Author Vikram Chandra opens up about his book Sacred Games
We speak to Vikram Chandra ahead of Sacred Games, his seminal novel on Mumbai, being released as a web series
Sacred Games, the novel, has led a long and varied life since it was first conceived in 1996. To begin with, it was never intended to be a 900-page journey into the grisly underbelly of Mumbai, where the line between politician and criminal is as hazy as the view from your window on a rainy day. It was meant to be a straight-cut murder mystery, says Vikram Chandra, its author, on a visit to the city. "I had no idea it was going to be that big when I started. I had thought that I'd use a typical crime structure where there's a mystery on the first page and by page number 222, you know who's committed the murder and what had happened," he reveals.
But the architecture of the book gradually started expanding to something bigger than the 1BHK that the initial novella seemed to represent. Chandra kept adding to his foundation as he went about the process of writing the novel, opening a wider window into the troubled '90s, when gang wars in the city were as commonplace as potholes in the monsoon. "I remember clearly that my father and I — we lived in Lokhandwala at the time — were coming home from town and suddenly there was gunfire from automatic weapons echoing in our building, and that was the famous shootout that they later made into a film," he says, adding that since his family was in the business of Bollywood, he knew people who were in the radar of the underworld, which milked the movies back then to keep its coffers brimming. "I even know someone who was shot at. So, suddenly it all seemed really close to home. [The book] was no longer living in the realm of fiction. And my impulse was to try and figure out what that involved."
This meant that he had to understand how the machinations of those in power were aligned to the interests of dons and sundry criminals. He had to wade into the murky waters of the underworld on the one hand, and knock on the exalted doors of officialdom on the other. "I was really naïve at the beginning about how, if you are thinking about organised crime, it cannot exist without the political structures accommodating it. There is always an exchange of value going on at various levels. That's why it's organised, right? So I realised then that I was also writing a novel about politics. And you can't think about politics in today's world without factoring in the media and religion. So, the story became even bigger," the author says in between sips of tea.
He adds that a crucial moment in the writing process came when he was talking to a senior cop in Mumbai. "He was answering my questions and told me, 'Look, you'll never understand what is happening on our streets unless you go to Delhi and meet x, y and z people.' And these were people in the intelligence agencies. So what he was pointing out to me is that these agencies use the criminals. For example, if you are trying to move men and material across borders, who better than your friendly neighbourhood gangster? And if there's something especially dirty that you want done, which you want to preserve deniability for, you farm it out so that if the guy gets caught, you can say, 'Humein kya pata tha?' So, the book kept getting larger and larger in that sense."
Eventually, then, it turned into a violently sordid saga centered on Sartaj Singh, a jaded policeman, and Ganesh Gaitonde, a bhai of the stature of Dawood Ibrahim. And now, Sacred Games has been adapted into a web series, with Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane directing a stellar cast including Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte. Chandra downplays his "consulting" role in this adaptation, crediting a team of writers for the execution. Nonetheless, he admits that it's "surreal and exciting" to see the characters he's lived with for more than a decade in his head suddenly come alive and jump at him from a screen. "And it also shows you that one of the curious things about books — or any kind of art — is longevity. You never know where it's going to go, and then to see it make this leap into a whole different medium is quite an amazing experience," Chandra tells us, about a novel that has lived a long and varied life, indeed.
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