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An area of greyness

Vikram Chandra?s Sacred Games is the single best book I have ever read about Bombay, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2006 16:32 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

Okay. We will do the full disclosure bit first. I know and like Vikram Chandra. His sister was a colleague of mine. He studied at Mayo College, Ajmer, when I was teaching English there. (Yes I know: those who can, do, those who can’t, etc, etc.).

The cover of his new book has been designed by Jaideep Mehrotra, who lived a few minutes away from me in Bombay and who was one year senior to me at Mayo.

So, if you want to accuse me of being biased, that’s all the information you will need. Such was the sad reality of middle class Bombay in the 1970s that many of us knew each other, even if we were Bombay boys exiled in Rajasthan. And yes, I’m as disturbed as you by the slightly incestuous element to all this.


Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is the single best book I have ever read about my city. It captures Bombay in a way that no other book has ever managed. And, judged purely as a novel, it is an astonishing triumph of the imagination. Long after I had finished reading it, the incidents and the characters refused to fade from memory. This is a book about Bombay written by a person who understands the city.

But now that we’ve got all the qualifications out of the way, I’m just going to say what I feel: Vikram’s Sacred Games is the single best book I have ever read about my city. It captures Bombay in a way that no other book has ever managed. And judged purely as a novel, it is an astonishing triumph of the imagination.

Long after I had finished reading it, the incidents and the characters refused to fade from my memory. Even now, Ganesh Gaitonde turns up in my dreams. This is a book about Bombay written by a person who understands the city. It is meant for those of us who know Bombay. It is not written for foreign audiences or American reviewers.

The book has two main narrative strands. It is partly the story of Sartaj Singh, a Bombay police inspector. And it is also the story – told mainly through flashbacks – of Ganesh Gaitonde, a Chhota Rajan-type gangster who is picked up by the Shiv Sena (the Rakshaks in the book) and R&AW to fight the Muslim underworld, represented by Suleiman Isa (a Dawood Ibrahim type).

The Gaitonde story is fascinating because, in many ways, it is also the story of Bombay over the last two decades: of the rise of the Shiv Sena, of the links between slum lords and politicians, of the riots that nearly wrecked the city, of the TV boom and the young girls who flocked to Bombay looking for roles and of the era of the non-resident don who can order a murder in Andheri from his hideout in Dubai or Phuket simply by picking up his mobile phone.

The Sartaj story has its own fascination. Nobody has ever quite captured the complexities of policing Bombay. As hero, Sartaj is meant to be the good cop. But he’s not your archetypal honest inspector. He takes money. He helps his corrupt superior despatch his own bribes to Swiss bank accounts. He is fond of random violence. He assaults suspects and witnesses. And he owes loyalty to a senior cop who is a Suleiman Isa stooge (until he switches allegiance to the Rakshaks).

The strength of the book — at least, from my perspective — is that it is set in a vastness of grey. There are no black and whites in Bombay. There is no simple right and wrong.

If you want moral certitude, find yourself another city.

Was it always like this?

I suspect that in the 1960s and 1970s when we were growing up, Bombay may have been a different city. For a start, it was much smaller (which is why the middle class was so incestuous). For another, the suburbs mattered much less: south Bombay was still the heart of the city.

I don’t pretend that politicians were entirely honest in those days. After all, chief minister VP Naik and his Congress government sold the sea to north Indian builders so that the monstrosities of Cuffe Parade and Nariman Point could come up.

Nor was there no underworld. Haji Mastan occupied roughly the same status in the gangland hierarchy that Dawood now commands. And in the 1960s, when a deal between Mastan and Yusuf Patel went terribly wrong, Mastan hired one of the hitmen routinely provided by Pathan don Karim Lala to shoot Yusuf in broad daylight. (Yusuf survived and all three men then went on to become friends and partners. Mastan’s explanation: “If Allah does not want Yusuf dead, then who am I to oppose Him?” You can see why Salim-Javed wrote Deewar about Mastan’s life).

And even the cops were always dishonest. You had to pay the constable 30 rupees if he caught you in a no-parking space, a few hundred rupees to the inspector at the police station would help ensure that he registered your complaint, and many assistant police commissioners had links with Mastan and Yusuf. (I once went to interview Mastan in 1979 at his Warden Road house and bumped into a senior police inspector who had, only the previous week, told me about the Bombay police’s campaign against organised crime. Both Mastan and he looked distinctly embarrassed and begged me not to mention it).

So why do I think it was different? The usual answer is to say that there was at least a sense of honour among thieves in those days. When a war broke out in the 1980s between two gangs, one led by Shabbir Ibraham and his brother Dawood and the other led by Alamzeb and Amirzada, Mastan was asked to mediate. He got both sides to agree to a truce. They put their hands on the Quran and swore never to kill each other again.

The truce lasted a few hours. The next day they were back to shooting each other at traffic lights. Mastan told me how upset he was by the failure of the new generation of gangsters to keep promises. “In my day,” he said grandly, “our word meant something. Now they say what they like and kill who they want.”

For many years, I believed that Mastan was right and that today’s goondas lacked the old man’s sense of honour. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect that the order that Mastan imposed on the old underworld had nothing to do with honour; it was merely a measure of his own ability to run the show.

In those days, Bombay was small enough to support one or two godfathers.

But the wild and unplanned expansion of the 1980s meant that the city extended far beyond Mastan’s Bombay. It was too vast and there were too many opportunities. No single underworld hierarchy could survive.

But, in the old days, even within the moral greyness of Bombay’s seamy underbelly, there were still islands of light. One of Mastan’s former protégés Vardarajan Mudaliar tried to become the godfather of the Bombay suburbs in the 1980s. An honest police commissioner (Julio Ribiero) and a determined cop (Y C Pawar) ran Mudaliar out of town and broke his gang. No politician was able to stop them. And they achieved all this without a single encounter. Also in the 1980s, the Bombay police arrested Dawood in a murder case and would have been able to put him away for a long time had some judge not decided to give him bail. Naturally, Dawood jumped bail, skipped the country and has never been seen here since then.

I don’t see that much light these days. As Sacred Games makes clear, the links between politicians, policemen and gangsters are so strong that it is unthinkable to imagine a single cop launching an Ardh Satya-type campaign against a don. All morality is now entirely relative: in the book, Sartaj may take money, but he is a good guy because he isn’t paid to harass innocent people or to “encounter other criminals” on behalf of rival gangs. In today’s Bombay, that’s the best we can hope for.

And the other difference, of course, is one of scale. As big as Mastan talked, he was, within the context of India, a small-timer. There is nothing small-time about today’s underworld. Dawood’s presence in Karachi is the subject of intense diplomatic negotiation between India and Pakistan. Each bomb blast reminds us of how the lines between crime and terrorism have blurred. Intelligence agencies — from the ISI to R&AW — court today’s gangsters. The sums involved run into billions of dollars. And nobody even raises an eyebrow when the papers run stories about criminals killed by the police. (Why bother to put them in jail when you can just shoot them?)

So why, despite the absence of any moral clarity, do we still love Bombay? Why do we inhabit an area of greyness and tell ourselves that this is the city we want to bring our children up in?

I don’t know. Nobody disputes that things could be better. Nobody disputes that they’ve got much worse than ever before.

But great cities evoke great emotion. At the heart of every metropolis is a conundrum. And within the electrical hum that is the energy of Bombay lies a negative current, without which we believe, there can be no positive buzz.

Perhaps we’re right. Perhaps we are rationalising. But the mystery of our love for Bombay is exactly the same as the enigma of all great love: if you can explain it, then it isn’t love at all.

First Published: Oct 22, 2006 13:16 IST