The west has a fascination with India long fueled by a vision of sari-clad women, brilliant as hummingbirds, spotted and sprinkled with sintoor and patterned with henna; of snake-charmers and beggars, bicycle bells and the bazaars; of the scents and tastes and sounds of a society that is only barely on the edge of our understanding, yet, unlike further eastern societies, just tantalizingly close enough to draw us in.
I'm particularly drawn, perhaps, because the British have reason for a special interest: the origin of 21st Century England's most popular takeout was once the jewel in the crown that was Victoria's empire. I was raised in a London replete with Indian restaurants, and I was cracking open a can of curry and rice (curry at one end, rice at the other) long before my teens. Long too, before I discovered that the Indians had little reason to love the English, who, aside from getting into all that mess with the Raj, had appropriated the word "curry" for themselves and misused it with vigor. Well, we had a reputation for misusing foreign assets, so it was to be expected, I suppose.
The tale told in Vikram Chandra's latest book, Sacred Games, contains neither Englishmen nor curry, but I thought that was a more interesting way into the review than just saying I'd recently finished the book. Which I have, after a couple of weeks of solid bedtime reading and around 900 pages of great storytelling. It's the story of the rise and inevitable fall of an Indian gangster don, from humble beginnings to a humbler end. It's also the story of the policeman he invites to share his last moments, and above all, as is often the case with stories set in India, the main character is India itself. It's an adult, violent, sometimes cold and sometimes emotional ride, and it's not to everyone's taste, but it's a heck of a read.
Chandra, a lecturer at Berkeley University in California who commutes between here and Mumbai, is regarded as an outstanding Indian voice in fiction by critics who know a great deal more about books and literature than I do. But despite his academic background and the challenge set by a book of this size, don't be put off. If I can get to the end of it and come out satisfied, anyone can. I have the attention span of a ... what was it? Nope, I forget. Anyway, this is, as they say in book reviews aimed more at people of my limited literary ambitions, "a real page turner". Which has always puzzled me, not understanding how a book could be otherwise.
Sacred Games is the third book and the second full-length novel from this author, whose work has been widely acclaimed in the literary world. I'll be hoping to read more of his work, when the images left by this one have finally faded, and I'd recommend it to anyone tempted to explore a part of the Indian experience that the tourist guides quite rightly left out.
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