An Interview with Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra is the author of Sacred Games, a 900-page epic story focusing on a Sikh police inspector named Sartaj and his investigation into the suicide of mafia kingpin Ganesh Gaitonade. Ganesh is dead, but tells his story to Sartaj in alternating chapters, gradually confessing his deep emotions and how his mobster lifestyle developed.
Sacred Games also serves as an armchair travel guide to the gritty underworld of Bombay. Chandra cultivates the character of the city almost as much as he concentrates on the other characters in the story.
Throughout the book is slang terms used in Bombay, the majority of which are included in the reference glossary in the back of the book. Jhav means Fuck. An expanded glossary is available at VikramChandra.com.
Chandra’s writing style will draw you right into the book, which would be an Oscar nominated film if they do make the movie out of it. This 900-page epic is also heavy enough to use as a weapon against muggers on public transit.
How’s your book tour going so far?
Very well actually. I’m whizzing around from place to place, so it’s a lot tiring, but I’m not complaining you know. It’s all good.
I know how to say sister-fucker in Hindi now.
Yes, if you ever are in Bombay and you get into an argument with somebody, I think you’ll be well equipped. Although saying that is probably not the best way to get out of the argument.
Was your publisher scared because you had all that non-English slang in the book?
Not really. In England too, nobody seemed to have a problem with that. It was published in England actually without a glossary. The impression I get from most people reading it from the context and from reading the word again and again and finally figure out what it means, if not specifically, at least generally. It’s a common experience for anybody reading something from another culture. I grew up in India reading children’s British fiction and there were all these baffling foods like macaroons which we were baffled by, but you figure it out.
I didn’t know the British version didn’t have the glossary in the back.
I really liked having the glossary.
Right, right. HarperCollins said it would be a good thing to have in there, so, and there’s actually a larger one on my website. I think if we tried to put them all in, we’d expand the book another few dozen pages.
What’s another few dozen after 900, right? What was your writing schedule like when you were writing Sacred Games?
For me what seems to work best is maintaining a really steady rhythm. So I generally work, when I’m in the middle of a project, everyday. Six days a week if possible, from eight in the morning, then straight through to lunch, around 1 o’clock, and then that’s it. I feel pretty much exhausted after that. I’m pretty slow, I think I get about 400 words during that time, and that feels like a full day’s work.
Four hundred usable words, or just 400 words in general?
I would go back and edit them some, but the general structure and the narrative flow tends to remain the same unless I rework it for some radical reason. I’m not saying perfect by any means, but pointing to where they need to go.
I really enjoyed the city of Bombay since it’s a character itself in the book, and I felt like I was armchair traveling to Bombay as I read it. What did you have in mind when you were creating the character of the city itself?
I guess I had a general sense that I wanted to get a sense of the place as people lived in it in the turn of the century (1999 to 2000, not 1899 to 1900….for a moment I was confused and I thought I may have read the wrong book) and now. I think the way I went about it was to try to keep close to the various experiences of the characters. In other words, Sartaj sitting around in a traffic jam, which we often do in the city, so it was staying close to the physical and mental state of the characters during that time. And I guess what happens is if you achieve that detail from one scene to the next it all adds up to something that suggests the whole. Though you can’t really capture it, it’s always illusive.
You can’t really capture Bombay?
Yeah, like any other place, and especially a city of that size and variety, you’re never going to end up with anything that would stand as some authoritative version. So, any view of it is going to be partial finally. I guess that’s why I think, how do the characters see it, how do they experience it? Through the experiences of various points of view, you finally get a variety of ways of looking at it, and catch something along the way of the lives of the people who live within it.
I loved how Sartaj was Sikh and wore his turban and he was so different from the rest of the police force. Sikhs are a minority in Bombay?
Yes, they’re a minority in the country in general. But in Punjab they exist and live there in very large numbers. In a place like Bombay they do exist as a minority and it’s interesting because I didn’t plan it to be that way. Sartaj, the character, appeared fully formed one day. I don’t know where exactly he came from. And then as I started writing him it occurred to me that that was very useful having him be an outsider in a sense, to be somewhat distanced from the local politics of the department and so forth. That became really interesting to work with.
