Hope in a World of Crime: A Study of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

Nanditha Rajaram Shastry, JNTU, Hyderabad

Society generally perceives the criminal as evil, the victim as innocent, and the law as the saviour. These three categories are assumed to be watertight, with no possibility of overlapping. A criminal can be nothing but bad, a victim by definition is innocent, and the law strives to scour the society of criminals.

But this is seldom the case. Especially in the modern era, when there seems to be no centre, and nothing seems as it is, crime is not restricted to a section of society – it is ubiquitous. Along with the omnipresent nature of crime, the gradual rise in crime rate reflects the state of the world, which is a sphere of conflict. Here, survival becomes paramount, and moral categories of good and bad, just and unjust are blurred and everyone becomes culpable. Even a lawgiver in one scenario can be a criminal in another.

Vikram Chandra’s (b. 1961) crime novel Sacred Games (2006) deals with the complexities of crime. The novel follows the fortunes of a gang-lord, Ganesh Gaitonde, who tells his own story till his death. Sartaj Singh is another prominent presence in the novel, who, after being on the scene of Gaitonde’s death, seeks to unearth the mystery of Gaitonde’s presence in Mumbai, and its sinister consequences. He meets Mary Mascarenas, the sister of Gaitonde’s associate, and falls in love with her, not before discovering her resilience despite being betrayed by her sister and husband. As insets, the reader discovers, among others, the partition tale of Sartaj Singh’s mother and the story of K.D, the former intelligence agent who once trained Gaintonde.

The instances of crime in the novel are numerous. In fact, the novel begins with an instance of domestic violence that also affects the pet dog in the family. There are instances of blackmail, notably the blackmail faced by Kamala Pandey. The pages inhabited by the gang lord Ganesh Gaitonde are packed with kidnapping, murders and prostitution rackets, and the most catastrophic crime of all – the nuclear war planned by ‘Guruji’.

The plethora of characters in the novel can be divided into criminals, the people who bring criminals to justice, i.e. the police, and the victims. By this distinction then, the criminals are Ganesh Gaitonde and his gang, Umesh the pilot, and Guruji. Sartaj Singh, Katekar, Kamble, Parulkar, from the police force, and Anjali Mathur, from the intelligence wing, represent the section of society that fight the criminals. Kamala Pandey and Mary Mascarenas are victims.

But can such a distinction be made for certain? Are criminals none but evil creatures, and victims, innocent people?

A closer perusal of the novel reveals that this is not the case. Ganesh Gaitonde, although a gangster, is as human as Sartaj Singh. Gaitonde shows genuine concern towards his friend Paritosh Shah’s daughter, is kind to all his employees, even giving his right-hand man a high-tech wheelchair when he has an accident, and provides the residents of his colony, Navnagar, with all amenities. Even when he is scared about the impending destruction of Mumbai, he makes sure that the woman he considers his friend, Jojo, is safe. He is as much a victim as Mary herself. He trusts Jojo and Zoya, when they are, in fact, fooling him, using him for money and leverage.

Interestingly, it is only the ‘non-criminal’ characters who are bothered about caste and religion in the novel. Sartaj Singh’s mother hates Muslims as her sister went missing after the Partition. The constable Katekar, who is an OBC (Other Backward Caste) cannot stand his superior Parulkar because he is a Brahmin. But the gangsters do not consider religion as important. In the novel, the distinction between the ‘Hindu’ gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and the ‘Muslim’ Suleiman Isa is merely one of political machinations. In his organisation, Gaitonde recruits people from all religions. As he once says, Bhais are “truly secular” (251).

Another criminal in the novel, Umesh, is a blackmailer who stoops to even victimising his own lover Kamala Pandey. But the woman is no victim. She has an extra-marital affair with Umesh. Her rationalizations and justifications seem hollow, and only serve to reinforce her hypocrisy. The novel also suggests that she was as much a perpetrator of domestic violence as her husband (4).

The police too are not crime-free. All the police personnel in the novel are seen taking bribes and indulging in corruption at various levels. For instance, early on in the novel, the Sub-Inspector Kamble takes a bribe from a poor man in order to give a No Objection Certificate to release a dead body (7). He also speaks of hoarding money, in order to enter the “Flying Squads”, a police unit (11). While the “encounter specialist” Samant has a hospital to his name (237), Parulkar’s has so much illegal money that he invests the money into profitable ventures, every single month (82). Even the “hero” of the novel, Sartaj Singh is not infallible. Although there are references to a time when Sartaj Singh was honest, in the ‘now’ of the novel, he takes bribes, much like everyone else. Towards the end of the novel, he even betrays his mentor Parulkar, who is suspended as a result, and commits suicide.

All these prove that no one is free from crime. This is more a reflection of the milieu than the characters per se, as they are but a product of their circumstances. The police conduct raids on dance bars, only to get money from the owners of the bars, but this is an accepted practice; a routine that everyone follows (18). And why are the police corrupt? The measly salaries they are paid take care of nothing, not even their petrol charges, and certainly not the money they need to give to informers to get them valuable leads on cases. Also, the hard work they actually put into the catching of criminals deserves a better reward than the money they get as salary. When Kamble recovers stolen mobile phones, he keeps a few phones for himself. Sartaj Singh thinks it is fair, as it compensates for the hard work by Kamble (101).

