Where do novels come from? Salman Rushdie imagined a great sea of stories, always intermingling, always adaptable. Vikram Chandra, author of three major novels, offered a much grittier vision of the origin of stories as he spoke about the genesis of his sprawling novel, Sacred Games. “Curiosity drives the making of a book,” Chandra explained. “My curiosity began as I considered the nature and structure of corruption. The story grew out of the anger and fear that accompanied the increase in crime in Mumbai in the early 1990s—and the discovery that organized crime came awfully close to home, and the recognition of how soon we become used to it.
“In my desire to understand the nature and structure of corruption, I talked to everyone I could in order to find out what was going on in my city. This included the bad guys, who, it turns out, were easier to find than those fighting crime, who by necessity keep a low profile. We like to think the underworld is a place very far away from our lives. It’s not.
“The detective novel is the one new narrative form of the modern era,” explains Chandra, professor of creative writing at Berkeley. “The detective is the incarnation of celestial order. In detective stories, there is always a solution, and there is magic. On TV, forensic equipment reveals secrets like the waving of hands to cast spells.
“I had intended to write a simple 250-word detective story, but I found I couldn’t write about crime without writing about politics and the partnership of crime and the state which allows it to exist. I couldn’t write about politics without considering religion and media, and all this had to be set in the context not only of the struggle of states in South Asia, but also the domestic scene behind all the players, criminals and otherwise. The story took on the shape of a mandala—a circle of seemingly unrelated elements that lead inevitably back to the beginning, the symmetry of the world.”
Chandra splits his time between California and Mumbai. The award winning Sacred Games was published in 2007 it follows his earlier works, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), and Love and Longing in Bombay (1997). His talk and reading, “Sacred Games: Reading Gangsters, Writing Cops,” was the 2012 Hrisikesh and Sailabala Bhattachara Memorial Lecture, and was sponsored by the Dhar India Studies Program, the Asian American Studies Program, and the Creative Writing Program.