Why blog about a fiction writer promoting his latest novel, in the midst of all this filmi subject matter?
Because he comes from a Bombay movie family?
He does, but no, that’s not why.
Because he co-wrote Mission Kashmir?
He did, but that’s not it either.
Because his latest book, the 900-page, 2+ kilo Sacred Games demands to be made into a
movie trilogy. (Preferably directed by Mani Ratnam and starring AB 2.0 as Sartaj Singh.)
Read it for yourself and see. Vikram Chandra has the most amazing gift for observing and remembering a dazzling amount of details, and seamlessly weaving them into his s-p-r-a-w-l-i-n-g novel about the relationship between the police inspector Sartaj Singh (who first appeared in the short story Kama, and one scorching love scene with his soon-to-be ex-wife Megha) and underworld don Ganesh Gaitonde.
Tonight, at an event co-hosted by the South Asian Journalists Association and the Asia Society, Vikram Chandra sat on the stage, with SAJA founder and Columbia j-school Dean of Students, Sree Sreenivasan, and read three excerpts from the novel then took questions from the audience, before heading up the spiral staircase to sign books and mingle at the reception.
What follows is my summary-on-the-fly of the Q & A:
SS: How have reactions been to the book so far in India?
VC: It’s been gratifying. People recognize the city they live in. It was gratifying to get an email from a serving police officer who recognized his world.
SS: Talk a bit about the language, and some of those words you just read in the text, words that have never been uttered at the Asia Society in English.
VC (smiling): Sorry, but cops talk like that, I wanted it to have the same texture.
SS: Was there any pushback from the editors on that?
VC: Surprisingly not. [on the subject of the glossary, in the US edition] I think the best way to read a book with other vocabulary is just to read and get the meaning from the context. Some manuscripts went out in the US and some people said they’d like a glossary, so we put one in, and a more extensive one on the website, that we’re still adding to, but when I was a kid and we read Enid Blyton, we talked about what “crumpets” might be and why people would eat “clotted cream” and there was no glossary.
SS: How much research did you do?
VC: When researching for Kama, I met some police. In the beginning, I don’t know what I’m looking for when I meet people in my research; I just try and get the person to talk about their lives.
SS: Did you ever feel like you were in any danger?
VC: For the most part, everyone was very avuncular and would say “Please sit, have some chai”. These guys operate like corporate heads and they understand the value of spin. The lower level guys are harder to find. Many don’t sleep more than one night in one place. The only time was when I went with a crime journalist friend and there was a guy in his 30s, who we thought might have been high on something. He was very agressive and he couldn’t stop his leg from shaking.
SS: Have you heard from folks you spoke to, since the book came out?
VC: Not yet. Maybe when the Hindi or Marathi editions come out. They’re all composite characters anyway.
Audience member: This book would make an amazing trilogy of movies, if not a serial. After seeing Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan, and Abhishek Bachchan in Guru last Friday, they would be great if it did happen, with Mani as director and Abhi in the role of Sartaj. What do you think about that, and is there anyone interested in making a film of it?
VC: I agree with your choices, though Abhi is a bit too young right now, because Sartaj is a rather dented 40-something, but in a few years he could do it. I’d like to see Aamir as Ganesh Gaitonde, because I think there’s a craziness deep inside that he hasn’t let out yet. Initially, when my wife and editor were reading chapters of the book they kept saying “This will make a great film!” and I kept saying “No, but the chronology and the length…”, but apparently people are talking about it and there is interest. But I don’t want to be a part of it.
SS: If people don’t know, you do have a lot of film industry connections…
VC: Yes, we moved to Bombay in the ’70s, and I think that the movies are part of our national conversation. It’s our modern cultural artifact. I notice how people use narratives to make sense of their own lives. I can be on a train to Patna and someone can tell me “Ramu did that o.k. in that film, but don’t do that in your book.” And I love the music. The panwallah on the street will be listening to Radio Mirchi and some song will be playing, and that becomes part of your landscape.
Aud.: What sort of research did you do?
VC: I spoke to police, sociologists, historians. Later the questions get more specific, like “How do you fix an election?” But I don’t care if someone does years of research in the darkest corners of the Amazon, or if they watch it on TV, as long as they can make it come alive on the page. We live in a confessional age now. But you must remember the saying “Writers lie for a living.”
Aud.: You work writing and teaching. Why did this book take so long?
VC: Initially I thought it would be about 300 pages. It all started with this idea of a dead body up the road, which actually happened. When I started to investigate, much more came up, politics, religion. Then I thought, maybe in three years I’ll be done. But then show business intersects, organized crime, companies. The book grew larger in thematic interest. I tried to mesh human lives and political agendas, and the book became a sort of meditation on the detective story. I write when I’m teaching too.
Aud.: How much of yourself is in the book?
VC: There aren’t any particular individual characters. In general, all characters are pervaded by my consciousness. But as a writer, you look into these darker areas, spending time poking in parts of your lives that others avoid, it reminds me of a book about writing by Frederick Busch called A Dangerous Passion.
Aud.: Have your Berkeley students read the book yet?
VC: No, but they did come up with the name. The manuscript went out as Untitled Novel. Then there was this interntional round-robin among some friends, and I think it was David Davidar who was the first to come up with the game part. The bhais use a lot of sporting metaphors, and see their life as a game.
Aud.: I’m from Bombay and your book really takes me back. Would you say you were influenced at all by Shobhaa De? [sniggers from the audience]
VC: You have to give Shobhaa props. When she started writing Neeta’s Natter, everywhere else you had this stiff, formal way of writing, but she was the one who put on the printed page the natural way we speak.
Aud.: Talk about your essay in the Boston Review.
VC: That was a polemic of sorts. It was a response to something that has become a standard criticism when speaking of Indian writers who write in English, the charge of “catering to the West.” For example, one writer recently was criticized for opening a book with a mynah. This is lazy criticism. What is it we’re trying to defend? I think it’s a retreat if you’re always defining yourself compared to an imagined West. After we got married, Melanie and I visited the Taj Mahal. It’s such a “typical” symbol of India, but it’s also such a beautiful sight. I think the problem should be how do you reclaim it, rather than not talking about it.