size will inevitably result in some scattershot minor characters, and forays into realms of greater interest to writer than reader. In Sacred Games, however, its larger-than-life protagonist becomes a bore once he has shot his way to the top. (...) More tends to become less in this novel. (...) The problem, it seems, is in Chandra's belief that realism can capture the entire sprawl of India." - Siddhartha Deb, The Telegraph

  • "Sacred Games is 900 pages and although some 130 can be omitted (they’re called insets, and their relevance escapes me) it is the longest piece of crime fiction I have yet recommended and some readers may find its sheer density off-putting." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "Sacred Games teems with minor characters, who push and shove onto its pages like commuters at rush hour around a Mumbai suburban train. Chandra pursues them relentlessly and their stories come rushing in like the Arabian Sea at high tide. (...) The book is in some ways reminiscent of an extra-length Bollywood movie, complete with its formula titillation, intelligence agents, India- Pakistan politics, smuggling of gold and radioactive materials, and the tense ticking away of a nuclear threat. It is also, however, what Bollywood movies are usually not -- imaginatively conceptualized, meticulously researched and authentically portrayed." - Navtej Sarna, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Sacred Games is like one of John Irving's novels: Either you adore the oversized characters and abundance of material, or you find the whole shebang overwrought and verbose. (...) Chandra's writing is energetic and often lovely; the book teems with authentic detail. (...) My problem is that some of the characters are simply less compelling than others." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "It is almost inconceivable to me that American readers will rush to buy this novel, much less keep on reading it after, say, the first 50 pages (.....) Though the novel does have its moments and a couple of intermittently interesting central characters, mainly it just wanders aimlessly along, written in a droning monotone and peppered with Indian colloquialisms that are sure to put off all but the best-informed American readers. (...) It may sound exciting and engaging, but it isn't, and when the novel's climax finally occurs, it's the most anticlimactic climax I can recall. But it is, perhaps, a fitting climax to a book that, for all its ambition and intelligence, ends up going nowhere at all." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Though the narrative runs along predictable lines, it sizzles with plentiful native abuses and expressions. Perhaps no other Indian writer in English has been so adept at using them so freely." - Ramlal Agarwal, World Literature Today

  • "Eingeschobene Lebensgeschichten und plastische Details lassen ein eindringliches Bild vom täglichen Lebenskampf entstehen." - Tobias Gohlis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sacred Games quickly gets to an early high-point: the first chapter offers a leisurely account of a typical 'Policeman's Day' but ends with a tantalizing offer, as the officer in question, Sartaj Singh, gets a telephone call asking him: "Do you want Ganesh Gaitonde ?" Gaitonde is one of the biggest criminals around, and getting him would be a major coup -- and Sartaj is successful, more or less. However, this sudden end to the career of one of Mumbai's most notorious criminals brings up more questions than easy answers.
       There are two main narrative threads in the novels, chapters alternating (more or less) between Sartaj's present-day life and Gaitonde recounting his life and career up to that fatal final confrontation from the afterlife. (There are also four 'Insets', chapters offering additional perspectives.) Sacred Games is very much a book of these two personal stories -- not typical Indian destinies or even a study in black and white/good and evil contrasts, but simply the stories of two lives and careers in rapidly modernizing India.
       Sartaj is a Sikh, conveniently keeping from having to take sides in the constant Hindu-Muslim tensions around him. At the beginning of the novel he's mired in something of a midlife crisis:

