Literary conjurer casts new spell with detective novel

By Bron Sibree

Vikram Chandra is often referred to as a kind of magician. A modern-day literary conjurer who first cast a spell on the literary world with his Commonwealth Prize-winning first novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Chandra went on to win even more lavish critical praise with his Commonwealth Prize-winning collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay.

Now, after a decade-long hiatus, the 45-year-old Indian-born California-based novelist has again pulled off a feat akin to magic with his new novel, Sacred Games.

Since hitting number one on bestseller lists in India the instant it was launched last year, Sacred Games has been lauded as a masterpiece in the land of his birth and has seen Chandra championed in the Indian press like no Indian novelist before.

"It's been incredible to see people reading the story and taking it in that intense a manner," says Chandra, "but I keep trying to remind myself that all of these things are ephemeral. I don't want to sound like I'm ungrateful, but I think you have to do some distancing from the great reviews as well as from the bad ones."

With that, the softly spoken novelist and creative writing teacher is expanding on one of his favourite themes, the ultimate fate of literature, past and present, good and bad.

"The example I'm always trotting out for myself, my wife and my students is the reception of The Great Gatsby when it first came out," says Chandra, who teaches creative writing at the University of California. "It was murdered in the press. Fitzgerald died believing that he failed at that, and when I think about that, it just seems too incomprehensible. I love that book." By the time you steer him back to the subject of his own novel, he has ventured deep into the canon of Western literature and beyond to make his point that "stories have long lives. You can't ever predict it, and you don't know where it's going and how long it's going to be there."

Sacred Games began its passage in the world "as a little local book about crime" and morphed into a 900-page thriller that melds the conventions of the Victorian novel with those of traditional Indian storytelling, Bollywood and the detective genre.

Revolving around the story of detective Sartaj Singh - who first appeared in Love and Longing in Bombay - and the larger-than-life tale of Mumbai's most notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, Sacred Games begins on the beat in Mumbai with Sartaj, who is heading into an uncertain middle-age and is forced to take bribes to supplement his income. At the end of a harrowing day, Sartaj discovers that Gaitonde, the legendary boss of G-Company, is holed up in a bunker-like house in Mumbai. By the time he and his team storm the building, Gaitonde has shot himself and his unidentified female companion.

Sartaj's subsequent investigation into the slayings drives the narrative forwards, while Gaitonde's story, narrrated by himself from beyond the grave, reaches backward in time.

Born in Delhi to a businessman father and a screenwriting mother, Chandra devoured stories from the Mahabarata and the Ramayana along with "a very strange eclectic mixture of local comics and American and British books, like PG Wodehouse and lots and lots of Enid Blyton."

Indeed, he credits his confidence in his readers and his fearlessness in mixing English with the languages of the subcontinent in his works to his own youthful encounters with Blyton's tales. "I remember long discussions with my friend about what a macaroon could possibly be," he laughs. "And crumpets. I had never seen a crumpet, but I knew it was delicious. But something in those stories worked for us."

He adds with a chuckle: "I'm still a PG Wodehouse fanatic, and when you think of some 10- or 11-year-old boy sitting down in Kashmir reading PG Wodehouse, in some ways it doesn't make any sense, but then it absolutely does.

"That's how art works - by being so specific, it actually transcends that specificity."

- Extra

Where to Seevikram Chandra

Vikram Chandra will be appearing at three events at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival:

Friday night with the stars: May 25, 8-9.30pm
An hour with Vikram Chandra: May 27, 1-2pm
Books left on buses: May 27, 7.30-8.30pm

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