Indian lit is hot, and Mumbai fans the flames as a key character in a new novel. The author of Sacred Games reveals what makes the city so … cool.
To get to know a city from top shelf to bottom and everything between, follow a cop. Or so thought author Vikram Chandra, who tails Inspector Sartaj Singh through Mumbai in his latest novel, Sacred Games.
At first, Chandra lets Singh and his fellow characters lead the reader around the crowded, teeming city as if through a maze. No frame of reference, no ability to determine just where they stop to eat or reflect or interrogate. Gradually, though, as Chandra builds his plot and draws fine detail and shadow into his people, the city's topography emerges. Mumbai rises from the pages like a three-dimensional paper city in a pop-up book.
It's presented so realistically that opening Sacred Games to read the next chapter feels like stepping off an airplane and into India's commercial and entertainment capital itself (only not as hot and humid). By the end of the book, Mumbai seems so familiar, you could drive it without a map.
Not that Chandra would advise that, given the traffic. So we asked him to take us on a virtual guide of his favorite hangouts. He's had plenty of time to find them; Chandra's family moved to Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) in the mid-1970s, and he spent three years there before going off to college in the United States. "Bombay was the first city that felt like home to me," Chandra says. "It feels that way to a lot of people; it has that kind of energy. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, it can find a place for you."
You could say something similar about the United States and India: The Indian subcontinent has already found its place in the American imagination. Indian fiction is hotter than a Mumbai summer's day. True, the fascination began with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children two decades ago, but just in the past several years, U.S. readers have caught on to Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies); Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things); Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy); Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance); Kiran Desai (2006 Man Booker Prize winner for The Inheritance of Loss); and Chandra, whose first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, caught the attention of critics and readers alike. But it's Sacred Games - and the reported $1 million-plus Chandra was paid for it - that's made him a media darling in America.
ALTHOUGH CHANDRA AND his wife teach creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, they spend five months a year in Bandra, a centrally located suburb of Mumbai. A popular corner pub there is Olive Bar & Kitchen, a chic Mediterranean spot frequented by Bollywood stars (some of whom live nearby in the posh Pali Hill area). Another neighborhood place is China Gate, which serves Indian-style Chinese food. "Indians like certain spices, a certain kind of taste - a combination of spice and sweetness," Chandra says. "These guys have come up with it. My wife, Melanie, says it's her favorite Chinese food in the world."