Almost eleven years ago, Vikram Chandra came to Delhi to launch his first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. I found a quiet, unassuming man eager to escape the confines of the crumbling Lodhi Hotel. He explained apologetically that he had been driven out of his hotel room because it smelled of corpses; he didn't have to explain why he didn't want to meet in the lobby, because it smelled of sewers. We conducted the interview in Lodhi Gardens, which smelled of neither, and Chandra proved to be an articulate author with a strong sense of history and drama, writes Nilanjana S Roy.
It took almost nine years for Sacred Games, his behemoth 900-page third novel, to grow out of the seeds of a short story featuring a young Mumbai policeman called Inspector Sartaj Singh. In between, Chandra brought out a short story collection, collaborated on a Bollywood film, Mission: Kashmir, and offered a tantalising chunk of "the Sardar cop book" in the New Yorker. Then he disappeared into academia, while we wondered whether Sartaj Singh would ever return to the mean streets of Mumbai.
Sartaj did, along with Gaitonde, a don caught between the urgent needs of the spirit and the flesh; Jojo Mascarenhas, a coolly efficient procurer of film starlets and models; and a cast of dozens. And the Inspector's explorations of the Mumbai underworld, of petty blackmail and international conspiracies involving nuclear bombs, netted Vikram Chandra a million-dollar advance.
That's why this time around we're meeting for lunch at the House of Ming at the Taj Mansingh, where Chandra is staying. It might not be Delhi's most exciting five-star hotel, but it smells of mandarin-grapefruit aromatherapy incense rather than corpses "" Chandra isn't complaining. He orders dimsums, while I settle for a light lemon-vegetable soup, and settles into conversation.
The Mumbai he's gone back to in his writing is a city he's left many times, but never left behind. He spent his early years in boarding school, so Mumbai was "one of the first places that felt like home". As an undergraduate student, he went to the US: "But Mumbai functioned as vatan." In the eighties and the nineties, the Mumbai he knew had begun to change. "There was always the underworld, but in the days of Haji Mastan, the action happened elsewhere.
Then it became more dramatic, and the shootouts and hits came closer to home ""geographically as well." Chandra takes a sip of his Diet Coke. "In my teen years, I'd come close to one 'encounter': we were just driving by and heard automatic weapons firing round the corner." Years later, researching Sacred Games, he talked to a policeman about this early memory. "The cop said, okay, I can tell you who the shooter was and who the policeman was who killed him, but if you really want to understand what it was about, you should talk to X and Y in Delhi."
That's how Sacred Games found its shape, form "" and size. Chandra began meeting people. He met ganglords who had the crisp, businesslike air of corporate mavens, property tycoons who behaved like thugs, "encounter specialists" who were charming, family men unless you recalled that they shot criminals for a living. He met a "23-year-old, pneumatic young thing" on the arm of a middle-aged executive and asked her what she did, expecting to hear that she was an aspiring model. "I'm a courtesan," she told Chandra bluntly. "You meet the strangest people in the most unexpected circumstances," he says, if you're willing to listen to their stories.
"There are grand narratives offered to us that work on our lives in a way we don't see," he says as our steamed rice, light-but-spicy chicken and lotus root vegetables arrive. "There's the grand narrative of the nation-state, physically inscribed into the landscape and into people's bodies at the time of Partition." He saw the twinned stories of Sartaj the cop and Gaitonde the killer as parts of a vast whole that included Partition, geopolitical struggles, the Great Game, and the very contemporary yearning for the revolution that must destroy the world in order to create a brand-new paradise. Some of his ambiguity "" the good guys and the bad guys are not so different from each other, or from us "" comes from his early readings of the Mahabharata. "Reading Kurukshetra, I thought, okay now there'll be a happy ending. And when there wasn't, it sent a chill through my heart: so the good guys can die as well?"
That complexity drove his vision for Sacred Games, despite the inevitable complaints that the book is too long, too layered. "I saw an intricate web of events and people, connections of power and desire running across the whole country." Then he grins. "When I began, I thought I was doing a local story about two guys down the street who had a feud. A short book." We look at the bulk of Sacred Games and start laughing. "Yeah, I didn't realise how long it was because I'd written it in separate chapters. In June 2005, I told Melanie" "" his wife, also a writer "" "let's see how long the damn thing is. It was quite a shock, actually."
After Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra says he's taking "a very determined" holiday; he thinks he's finally done with Inspector Sartaj Singh: "There was one time Melanie and I were having an argument "" the usual couples thing ""and she said, why ... can't you be more like Sartaj? Well, he's got himself a girlfriend now, he can go away."
I tell him as we're finishing with coffee that I don't believe he'll be on vacation too long, that he seems to enjoy writing too much to stop. "Yeah," says Vikram. His accent still owes more to Mumbai than to Berkeley. "Everyone has stories, if you're willing to look for them."
It's not till I re-run the tape for this interview that I realise how accurate he is. The conversation at the kitty-party table-for-14 behind us is captured loud and clear: "But, of course, he bumped her off! It wasn't the affair, na, but she was telling his business secrets in bed." If only Chandra had been at that table, I think, we could have had a great Delhi novel next from Mumbai's novelist of the times.