Friday, August 25, 2006

A conversation with Vikram Chandra

[This is most of the transcript of an interview I recently did with Vikram Chandra. It was an enjoyable conversation – Chandra is a nuanced, measured speaker who likes delving into the inner workings of things rather than making sweeping statements; but he was still quite relaxed and informal. Note: this talk was mostly about his novel Sacred Games, so it's probably best read after you have a sense of what the book is about. My review here.]

Intro: Vikram Chandra was 34 when his first book Red Earth and Pouring Rain was published in 1995. Two years later, Love and Longing in Bombay established him as one of the leading Indian writers of his generation, upon which he slipped neatly out of the public glare for several years. He lives in Mumbai and Berkley and teaches at the University of California. {Full bio here.)

The 900-page Sacred Games, which took him seven years to complete, was launched earlier this month; its protagonists are the Sikh police inspector Sartaj Singh and the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde.

Was the long absence from the limelight a reaction to sudden fame?

Actually, I didn't expect the gap to be this long. When I began work on Sacred Games I thought I was writing a very different, shorter book. I was reacting to the environment in Mumbai and, in a larger sense, the country in the 1980s and 1990s. What I'd imagined was a very local book about the tapori down the street. But it soon became clear that in dealing with crime, the connections with all the other things are really important – politics, religion, the larger geopolitical tensions of the subcontinent.

Talking to a senior police officer in Mumbai, I asked him about an encounter involving automatic weapons, which had happened barely 50 feet from my house – my father and I actually heard it. The man said to me, “Listen, I can tell you the story of this shooter who was killed – who he was, where he came from, and about the cop who brought him down – but if you really want to understand what's happening and why, you have to talk to these other people …” What he was implying was that the layers of various other things that connected to this incident were larger than what my limited vision suggested. The local guy is connected to a larger don who in turn has been recruited into a much larger game. At that point the book started becoming bigger. It began to encompass the narrative of the nation-state and even went back in time to Partition, the effects of which still roll on in our lives.

It's a very complex novel. The marketing blurbs seem to cast it as a cop-vs-gangster story, but it's more dense and layered than that.

I wanted to write an anti-thriller of sorts. To begin with, I was interested in the classical cop/detective story structure, which (and apologies for getting into my college professor incarnation here!) is a post-Enlightenment form. It's the only truly modern form of narrative that we've created. I mean, you can find instances of love stories, stories about families and so on in medieval literature, but the detective form belongs to the age of reason. And the classic structure is: we start with an unexplained case/dead body, there is the application of reason by the detective, the studying of clues, he develops a theory and proves it to be true, and at the end all is well – balance has been restored.

But I wanted to overturn that template. The shape of this book is such that numerous layers of history and events play a part in the protagonists' lives, and they themselves never know the larger picture. Ostensibly, Gaitonde and Sartaj seem to belong to the classical detective tradition – like Moriarty and Holmes – but in fact, they hardly ever meet. Instead they, like all of us, tend to be caught up in events that are far bigger – in a huge web of agendas and politics and ideologies.

It's being marketed as a thriller, but I'm hoping the reader will pick up that the breakage from the classical thriller form is intentional.

You repeatedly highlight the unknowable workings of cause and effect – as in the passage where Sartaj Singh reflects on a policeman getting killed and his son subsequently becoming wayward and heading down a path of crime. "Each action flew down this tangled net of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again. You tried to arrest some apradhis and a policeman's son went bad."

Yes, and Sartaj also observes at one point that we are continuously being thrown about by forces beyond our control. In fact, at the end of the book he makes a choice, but he doesn't even know in full why he made that choice. Hopefully, the reader by the end will see the mosaic and understand to an extent what is happening and why – but our protagonist has no clue.

It's interesting you say mosaic. That word comes to mind quite often, especially in the way you use the Inset chapters (which don't directly involve Sartaj or Ganesh Gaitonde but provide a background to their lives and the events they are enmeshed in). Personally, I had a problem with those because they interrupted the flow of the story for me and I wanted to stay with the central characters. But their use is very ambitious. In the last Inset, for instance, you present an event that we've already read about earlier in the book – the death of a policeman – but told this time from a different angle (the perspective of the man who kills him). The effect is kaleidoscopic; it's clear that you're reaching for something deeper than the telling of a story through the eyes of two protagonists.

