BOOK EXCERPT

‘Sacred Games’ excerpt: When Sartaj Singh met Ganesh Gaitonde for the first and last time

The encounter sets off a strange turn of events in Vikram Chandra’s novel, which is being adapted into a Netflix series.

Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel Sacred Games is being adapted into a Netflix series. Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, the series will explore, as does the novel, the events that follow after the death of Mumbai gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. He has holed himself up in his hideout, and when police officer Sartaj Singh and his men manage to break in, they find Gaitonde dead from a self-inflicted wound. The Research and Analysis Wing takes over the case, suggesting that there is more here than meets the eye. Even as Sartaj investigates Gaitonde’s past, the mafia don resurfaces as a voice from the dead, narrating his side of the story. Here are edited experts from the only encounter between the policeman and the criminal.

The building was a precise cube, white with green windows, on a large plot of land in Kailashpada, which was on the still-developing northern edge of Zone 13. Here, among the heavy machinery groping at swamp, edging Bombay out farther and wider, Sartaj had come to arrest the great Ganesh Gaitonde, gangster, boss of the G-Company and wily and eternal survivor.

‘How long are you going to stay in there, Gaitonde?’ Sartaj said, craning his neck up. The deep, round video eye of the camera above the door swivelled from side to side and then settled on him.

‘You’re looking tired, Sardar-ji,’ Gaitonde said.

‘I am tired,’ Sartaj said.

‘It’s very hot today,’ Gaitonde said sympathetically. ‘I don’t know how you sardars manage under those turbans.’

There were two Sikh commissioners on the force, but Sartaj was the only Sikh inspector in the whole city, and so was used to being identified by his turban and beard. He was known also for the cut of his pants, which he had tailored at a very film-starry boutique in Bandra, and also for his profile, which had once been featured by Modern Woman magazine in ‘The City’s Best-Looking Bachelors’. Katekar, on the other hand, had a large paunch that sat on top of his belt like a suitcase, and a perfectly square face and very thick hands, and now he came around the corner of the building and stood widelegged, with his hands in his pockets. He shook his head.

‘Where are you going, Sardar-ji?’ Gaitonde said.

‘Just some matters I have to take care of,’ Sartaj said.

He and Katekar walked to the corner together, and now Sartaj could see the ladder they had going up to the ventilator.

‘That’s not a ventilator,’ Katekar said. ‘It only looks like one. There’s just concrete behind it. All the windows are like that. What is this place, sir?’

‘I don’t know,’ Sartaj said. It was somehow deeply satisfying that even Katekar, Mumbai native and practitioner of a very superior Bhuleshwar-bred cynicism, was startled by an impregnable white cube suddenly grown in Kailashpada, with a black, swivel-mounted Sony video camera above the door. ‘I don’t know. And he sounds very strange, you know. Sad almost.’

‘What I have heard about him, he enjoys life. Good food, lots of women.’

‘Today he’s sad.’

‘But what’s he doing here in Kailashpada?’

Sartaj shrugged. The Gaitonde they had read about in police reports and in the newspapers dallied with bejewelled starlets, bankrolled politicians and bought them and sold them – his daily skim from Bombay’s various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes, and his name was used to frighten the recalcitrant. Gaitonde Bhai said so, you said, and the stubborn saw reason, and all roads were smoothed, and there was peace. But he had been in exile for many years – on the Indonesian coast in a gilded yacht, it was rumoured – far but only a phone call away. Which meant that he might as well have been next door, or as it turned out, amazingly enough, in dusty Kailashpada.

‘I’ll beat you’

By the time Bashir Ali had climbed up to his seat on top of the bulldozer he had understood, it seemed, his starring role in the situation. He put his cap on his head with a twirl and pointed it backward. The engine grunted and then settled into a steady roar. Sartaj leaned close to the speaker. The left side of his head, from the nape of the neck to the temples, was caught in a sweeping pulse of heat and pain.

‘Gaitonde?’

‘Speak, Sardar-ji, I’m listening.’

‘Just open this door.’

‘You want me to just open this door? I know, Sardar-ji, I know.’

‘Know what?’

‘I know what you want. You want me to just open this door. Then you want to arrest me and take me to the station. You want to be a hero in the newspapers. You want a promotion. Two promotions. Deep down you want even more. You want to be rich. You want to be an all-India hero. You want the President to give you a medal on Republic Day. You want the medal in full colour on television. You want to be seen with film stars.’