He was past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects. Others from his batch had climbed past him, he was just pedalling along, doing his job. He looked into his future and saw that he would not achieve as much as his own father, and much less than the redoubtable Parulkar. I am quite useless, Sartaj thought, and felt very bleak.
       Sartaj is a good policeman, but doesn't seem willing enough to play along at all the games necessary for true advancement. It's not like he doesn't play along a bit: he goes along with the petty corruption, the necessary bribes, the arrangements between criminals and the authorities, a bit of roughing up here and there -- but without quite the same enthusiasm as most of his colleagues. Everyone skims money but, for example, Sartaj just acts as courier for deputy commissioner Parulkar, and doesn't funnel funds to a foreign bank account for himself.
       The Gaitonde case is a big break for Sartaj, a feather in his cap -- but the criminal's death isn't the end of it. The circumstances are mysterious: Gaitonde was holed up in an incredible bunker, and the corpse of an unidentified woman was found with him, as well as a large amount of money. Sartaj figures that the Central Bureau of Investigation will take over and tie up the loose ends, but it's RAW, "the famed Research and Analysis Wing -- with its covert mystique and its exotic reputation" (sort of the Indian version of the CIA) that also gets involved. And RAW point-woman Anjali Mathur asks that Sartaj stay on the case: it's easier for him to do some of the local investigating without attracting quite as much attention.
       So much of Sacred Games is a sort of thriller-mystery, as Sartaj tries to figure out the identity of the dead woman and her connexion to Gaitonde -- and then tries to find answers to the additional questions raised once these first mysteries are solved. Slowly the pieces fit together, and the magnitude of what's at stake becomes clear. The structure Gaitonde had holed up turns out to be a nuclear fallout shelter, for example .....
       The Sartaj-chapters follow his investigations, and his life. Most of what he does is still mundane, everyday police-work -- though no less fun for that. The small shake-downs, the arranged busts, the lectures to local kids brought in by their worried parents, investigating a blackmailer on the side: it all offers peeks at all sorts of aspects of Mumbai and Indian life. Sartaj doesn't have much of a personal life, but his family -- including his policeman-father's shadow as well as his mother -- and his interaction with the families he looks out for show something of his personal side. He does what he can but he can't always fix everything (failing miserably, for example, when one of Parulkar's daughters comes to him for help, tradition being too much for even him to overcome). Eventually, there's a woman in his life again, too.
       Gaitonde recounted how he started his criminal career to Sartaj during that opening siege -- and death doesn't stop him from continuing his story. These chapters are more colourful, describing his adventures and all the risks he took. It's an appealing enough gangster-tale, from rigged elections to turf-wars to, eventually, Gaitonde wielding power from afar (a yacht, closer to Thailand than Mumbai). He even tries his hand as a Bollywood producer, so that even that part of Mumbai-life (and all the hopeless dreamers it attracts) can be tied into the story.
       Gaitonde also falls under the sway of Guru-ji, a charismatic spiritual figure who, it turns out, has something of a political agenda as well -- and uses Gaitonde to further his own ends. And Gaitonde also has an arrangement with some high-placed government officials, putting him in yet another web .....
       As he rises in prominence and wields more power, Gaitonde is also a marked man. Most of the time he lives in relative isolation, with only a few goons protecting him, far from home. Eventually he does get plastic surgery, to be able to move about more freely again, but he is always being hunted.
       Gaitonde is an entertaining figure, his ability to get whatever he wants done (through cash and/or violence) appealing -- especially since he has rather grand and interesting ambitions. It's not an entirely convincing mob-boss-portrait, but enjoyable enough if not too closely scrutinized. But he also never emerges as anything more than that, as any sort of tragic hero or victim. He's larger than life, but for almost all the book he is, after all, also dead .....
       Sartaj is certainly the more interesting character -- in large part because his life is simply more realistic. Whereas Gaitonde can accomplish most anything he wants using his connexions -- by throwing cash at it (or using violence to see to his ends) --, Sartaj is limited to real-life options. That extends to their relationships as well: Gaitonde's seem more the stuff of Bollywood melodrama (whether it's romance or gunfights), while Sartaj's ring true. And so also in their defining moments, Sartaj's decisions are considerably more gripping because they seem real; Gaitonde's could come straight out of any B-action-filmi. (Sartaj, for example, does ultimately betray someone, which readers might not have thought him capable of -- though Chandra stacks the deck by making it almost impossible for Sartaj to do otherwise.)
       When agreeing to continue looking into the Gaitonde case Sartaj's enthusiasm was tempered: "big cases can eat up small inspectors", he realises. But he's not that small, and he maneuvers carefully and cleverly enough not to be overwhelmed. The more ambitious Gaitonde ultimately proved a too-small player in a game that was beyond him -- a decent enough idea that Chandra can't completely effectively employ.
       Sacred Games is an enormous book, but not really a sprawling one: Chandra is too closely focussed on his characters (with in-depth scenes for some of the others as well, not just the two protagonists) to really make for a panoramic India-epic. He does Mumbai fairly well, especially the family-dwellings and some of the rich (and wannabe rich) locales, and he's quite good on the pull of ambition for the young -- whether it's computers, petty-crime, or stardom -- versus the strong hold of tradition, but much of this feels like set pieces (and inset pieces ...).
       The novel does constantly pit old against new, and the mystery-thriller angle addresses that too -- how to effect change, including in the most drastic way. One of Sartaj's colleagues thinks it would be fine if the worst happened:
'Better if it was all destroyed.' He moved his hand flat above the table, in a cleaning gesture. 'Then it can all start again, fresh. Otherwise nothing will change. Like this, just like this, we'll go on.'
       The petty corruption and the everyday annoyances get to everyone, the clean slate idea has some obvious appeal. But the reaction Chandra ascribes to Sartaj reveals his very different philosophy (and the one underlying the book as a whole):
     It was astonishing to Sartaj that Kamble still believed in change. How insidious and indestructible hope was if it refused to vanish from the breast of this corrupt, greedy, violent man.
       Chandra uses a thriller-background for his book, but that's not really what it's meant to be. Not surprisingly, then, the thriller-resolution is decidedly anti-climactic -- as far as fireworks go, it's a dud. Which is, of course, problematic, for those who have been waiting for a big bang (though there are lots of smaller ones along the way to keep them happy for a while). So as a mystery-thriller Sacred Games might disappoint in its resolution. The broader view -- the book as characters-study, as Mumbai (and modern India) canvas (complete with enough vernacular strewn all about (mostly curse-words) that it comes with a sixteen-page glossary) -- impresses more.
       It's an unhurried novel -- with enough action to keep the pace at a decent trot -- and for all its big ambition most successful on the smaller, personal level. Not really an old-style epic, it nevertheless requires the patience of a fat, classic novel -- and, taken as such, is rewarding enough: a very good beach read, for example.

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Sacred Games: Reviews: Sacred Games - the mini-series: Vikram Chandra: Other books by Vikram Chandra under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Vikram Chandra was born in 1961. He divides his time between India and the US.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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