To my mind, the justification for the Insets is that they set up a layer of stories that help us understand more about ourselves. I'm hoping that they will be like the subterranean notes in a symphony, which you can hear in the background.

For instance, there's a scene at the end where Sartaj takes his mother to Amritsar. He sees that she's remote and he assumes that she must be thinking about her deceased husband, his father. But the reader picks up that she's really thinking about her elder sister, who was lost to her in the Partition riots. And we pick this up because of an earlier chapter that tells us about the childhood of this woman. Those layers are to be found everywhere in human lives. Often, people who have been living in the same house for decades don't even realise that the other person has a whole history, an interior life.

My wife Melanie and I spent a month trying to figure out what to leave out of the book, and we looked at the Insets very carefully. But without them, you don't get that sense of background, of complexity. I mean, I admire thriller writers for their virtues – the cleanness of the writing, the economy of their plots – but when I was trying to understand why this guy was getting shot 50 feet from my house, the answers that came to me were far more complicated than "there was one good guy and one bad guy and so on…"

Where does a character as fascinating as Ganesh Gaitonde come from? Is he a composite of different people you met during your research?

The word "research" implies a certain structure that I'm not entirely comfortable with – like a journalist going out to work on a specific, time-bound project. For me it was more random and happenstance. Over a period of time, I spoke with many people from the other side of the law. You talk to them, find out about their lives, but you also take in so much information that's incidental – the way they hold themselves, a silver statue of Krishna in the background – and all that stuff comes together maybe even years later, and out pops this character who is an amalgamation of various things you've seen or even read about.

Gaitonde is part poet, part visionary, initially sceptical of custom, religion, anything that categorises people or creates divisions among them. Eventually, however, he goes along with the myth others create for him – a Krishna bhakt, a Hindu don. Is this another commentary on the human need for structure, for identity?

Evolutionarily, we are built to look for patterns in everything. This translates into ideological narratives. It’s been shown that when there's a blankness in your visual field, the brain fills that in because it can't stand the emptiness; it's so attached to the idea of unity. Gaitonde, despite wanting to be a man alone, to live without structure, is seduced when someone offers him a narrative that “explains” him to himself. And on some level I think we all do that, even the most self-conscious ones among us. In this era of globalisation, there's talk of this unexpected tribalism that's happening. When someone says to us, here's an ideology, here's an explanation of who you are, it's very attractive because I now know my place in the world.

Many of the supposedly bad people I met were actively religious, thoughtful about their lives and like anyone else they want to have a structured existence. There was this hitman, for instance, a highly rated shooter, who was a yoga-doing vegetarian. And he said to me, "Agar main meat khaata hoon, dimag garam ho jaata hai jabki thanda rahna chahiye." ("When I eat meat, my mind gets hot, it doesn't stay cool like it should.") He also kept saying to us, "Why are you writing a book on the underworld? You should investigate life's big problems, the big issues facing us all."

The hitman as philosopher…

And so we asked him: "Listen, it's obvious that you think about all these big things, so how can you justify taking money from someone and putting a bullet through the head of someone you don't even know?" And he replied: "Woh kya hai, upar wale ne uski maut likhi hai aur mera role hai usko maut dena. Main toh natak mein apna role ada kar raha hoon." ("God has decided he has to die and my role is to bring him Death. So I'm just playing my part in the grand scheme.")

Essentially, you see, he's taking the Arjuna position, which is very clever.

It's disturbing to find that people who are capable of such terrible things can be so lucid and self-assured. Reading a book about Pol Pot recently, I was struck by this very intelligent, educated guy with a utopian vision who somehow ended up causing the deaths of millions of people. How does a person like that make the leap from here to there? These questions fascinate me.

As a writer, how do you get into the head of a character (Gaitonde) who offhandedly describes how he hacked an informer to pieces and then went into his house, "ate a little sabudane ki khichdi and went to sleep"?

Obviously, I haven't lived Gaitonde's life, but as a writer you have to find a little part inside yourself that might have that inclination and try to develop it into something bigger. It's a bit like Method acting, and you have to be careful, because like Method actors who disappear into their parts, you can't let it dominate you too much. I guess that's why writers are famously unstable – you spend half your life playing with these creatures who are inside your head!

