Sunday, January 20, 2008

A conversation with 'Sacred Games' author Vikram Chandra

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Itseems unlikely that the avant-garde short story writer Donald Barthelme would have had such a profound influence on Indian novelist Vikram Chandra. Barthelme was a master of the miniature: His stories are terse, focusing on the intimate details of a tiny cast of characters. Chandra, by contrast, is a maximalist, who in two novels — 1995's 600-page "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" and last year's 950-page "Sacred Games" — has tried to capture the sweep and drama of life in colonial and contemporary India.

When Barthelme died of a heart attack in 1989, Chandra says he "felt it terribly personally." The two had met when Chandra enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, where Barthelme taught.

"It took us awhile to understand each other," says Chandra by phone from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "But it's precisely that kind of detailed attention that you could see in his stories that was valuable to me. Watching him read the story was an education: the keenness with which he could spot a word out of place or alter the effect of a sentence by moving a comma or cutting a phrase was revelatory." Barthelme's death meant Chandra had lost a mentor.

Chandra lived off-and-on in Houston from 1988 until 1995, writing and working part-time as a computer consultant. (The Houston Zoo was one client.) Texas, he says, was a comfortable place to live as an aspiring writer. "In New York, literary life is very hierarchical, but in Houston, even as a graduate student, the scene was very accessible." But the Bayou City wasn't big enough to contain him: When "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" was published in 1995 and honored with a Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Published Book, Chandra was lured away to take a teaching position at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. Today, he teaches at the University of California.

"Red Earth" hinges on the storytelling of Sanjay Parasher, a 19th-century poet and revolutionary who has been reincarnated as a monkey in present-day India. After getting shot by a college student home from America, Parasher the monkey, in a direct echo of "One Thousand and One Nights," is granted amnesty from death by the gods so long as he continues to peck out stories from his various lives on a manual typewriter. In this way, Chandra is able to recount a broad swath of the history of 18th- and 19th-century Mughal India. Chandra interweaves these tales with the story of the college student's road trip across the U.S., thus also delivering a gimlet-eyed critique of late-20th-century American culture as well.

Chandra's second novel, "Sacred Games," just out in paperback — and named a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist on Monday — is even more ambitious and cacophonous. Its cast numbers in the dozens and the plot is nearly impossible to summarize succinctly. Suffice to say it views the roiling past half-century of Indian history through the prism of two very different men, police inspector Sartaj Singh and devout gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. On the surface it is a traditional detective thriller and, at nearly 1,000 pages, something of a commitment. But it rewards the reader's effort, giving a visceral sense of the city of Mumbai, a place where everybody has a price (or a price on their head).

Chandra, who splits his time between Mumbai and Berkeley, spent nearly seven years researching and writing "Sacred Games," including trailing a local crime reporter, setting up meetings with real-life bad guys and otherwise nosing around Jambli Mohalla, the dangerous locality that Mumbai newspapers refer to as the "Palermo of India."

Chandra says he chose a detective as the hero of his book "because a detective can move across all layers of society." In addition, the detective novel is itself "a particularly mobile form and anywhere you go you will find it." It's "globalized," so to speak, and provided Chandra with a way of delivering a portrait of life in Bombay (Chandra's preferred name for Mumbai) to a large, international audience.

While some novelists, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, go so far as to purge their novels of local flavor to facilitate understanding and translation into other languages, Chandra balks at the very idea. His characters themselves flit in and out of various languages, from Hindi to Marathi to Urdu, as well as slang from the streets of Mumbai.

"In the book, some of the language that is used is so slangy and specific to Bombay that even people in another part of India wouldn't understand what was being said," says Chandra.

Fortunately, in Chandra's hands, context often provides the meaning. Also, there's a 16-page glossary.

"Sacred Games" is very much a novel appropriate to this moment in time, when Americans are keenly curious about India. "When I first came to the U.S. in the 1980s the stories were all about India being a place of mysticism," says Chandra. "In the last 10 years it's been about outsourcing and the revival of the economy.

"This has been interesting to watch from (American) shores, but I worry that it has been slipping into phobia. I want people to know India is a place where people have been living their lives and doing business for thousands of years and doing rather well with it. At least some new knowledge can come from the fear."

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