By Vikram Chandra
I loved this monster of a book. It’s 900 pages long and a rollicking ride all the way through. Vikram Chandra might have just written the defining book of his career – a crime thriller genre of entertainment that manages to capture a city and its people in a way very few others have managed to do. Mumbai is here in all its fierce, tough, dirty, gory glory and just for that portrait of a city I love, this would rank as one of my favourite books of all time.
Sartaj Singh is a character we have met before in one of Chandra’s short stories. He re-appears here, now divorced, mellower and quieter than how I remember him. He is the policeman hero – as honest as a cop can be in the city, which is to say not very. Yet there is integrity in him – while he has no qualms about taking small amounts of money in his daily work, he has not been bought over by politicians or gangsters and stashed away millions as his boss Parulkar has.
Chandra draws a fascinating portrait of the police force in the city, especially through the characters of Khatekar and Kamble – the life of the ordinary policeman in his daily rounds of work, the dance bars, the everyday bribes, at his kholi with his wife and kids and his dreams for them, the danger he lives through everyday of his life and the pittance he takes home as a salary. It makes you feel less bad about that bribe you paid to the local policeman for your passport verification.
If Sartaj Singh is one part of the story, Ganesh Gaitonde is the larger-than-life gangster other. For someone not familiar with the workings of the Mumbai underworld through countless Bollywood films and Suketu Mehta, Gaitonde’s story of a small time crook making it to gangster overlord, controlling a million dollar empire through a phone off a yacht in the Malaysian waters will seem far-fetched and altogether improbable. In fact some western reviews of the book have pinned it down as a fantastic tale with little basis in reality. We of course know better. Gaitonde is one of the most interesting characters I have come across in fiction in a long while. He is a dreaded gangster, feared by millions; but Chandra takes us into his mind delving into his fears and insecurities and paints a picture of a sharp and agile mind that has gone awry somewhere terribly.
Sartaj and Gaitonde form the 2 poles of the book. The narration is split between their two stories that form alternate chapters. Gaitonde’s story is being told after his death – in the first person, to Sartaj. And while the book hurtles towards a climax, with both Sartaj and Gaitonde driving towards the solution of a mystery that could destroy their beloved city, you realize that 900 pages have just fled past.
There are insets here – the story of Sartaj’s mother in pre-partition India, the trauma of partition, a dying Indian intelligence officer and his mental illness, the story of a small time crook come into Mumbai from feudal Bihar who manages to kill Sartaj’s trusted lieutenant Katekar, and an inexplicable aside about Sartaj’s mother’s sister who gets married to a Pakistani during partition. The insets make the book longer than is really required and you could argue about their necessity in a story that is interesting and full by itself. But I think this is Chandra’s style – it is sweeping, larger than life and has a need to encompass more than what is truly essential. I for one am not complaining.
The language is unapologetically Bambaiya. The local lingo is integrated into the English with no explanation for an outsider. And that is in fact a symptom of what could ultimately be the book’s problem. I can’t imagine a non-Indian or even a non-resident of the city appreciating this book. But for someone who still can’t get enough of Mumbai even after 13 years, it’s a paean that is long overdue.