In some ways it's a relief to get away from the darkness of this world (laughs). I think I'll write something set on a pink island next: boy gets girl, girl gets boy, boy gets boy, everyone is happy!

[Chandra has a strong film connection. He went to film school at Columbia and worked with Vidhu Vinod Chopra (his brother-in-law) on 1942: A Love Story and Mission Kashmir.]

There's this fascinating synergy between the film world and the lives of your gangsters. In one scene Gaitonde and his boys are watching Deewar, and they cry because they identify with what's going on. And one feels it's inevitable that some of these young men will consciously start modeling themselves on the Amitabh character, who in turn was based on the real-life figure of Haji Mastan - creating a never-ending circle.

I think this synergy between life and cinema, or even the visual arts in general, is just a fact of our modern world. We're so saturated with media that, thinking in a science fiction way about the near-future, it might be possible in the next 5-10 years to walk around Delhi wearing visors that overlay a layer of information over the physical world. So if I'm looking at the Red Fort in the distance, I might simultaneously be able to see footnotes about it, or perhaps even a reconstruction of the fort as it once was. Already I have half my life on this thing (pointing to his cellphone). I think we're heading in that direction.

The Deewar passage reminded me of a review I read of the film Heat, where Al Pacino played a cop and Robert De Niro a criminal. The reviewer observed that Pacino and De Niro had already become such icons playing these types of roles that if they went out on the street to observe real-life cops and gangsters, it's likely that those cops and gangsters would have modeled their own personalities on roles played by these very actors 20 years earlier.

Yes, that’s an interesting observation. In that context I think of the Yakuza in Japan, or obviously the mafia in the US and the constant cross-referencing between movies, television and the real-life practitioners. Doing my preparation for the book, I found that policemen and gangsters both had very definite opinions on cinematic depictions of their lives – what was right and wrong. Watching a film called Vaastav, I found that the producer was the brother of one of the underworld players – so the narrative was being constructed by people who actually live it. That was the inspiration for a scene on Gaitonde's boat, where the real-life gangsters become so involved with the making of the film that he's producing.

In the book, this also provides the cue for a very funny passage where a cantankerous old critic watches the movie made by Gaitonde and pronounces it "too filmi and clichéd – the filmmakers have obviously never met a real gangster".

I feel very strongly about this notion of what is "too filmi" as opposed to what is realistic. In India, especially in the upper and middle class, we've had an education that's trained us to see reality in a specific way, which mostly comes from the tradition of psychological realism. So when we see the other kind of representation – of mainline cinema – we deny its reality. But the idea that the novelistic/psychological-realism form can transparently give us what is "real" is very naïve. It's a distressing aspect of critical talk, and given the history of colonialism, we should be more suspicious of this idea. Gauri Viswanathan has done some amazing work about the use of the novel as pedagogical in colonialism – to train young Indian men and women to see the world in a particular way.

Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artifical on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life! Without wanting to generalise about 1.2 billion people, we do express emotion in a way that, say, someone in Massachusetts wouldn't.

A general question about the literary coverage in mainstream media in India. What are your views on the portrait of the writer as celebrity/P3P and the limited space for book reviewing?

A space for serious reviewing is necessary – not just in terms of new books but also in terms of people being able to write about something that was published 10 years ago. American journals provide enormous amounts of space for conversations on literature. Without that space, you're just working alone – with no idea what others are doing.

You drew a lot of attention in India with the million-dollar advance for Sacred Games.

And it's very different elsewhere: if you get a big deal for a book in London or New York, there will be a buzz but the buzz will be confined to the literary trade – it definitely won't make it to the front page of the NYT! The celebrity-obsessed angle of Indian reporting is fascinating. But one has to examine the historical reasons for this: after princely patronage vanished, artists in India worked in a vacuum for a long time. Naturally, the first few big book deals for Indian authors have given a charge to Indian English publishing, and the media has got onto the bandwagon. It's not necessarily a bad thing – it's certainly better than being ignored altogether – but if it takes space away from meaningful conversation about the books, that's a problem.

I have to say, the condition of Indian journalism in general is of some concern too. It's good to see the way TV channels and publications have been coming up in recent times, but there's also so much slapdash stuff in newspapers everyday, put together at the last moment and flung onto the page indiscriminately. In certain newspapers it's so clear that money is doing the talking.

