Vikram Chandra is an easy man to hang around with. His hair is tousled; his demeanour, casual. It isn't hard to imagine a gangster drawing out life stories for his perusal. Which probably explains why a number of gangsters did -- as did a number of Mumbai's police officers -- when Chandra went about doing research for his novel, Sacred Games.
With Mumbai's underworld as a backdrop, the book is, in a sense, about that timeless battle between good and evil. And yet, its characters -- police detective Sartaj Singh versus gangster Ganesh Gaitonde -- never really stick to the boundaries this battle necessitates. They exist almost constantly within a grey area, their motives crystal clear only to themselves. It is a long ride, but a fast one, with a great deal of almost Bollywood-inspired masala thrown in for good measure.
For now, the author and I are at the Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, suburban Mumbai, sitting around a table at the business centre, surrounded by cups of coffee and bottles of water. Vikram Chandra has just flown in from Delhi, and is feeling a bit under the weather. The weather itself is unrelenting, with grey skies and incessant rain making the hotel seem warmer and brighter than usual.
Not so long ago, much was made of the million-dollar advance he obtained for Sacred Games, supposedly the highest ever paid to an Indian writer. There was a bidding war for publishing rights, and Penguin India is finally set to release it, with translations in a few regional languages to follow. If the author is worried about expectations riding on his 900-page novel, it doesn't show.
Much has happened since Chandra, determined to become a writer, moved to America, came across an autobiography of a soldier and made him the central character of his debut novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995). He has since published an award-winning collection of short stories (Love and Longing in Bombay, 1997), worked as a computer programmer for clients as intriguing as the Houston Zoo, taught literature and writing at the University of California, and even co-written a Hindi film (Mission Kashmir).
It's been a colourful life.
On this rainy evening, he appears quite at ease. The novel is out, and there's nothing to do but wait for reactions. As we talk about his work, other facets of Vikram Chandra's personality creep in. I learn that he likes the film L A Confidential; he talks about sitting down to dinner with real-life gangsters and enjoying their brand of humour; he asks if I've read the British writer Lindsay Davis who writes crime fiction set in classical Rome; and, yes, he even does a mean imitation of Shashi Kapoor from the film Deewar, going "Mere paas maa hain..." before laughing out loud.
As I said, definitely an easy person to hang around with. Excerpts from an interview:
Read an exclusive extract from Sacred Games: Tales from the Underworld
Text: Lindsay Pereira. Photographs: Sanjay Sawant.