After all, money is what makes the world go around. It even determines who remains behind bars and who walks scot-free. Sartaj Singh recalls an incident when he finds a hard-core criminal, Bahzad Hussain, roaming in the markets of Mumbai, while ostensibly serving a sentence. Hussain’s reply to Singh’s query about his freedom sums up the materialistic age in which the novel is set — “paisa phek, tamasha dekh” (11), or “throw money and watch the show unfold.”

It is to fight crime despite the difficulties they encounter that the police in the novel resort to corruption and a brand of goondaism. The political situation where disorder and disarray rule forces the police to deal with crime in a novel way. As Kamble says, if the situation were in control, he would not need to resort to unlawful activities (763). It is necessary to be ruthless to fight the evil. As Parulkar says, “We are good men who must be bad to keep the worst men in control. Without us, there would be nothing left, there would only be a jungle” (106).

Further, the police are not altogether without decency. Early on in the novel, a mother brings her son to the police station because she wants the police to tell her son sternly to attend school. Sartaj Singh puts on a show of cruelty, just to make the son scared enough to go to school. He even refuses to take money from the mother (13).

If both the police and the criminals have a good as well as a bad side to them, what is it that distinguishes the criminal from the police? Does one section deserve our support, and the other, our brickbats? The answer is in a statement made by Manika, a bar dancer, who comments after being shown the picture of the dead body found along with Gaitonde – “The man who did this is a rakshasa. But don’t feel too good, you’re a rakshasa also. But maybe you’ll catch that rakshasa. And punish him” (105). This not only means that the police should be bad to catch the worse, as Parulkar says, but also that the police’s work goes slightly beyond monetary concerns; they are out there to scourge the society of crime. For this, they ought to become demons.

This brings us to another question – Are there only bad, and worse people in the novel? Is there no moral centre in the novel, who can be a source of inspiration and strength to do the right thing?

Yes, there is. Mary Mascerenas is the moral centre of the novel. She is also a victim, i.e. she is driven out of her own home, because her sister starts an affair with her husband, and has to struggle in the city. But she does not lose heart; she makes a life for herself by working in a beauty parlour. She is a victim, but does not hold resentment against her oppressors. She forgives everyone who hurts her.

To an extent, even Katekar the police constable, in the little time he is present in the novel, provides a moral centre. He is sincere in his duty and has a sense of perspective. He understands that there is something beyond duty – relationships and family.

This leads us to the next point – the solutions in the novel. Mary and Katekar’s lives seem to provide a solution to the grimy world of moral uncertainties. Mary’s life teaches us that it is better to forgive than hold resentment. It is this virtue of forgiveness that makes Sartaj Singh love Mary and find inner peace.

Katekar’s love of his family also can be a possible solution. It is where he finds peace and solace, and where he gets the mental strength to carry on in his tough job, day in and day out.

In fact, close relationships become a solution for the problems most of the characters encounter in the novel. While Sartaj Singh is happiest with his mother and with Mary, Katekar, as noted earlier, finds solace with his family. Also, Ganesh Gaitonde’s streak of humanity becomes marked only when he is with his wife and child, and with his friend Jojo.

The main message of the novel is that there is hope in every nook and corner of the world. Sartaj Singh, while returning from Amritsar, sees a family that has managed to fashion a happy life, purely by means of hard work.

[…] He was surprised by an infusion of joy that spread like warm syrup through his chest. He resisted, because there was no basis for this hope. This was just one family, one story. And yet, here it was: this man had travelled far, and they had worked, and they had made a life. Now their daughters looked forward to more. […] But Sartaj could not keep a smile from his face. (941)

The hope that something new can be made out of life through hard work, and not by hurting others, that life need not be just about crime and criminals, provides an anchor for Sartaj to continue believing in the spirit of humanity.

Finally, it is important to do one’s duty, without thinking of consequences, because it is not possible to anticipate results. What is necessary is to do what one has to do, and leave the consequences to God. This is akin to the “sthitapragna” concept in the Bhagawad Gita, which is essentially about doing one’s duty without fear of consequences, and be unswerving at all times, and believe in God, without thinking of oneself in absolute terms. What is important is being proactive, rather than being passive. It is appropriate to conclude with Sartaj Singh’s thoughts at the end of the novel, in the Golden Temple at Amritsar. “[…] He did not know whether he was a good man or a bad man, or whether his actions were rooted in faith or fear. But he had acted […]” (939).


Chandra, Vikram. Sacred Games. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Nanditha Rajaram Shastry has completed her M.A. in English literature from EFLU, Hyderabad and is now pursuing her PhD from JNTU, Hyderabad. Her topic of research is Indian writing in English. She has presented papers in many international and national conferences. Her articles have been published in journals. She prepared e-content for the E-Consortium of Studies, EMMRC, Hyderabad. She writes short stories and poetry in her free time.