‘Gaitonde . . .’

‘But you know, I’ve had all that. And I’ll beat you. Even in this last game I’ll beat you.’

‘How? You have some of your boys in there with you?’

‘No. Not one. I told you, I’m alone.’

‘A tunnel? A helicopter hidden inside?’

Gaitonde chuckled. ‘No, no.’

‘What then? You have a battery of Bofors guns?’

‘No. But I’ll beat you.’

In Gaitonde’s lair

It was very cold inside the building, and the light was low and luxurious. There was carpet under their feet. There were four square rooms, all white, all empty. And at the exact centre of the building was a very steep, almost vertical, metal staircase going downward through the floor. Sartaj nodded at Katekar, and then followed him down. The metal door at the bottom opened easily, but it was very heavy, and when Katekar finally had it back Sartaj saw that it was as thick as a hatch to a bank vault. Inside it was dark. Sartaj was shivering uncontrollably. He moved past Katekar, and now he saw a bluish light on the left. Katekar slid past his shoulders and went out wide, and then they shuffled forward, weapons held rigidly before them. Another step and now in the new angle Sartaj saw a figure, shoulders, in front of a bank of haze-filled TV monitors, a brown hand near the controls on a black panel.

From Sartaj’s right, where Katekar was, came a very small click, and even as Sartaj turned his head the room was flooded with white neon radiance, generous and encompassing and clean. And in the universal illumination Gaitonde sat revealed, a black pistol in his left hand, and half his head gone.

Gaitonde’s right eye bulged with a bloodshot and manic intensity. Sartaj could see the fragile tracery of pink lines, the hard black of the pupil, the shining seep of fluid from the inside corner, which despite himself he thought of as a tear. But it was only the body reacting to the gigantic blow which had sheared off everything from the chin up on the other side, slicing from the left nostril up into the forehead and spraying a creamy mess on to the white ceiling. A tooth winked pearllike, whole and undamaged, from the raw red where Gaitonde’s tight-lipped grimace stopped abruptly.

‘Sir,’ Katekar said. Sartaj jerked, and followed the rigidly pointing barrel of Katekar’s revolver to a doorway in the white wall. Just where the boundary lay between sharp brightness and darkness, in that shadow, were two small bare feet, toes pointing up at the ceiling. Sartaj stepped up, and he couldn’t see the body clearly, just the cuffs of white pants, but he knew somehow, from the indistinct spread of the hips, that it was a woman.

Photographs, money, secrets

Next to Sartaj’s leg, there was a drawer in the desk. Sartaj found his own handkerchief and pulled at the handle. A small black book sat in the exact centre of the drawer, the edges lined up with the sides of the drawer.

‘Diary?’ Katekar said.

It was an album, black pages covered with sticky film, behind which photographs had been inserted. Sartaj flipped the pages by the very corners. Women, some very young, in posed studio shots, looking over shoulders and holding their faces and cocking their hips, decently dressed but all glamorous.

‘All his women,’ Sartaj said.

‘All his randis,’ Katekar said.

He flipped his blue handkerchief over his index finger and edged open the waist-high filing cabinet that stood at the other end of the desk. Sartaj heard the intake of his breath even over the low hum of the generators. ‘Sir.’

The filing cabinet was full of money. The money was new money, five-hundred-rupee notes in clean little bundles still in the Central Bank of India wrappers and rubber bands, and the bundles were held together in bricks of five by crisp shrink-wrapped plastic. Katekar pushed at the top layer, into the crack between the stacks. There was more underneath. And then more.

‘How much?’ Sartaj said.

Katekar thumped the side of the cabinet gently, thoughtfully. ‘It’s full all the way down. That’s a lot of money. Fifty lakhs? More.’

It was more money than either had ever seen in one place before. There was a decision to be made, and they looked at each other frankly, and Sartaj decided. He nudged the cabinet shut with his knee. ‘Too much money,’ he said.

Katekar exhaled. He was unmistakably wistful for a second, that was all. But it had been him who had taught Sartaj this important lesson of survival, that to lunge for big prizes without enough information was to invite disaster. He shook himself loose now of the enchantment of big money with a huffing noise and a big grin. ‘The big people will take care of Gaitonde’s money,’ he said.

‘Now we wait?’

‘We wait.’

Excerpted with permission from Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra, Penguin Books India.

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