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Epic tale of Mumbai underworld

With his gripping new crime novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra has earned his place among India's finest writers, finds Aditya Sinha.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2006 13:49 IST

Vikram Chandra listens to Hindi film music while he writes. And considering it took him over seven years to write his latest novel, Sacred Games, a 900-page thriller that has propelled him to the pantheon of Indian writing, he must have heard a lot of songs.

No wonder, then, the main characters in Sacred Games are often singing or humming a tune, whether it is Inspector Sartaj Singh (Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya) or the Hindu don Ganesh Gaitonde (Chala jaata hoon kisi ki dhun me, dhadakte dil ke tarane liye).

And no wonder then, while strolling through the cramped lanes of Delhi’s Nizamuddin, when you decide to play a parlour game and suddenly ask him what five songs he’d like played at his funeral, he pauses and says: “One by Kishore Kumar, one by Mohd Rafi, and one by Mukesh,” adding that any song by each would do. Number four: “A hiphop artist in the States, the1shanti, he’s Indian… he actually read Love and Longing in Bombay (Vikram’s collection of short stories) and did a song of the same title on his album Indian Bambaataa.” And last? “It’s not really a song, but Harivanshrai Bachchan’s poem, Madhushala.”

But what’s stuck in his head these days is something suggested by the students in the creative writing class he teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. ‘They made me listen to Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie,” he says. So Vikram got excited when one of his good Bombay friends told him she was going to meet Shakira: “Farah Khan, the choreographer and director, is doing Shakira’s show in New York,” he says, breathlessly. “Apparently Shakira wants some Indian film music in a Bollywood scene to her performance, so Farah is going out there this week. So I said, please tell Shakira she has one more fan in India, and Farah said, yeah, you and every other man that I’ve talked to.”

Universal great game

There is a strong Bollywood component in Sacred Games, though it is primarily the story of a cop who tries to solve the mystery left behind by a mafioso who kills himself – in a bunker fortified against a nuclear attack. The novel alternates between Sartaj Singh’s search, and Gaitonde’s pre-suicide confessional, creating an entire universe at the center of which is, firmly ensconced, the great city of Mumbai.

And the film world connection is not just a matter of a writer milking the headlines, but central to the novel’s soul – as it is to Mumbai’s soul. How did it all get started?