There’s an amusing passage in Sacred Games where a character says, "No one can compete with a writer for mountainous inflations of ego and mouse-like insecurities of soul." Most people who are enthusiastic about writing know that the highs and the lows can both be so intense. When you've put 7-8 years of your life into a book like this, and at the end of it all a critic writes a 600-word review saying "this book should have been 200 pages shorter", do you feel like knocking his head off?

(Laughing) No, I think it's inevitable that some readers won’t have the patience for this structure. With reference to what you said earlier about finding the Insets problematic, I was quite conscious that somewhere along the way the book would lose readers who didn't want to stray far from the central storyline. But as an artist (and I don't mean to sound pompous), one has to try and make the vision in one's own head come together. In classical Sanskrit there's the concept of the reader who has the “same heart”, so to speak – and eventually, even if it takes years, the book will find such a reader somewhere. In the final analysis, maybe that reader is who one writes for.

Will you return to the small-book format after this?

At this point I'm not even thinking about it – I’m just taking a very determined holiday, including a sabbatical from teaching. I have no plans other than to indulge myself by reading whatever I want, watching all kinds of movies and bad television.

[Also see this excellent interview of Chandra by Sonia Faleiro, from much before the book's release.

And this essay by Chandra, "The Cult of Authenticity".

Sacred Games review here.]


  1. Good interview...

    Slightly offtopic, regarding that interesting comment about the detective novel being the only "modern" literary form... I was reading about David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks some time back and the book claimed that it was an example of a "postmodern" detective story. Because the chief detective in the story Agent Cooper, unlike his classical, or even "modern" couterparts, relies more on subjective and unexplainable experiences, dreams and intuition rather than logic or reason. The basic philosophy being that most of our motivations always remain hidden or even unknowable (Freud etc).

    And in the same vein, did't the great novels of psychological realism show the limits of rationality and question the claims of understanding human motivation through cause and effect. A love story might be a concept from a pre-modern age but in the hands of someone like Flaubert or Dostoevsky it becomes more modern than anything by Conan Doyle...

  2. ‘…classical cop/detective story structure, which (and apologies for getting into my college professor incarnation here!) is a post-Enlightenment form. It's the only truly modern form of narrative that we've created. I mean, you can find instances of love stories, stories about families and so on in medieval literature, but the detective form belongs to the age of reason.’

    A book I read last week (‘The Athenian Murders’, by Jose Carlos Somoza ) suddenly seems more interesting in the above context. In it a present day scholar is translating a murder mystery written in ancient Greece (the detective here is the ‘decipherer of enigmas’). A racy read of a story, inside a story, inside a story, inside a story. Considering it’s a ‘detective novel’, that’s enough revealing already.

    Great interview. Compelled to read 'Sacred Games'.

  3. you got a broadband only now!!!!! bad scene.
    i thought you guys in delhi were at least in tune with the latest stuff.

  4. T: I’m currently reading The Janissary Tree, which might be interesting in a similar way.

    Alok: nice observation about Lynch. Wouldn't most of his work follow the dream-and-intuition principle?

    Anon: other guys in Delhi, yes. Not me. I wouldn’t know a tune if it bit me.

    (And pliss to put comment on the right post. This was a Vikram Chandra interview. The broadband post was the earlier one.)

  5. Thanks for this.

  6. Same as T, I feel compelled to buy this book now, though I am not much of a *voracious* reader, if you know what I mean ;).

  7. Neela: not taking it amiss, but this was more a conversation than a straight-and-narrow interview. It often works that way when the interviewer has actually read the book and has specific observations to make about it. (The authors prefer it that way too - it's more interesting than having to answer "questions" like "So, what is the novel all about?") Some of my inputs weren't questions anyway, just commentaries on what he was saying and a way of taking the talk forward.

    (Incidentally, I spoke a lot more during the discussion - have edited some of my musings out! :)

  8. Whether the insets should have been there or not is a tricky thought, because some of them do end up stretching, but the way Chandra has built the whole story up otherwise, with the help of those insets, is quite good.

    I haven't read his first book, loved 'LALIB' and have almost finished this one. Pretty good interview there, I interviewed him myself last week and have posted the interview on my blog. Do have a look ... that time, I hadn't read much of the book so my questions aren't as specific though :-D

  9. What's an inset?
    Those three sisters in the Partition were as important to me as any of the supposedly central gaandus.