It reminds me of the scene in the book when he went into a bar and everyone was looking at him weird for how he was dressed and with his turban.
Yeah, and also in that scene he’s generationally out of place. It’s the kind of feeling that you get when, well his experience in the world was that at one point he was a really cool guy in his college and so on, and then suddenly when you get older there’s always that one evening when you find out that you’re not so cool after all and the kids are looking at you and thinking you’re some kind of relic from a bygone era.
You also teach college classes at Berkeley, did you have that night yourself at some point in the past?
You mean that feeling of age?
And out-of-it-ness, yeah, everyday. (laughing). But, I think that’s one of the great things about working on a university campus and interacting with a variety of people, especially young people because your ideas get challenged and you encounter different points of view and the kids, you know, they make me read stuff and listen to music that I would never encounter on my own. It’s quite productive.
Have your students read your work before they take your class, usually?
Some of them have, yeah. I wouldn’t dare try to teach it in one of my writing workshops. Somebody, who shall remain unnamed, actually taught one of his own books. (both of us laughing) It’s just kind of an interesting experience.
It gets his sales up a bit.
Yeah, you stay in print. (still laughing). I understand completely.
Sacred Games was first released in India, what was the reception there?
It was very gratifying, in a couple of ways. One was that from what I can judge from the sales figures and so forth, but also from the e-mails I’ve been getting since it came out in August. It’s hard finding a readership from people that are not used to picking up a literary novel for instance. In a couple of e-mails, the readers basically started them with, “I normally never read this kind of serious book, but I heard this Ganesh guy was kind of a bad ass.” So, I think the form in a sense is making it possible for other kinds of readers to engage with it. There were a couple of reactions of people who live in the city and are really possessive about it, you know in the way that people who have been born and brought up in a place tend to become. And they were kind enough to say that they saw some amount of truth or they felt like this was the city they actually lived in. That made me happy.
That’s a great compliment because I know when San Francisco is a character in a book, I can usually tell if the writer has only visited or stayed for a short time or if they grew up here.
Speaking of the bad ass, Ganesh Gaitonade, I really liked how you made him completely endearing with his spiritual qualities and even when he killed people for a living and we shouldn’t like him, we still like him. How was that to balance when you were writing the book?
I saw that as one of the problems of the book, was that, you know when I started thinking about the project, that world was as foreign to me as anyone else. I had just seen it in movies. The way that it became personal in my life was that my family’s connection to the film industry, which has been the target of extortion by the organized crime people and so I knew people who were getting shot at and wounded when they refused to pay up. And then my brother-in-law who was a filmmaker was a recipient of these calls and he refused to pay up which meant that the next day his house was surrounded by armed body guards and suddenly my sister and he and his kids were living in this world where guns were an everyday part of the landscape. I obviously had a very strong reaction to that and I tend to think that we make people who do stuff like that we consider unacceptable. We like to think of them as other, like somehow another kind of species or monster or something. And what happened, and maybe I should’ve expected this, as I went along and met more people and talked to more people I discovered that they were human beings just like me and that was actually the really scary part. It’s not a monster who does these things, it’s someone who belongs to the same world that I do and in many ways is like me, can do this. And I think, I guess the history of the 20th and 21st century demonstrates this in large quantities is that we’re all capable of these things given the right context and marching orders as it were.
What I wanted to do was engage the reader enough so you didn’t think of him as some caricature of evil but somebody who is complicated and self reflective to think about himself and to try to come up with a comprehensive vision of his life, which these guys that I was meeting, they were doing this. They were trying to figure out who they were and the meaning of their lives in a sense, just like the rest of us do. I think that was one of the reasons for doing him in first person, which I think brings you one step closer to the inside of this person. And then to try to figure out how to pull the reader into his idea of the universe so you identify in a sense with his frustration and anger and ruthlessness, which in a sense finally breaks down, but you know where he’s coming from.
