Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra Faber & Faber, HK$270 This wrist-unfriendly 900-page tome can finish off the foot with an accidental slip. Once safely berthed, however, it provides a hair-raising ride through the Mumbai underworld and its sectarian dons as they orchestrate riots, elections, smuggling, espionage, even Bollywood movies, their network stretching across Mumbai bylanes to Thai beaches and Dubai hideaways. Ganesh Gaitonde is the Hindu don and close on his heels is the Sikh policeman Sartaj Singh. The novel opens with an encounter between the two men: Gaitonde has burrowed himself in a concrete bunker and Sartaj, acting on an anonymous tip-off, is attempting to ferret him out. Thereafter, the narrative moves in intertwining threads, Gaitonde's moving back in time, his voice coming to us from beyond the grave, Sartaj's moving forward, as both attempt to explore the events that have led to that encounter. Sacred Games has been billed as a cop-gangster tale that is gothic in character and epic in scale. It's certainly an ambitious project that takes a straight- forward chase, then dives into its subterranean fountainhead to explore the historical events, political ideologies and social triggers that shape the characters and their identities. Gaitonde starts out as a secular gangster, interested in securing territory and amassing wealth. But as his stature grows so does the pressure on him to claim himself a Hindu don, a foil to a rival Muslim gangster. Eventually, so completely does Gaitonde buy into this image of himself that he becomes a Krishna devotee, a custodian of Hindu pride such that even the government's intelligence agency courts him as a bulwark against the growing influence of the Muslim don. Sartaj Singh, the Mumbai cop, first surfaced in Vikram Chandra's story collection, Love and Longing in Bombay. Apparently, the character never quite left the writer, instead wheedling his way over seven years into his third book. Chandra paints a wonderfully flawed character of forty-plus in a middling career, with a broken marriage behind him, corrupt yet morally upright, cynical yet fired by a policeman's zeal. Although Gaitonde and Sartaj are the yin and yang of the plot, they're also tied at a more fundamental plane - each is attempting to understand his self and define his identity. Their paths cross and Chandra strings the connections through physical encounters, and intangibles across time and space: nights of insomnia, vivid recollection of riots, reflections on religion, a Bollywood potboiler. However, the most vivid character in the novel might just be the city of Mumbai, which, of late, seems to be seducing many writers: Suketu Mehta in Maximum City, Gregory David Roberts in Shantaram. Chandra, an award-winning writer and University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, is a Mumbai boy and this is his lusty ode to his city rendered piquantly in English shot through with Bambaiyya lingo. The local words, in plentiful, un-italicised use, may initially confound a non-Indian reader but will reward the brave as they artfully mimic the city's favourite dish - pav bhaji, a spicy amalgam. The book, eminently filmable in parts, draws on Bollywood's underworld film noire and Chandra's knowledge of the Hindi film industry - his mother has written scripts for several popular Hindi films, his two sisters are variously film director and film critic. Mostly, it works. Despite its mammoth size, Sacred Games is pacy and the internal monologues are balanced with lively conversation. Chandra provides quite a few laughs as he takes digs at Hindi films, film critics and his own ilk of writers. When Gaitonde decides to finance a film, his writer lists rules for making a good movie story. 'The heroine must be very sexy, but she can never have sex. The hero's mother must be introduced early, and our love for her must be total. And, once at the climax, move it along fast, because the audience is going to get up and start leaving so they can beat the traffic jam outside.' Chandra falters when he leads Gaitonde on a tedious spiritual journey with its associated Hindu-philosophy hokum. His use of 'insets' - narrative pieces that provide a rich background to his various characters - makes the book lumpy. And the last inset, 55 pages long and placed right at the end of the novel, seems like another attempt to shore the novel as an epic worthy of commandeering a million- dollar advance.