Saturday, April 5, 2008

I Finally Finished It!

While we were waiting in the Denver Airport for three hours, and on the two-hour flight, I got a huge chunk read of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and I finished it just yesterday. It felt like I had been reading the 900-page novel for months, away on a trip to India. I think I developed my biceps just lugging this book around the house. While I was reading it, I found myself absently repeating the Hindi swear words like maderchod and bhenchod (apologies to anyone who speaks Hindi) to myself since much of the dialogue is peppered with them (they mean pretty much what you think they mean). I found myself perking up at hearing any Indian-accented voice on the radio, and humming the songs from "Monsoon Wedding" to myself.
This is one of those books with a two-page list of characters at the beginning and a 16-page glossary at the end, as Chandra casually uses many Hindi, Punjabi, and other Indian language words throughout. But since half the words I looked up in the glossary weren't even included, I realized he wasn't really concerned with defining everything for non-Indian readers. In an interview with him on, he says he wanted to create the experience of being in a different culture, where you are surrounded by cultural references and brand names and slang you don't understand. Maybe this is why I really did feel immersed in the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and textures of India.
The book also refers to lots of classic Bollywood movies, and songs and lines from those movies, and a large part of the plot is about the film stars and starstruck film fans in India. I've never seen a Bollywood film. Chandra recommends a few to see in his interview (Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957); Kaagaz ke Phool ("Paper Flowers," 1959); Mughal-e-Azam ("The Great Mughal," 1960); Sholay ("Embers," 1975); Parinda ("Bird," 1989); Satya (1998); Lagaan ("Land Tax," 2001); Lage Raho Munnabha ("Keep at it, Munnabhai," 2006). Has anyone seen any of these?
The novel is about the rise and fall of a powerful Indian gangster, and is set after 9/11/01, although there are many flashbacks in time to the Partition and its aftermath, and a number of side plots. It's also about terrorism, the criminal underworld, the Pakistan/India conflict, corruption (especially in the Indian police), politics, poverty, religious faith, and the nature of love. What it's really about is the emptiness at the center of a boy who cannot go back home, who searches all his life to replace the father he lost, who ultimately cannot find happiness or satisfaction because of the emptiness inside.
You don't embark upon a journey like this lightly. But in addition to the small feeling of loss I feel after I read something that really captures me, I feel the satisfaction of having been halfway around the world and back inside the pages of a book.

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