I tell this story all the time, the first reader to actually get a hack at the book after the manuscript was finally finished was my wife Melanie. After the first couple of days of her reading it she walked out of her study and told me, "I hate how you made me like this Gaitonde guy." And that was a very happy moment.
What about when you were writing him and getting into his head, did it feel like you were conflicted inside being so deep into a character?
It’s a weird business that we do, you know, write and try and find some part of yourself that is alive in the same way as these characters. I guess it’s kind of like the act of bringing alive a spirit or something and staying in that space for many years like I did. I’m sure it does weird things to my internal chemistry. Frederick Busch has that book called Dangerous Profession in which he talks about this. I think it’s very true when you’re a writer and you sometimes you have to spend time poking at part of yourself that normal, sane people leave alone. I did try to live with him as honestly as I could and I think it’s going to take a while to get [Gaitonde], Sartaj and the rest out of my system.
So even now it still feels like they’re in your system?
Yeah, to some extent, I think. I guess maybe until you start a new project and you create this new imaginative world inside your head and are able to get into that.
Have you started work on a new project yet?
No, I’m actually trying to give myself a bit of a holiday and be a consumer and read as much as I can and watch movies and so forth.
There was a lot of press regarding the advance of one million dollars for the book. Now that it’s published do you feel the pressure of that?
I was, I had a kind of happy life, as a midlist writer with a couple of books out. I mean you’re just so happy about being published; I never expected anything much more than that. So, when the whole sort of excitement started over this one, it was baffling and exciting at the same time. I guess it’s not really pressure, but I can see how having that sort of buzz can shape a backlash against it. I suppose what’s unfortunate about that is that people getting caught up in that than actually looking at the book itself as a story. But, I suppose the lesson and the consolation is stories really have a long life in the world and I think beyond the initial reviews, whether they’re good or bad. The book tends to find its reader over years and years. What I mean by that is I still get e-mail from people who are discovering my first book and are engaging with it in a way that’s exciting and passionate and so forth.
You have to keep your eye on the imaginary reader you write for and hope that the book will find that person sooner or later, wherever they may be.
Your family is in film and your mom’s a writer as well?
Yeah, when I was growing up she used to write for Indian radio and television, which was all state controlled at the time. Then when we came to Bombay in the mid-'70s she turned herself into a screenwriter and had this had this amazing career as a screenwriter and she’s written a bunch of movies and she’s still working. My sisters, both of whom are younger, ended up being in the business as well. The middle one is a screenwriter and filmmaker and the youngest one is a film critic. I sometimes tease my mother and tell her it’s all her fault.
Did your mom read an early draft of the novel and give you notes?
Well by the time she finished reading it actually it was well into the production phase, so I did get reactions from her. Melanie actually was the first to read it once the first draft was complete. Then we worked together on it quite a bit.
Wow, she’s a supportive wife!
Yeah, she’s also a fiction writer, so I was a little afraid when I first met her, you know. Two fiction writers having a relationship, it was a little too close, but it’s actually worked out pretty well. It’s nice to have somebody you can call to across the house when you get stuck on a plot point or something.
How did you two meet?
I was actually a guest at an art festival in LA, a South Asian art festival called Artwallah, which happens every year. She was there with a friend of hers and we talked for a bit and I was on sabbatical that year as it happens so I left a couple of weeks later for India for I think seven or eight months. So we ended up e-mailing each other for a long time. It felt in a strange way very 19th century, one of those things where you get to know each other through letters instead of face to face. Then when I came back we actually met up in real life.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
I usually steal a line from Yeats and it goes, “Read what gives you pleasure, write what you must.” I think that’s pretty good advice. Read, read, read, and then explore your obsessions because I think that’s where the energy comes from. Especially when you want to do a novel because to sustain yourself through a longish project you really have to be, not just committed, but you have to be really interested in it. There’s nothing worse than starting something and then getting bored with it when you’re halfway through.
Tony DuShane is an entertainment writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets and hosts the interview radio show Drinks with Tony. (www.tonydushane.com)