My electric nights with Vikram Chandra

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Can e-readers make gigantic books like Sacred Games more readable? Yes, and it can also change the way you read

By Altaf Tyrewala

Illustrations: Sudeep Chaudhuri

WHEN VIKRAM Chandra’s Sacred Games was published in 2006, I had cracked uninspired jokes about the novel’s gigantic dimensions. Waiting for the wheelie version, I would say, when asked if I’d read the book. At nearly a thousand pages, Chandra’s was the fattest novel by an Indian-origin writer in recent years. It had also been bestowed with advances to match. Given the size, the money, and the overarching hype, the damn thing had become unreadable even before it hit the stands. For several months after its release in India, one couldn’t walk into a bookstore without seeing Sacred Games prominently displayed in show windows. By then I knew enough about the workings of the publishing industry to identify ATBR-category books (advance-to-be-recovered) and the reason for their continuing spot in the limelight. Sacred Games, however, managed to transcend the off-putting hoopla surrounding itself, achieving critical eminence through reviews, awards, and inclusion in prestigious book-lists around the world. Here was that rare book that had earned its stripes.

I persisted in my refusal to read the novel. As a writer living and working in Mumbai, I’d established a rule: if a book couldn’t be carried into the city’s overcrowded suburban trains during rush hour, it did not merit my readership. It was a self-defeating middle-class snootiness, precluding my enjoyment of hundreds of masterpieces, but anyone who has endured the horror of those daily train rides will know that you cannot shrink yourself enough on a 6.08 pm Virar fast. A thousand-page book like Sacred Games belonged elsewhere, in a world of wide roads and spacious homes and peaceful rides in climate-controlled modes of public transport.

The question — who do you write for — when posed to an Indian writer in English (IWE), is almost always a coded insult, implying the foregone conclusion that the IWE writes for western agents, western publishers and western audiences. It doesn’t help that today’s most celebrated Indian writers are either full-time foreign residents, or, like Chandra himself, divide their time between India and some affluent foreign nation. (A writer shuttling between Patna and Mombasa is yet to be born.) It shouldn’t really matter where a book was written as long as it has remained faithful to its milieu, which could be down the street or thousands of kilometres away. However, when a novel like Sacred Games appears on the literary landscape, asserting its physicality with as much force as its alleged literary worth, that old vexatious question begs to be posed with renewed fervor: for whom did Chandra write Sacred Games? What sort of ideal reading environment did Chandra have in mind when he allowed his work-in-progress to grow and grow into its final oversized avatar? Did he give thought to how readers around the world might carry the book through the day, what position they might adopt while plowing through it, and what would happen if one of those readers accidentally dropped the thousand-page tome onto someone’s poor toes? The paperback edition of Sacred Games resolved many of the size and weight-related issues of the hard-cover version; in my mind, however, the novel still preserved its aura of unwarranted immenseness.

My unwillingness to tackle Sacred Games was symptomatic of a larger malaise. In recent years, I’d found a waning in my desire to read at all. With proprietary book shops being nudged out of existence by gigantic corporate chain-stores, one could no longer go book hunting without being stymied by the profusion of published reading material. There is something awe-inspiring about having thousands and thousands of books brought together under the roof of a single store. But excess also leads to paralysis. It is often easier to choose between A, B and C, rather than the entire alphabet, especially when it comes to books, which are so convenient to pick up and sample as compared to music albums or film DVDs, which require the mediation of technology before they can yield their substance. I’ve whiled away countless evenings in Mumbai’s book malls, wandering through the aisles and dismissing books on the flimsiest of grounds: too many pages; such an obvious premise; what embarrassingly gushy blurbs; that lurid cover design; the inane smile on the author’s face; those stolid first paragraphs. It was a vicious circle: I was trying to write my second novel while growing increasingly impatient with books in general. There came a time when I couldn’t enter a bookstore without groaning at the countless shelves of “crap” waiting to be diced-up by His Highness the Bitter Generalising Prick.

I couldn’t enter a bookstore without groaning at the ‘crap’ waiting to be diced-up by His Highness the Bitter Generalising Prick

If Sacred Games hadn’t been thick as a brick, I would have found some other excuse to give the book a miss. The problem was not with this book or that one, but in the way books in general had been devalued in my imagination. What I needed was some way to make books precious to me once again; a way to counteract the taint of chain-store profusion attached to books and to salvage the reading experience from the noise of a book’s overbearing physicality. In other words, what I yearned for was the ‘problematisation’ in the delivery of literature.

Given my litany of complaints, I may as well have invented the e-reader myself.

I’VE BEEN using one of these gizmos for a month, and can already see how it has begun renegotiating my assimilation of written material. This is the first month of my adult life that I haven’t purchased physical books. Where usually there would be a pile of volumes comprising my current (non)reading list strewn around the house, there now sits a single slim paperback-sized plastic device containing 10 downloaded e-books, and the capacity to hold hundreds more. In its ability to reduce clutter alone, the e-reader has made my spouse a devotee. I’m still sceptical. Many of the books that I’ve been seeking to dive into for years aren’t available in the digital format as yet: The City in History by Lewis Mumford, for instance, or Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. The e-book technology is still new and the reservoir awaiting digitisation is staggeringly vast. It might take decades before mankind’s overactive output of text has been converted into bytes. The search is no longer for books, but for digitally downloadable titles capable of being read on my e-reader. Given the limited choices, there is still joy in the hunt and relish in one’s find.

A more reliable understanding of e-reading habits and their effects will emerge a few months or years later. Can e-book stores remain immune to chain-store profusion? Will the e-reader surmount our growing inability to concentrate? It is inevitable that the ease of downloading titles will eventually devalue books, the way digitisation has made music and films pedestrian. These early days of e-reading, like the early days of most digital technologies, are probably the golden era of e-books, when the technology is still rudimentary enough for the content to be king, and before product designers and marketing gurus have figured out ways to make sentences shimmer and dance and for cynical corporations to make money off all this. There’s no telling how things might pan out in the long run. E-readers could prove critics wrong and not be the death of reading. For now, at any rate, the e-reader is accomplishing its task satisfactorily: it has got jaded writers like me reading again — and not just any old book, but the elephantine and intimidating Sacred Games.

The digitisation of a thousand-page book is like the teletransportation of Star Trek characters. The resulting vacuum is startling
The digitisation of a thousand-page book is like the teletransportation of Star Trek characters. The resulting vacuum is startling

The digitisation of a thousand-page book is like the teletransportation of Star Trek characters. The resulting vacuum is startling. It took less than a minute to download Sacred Games onto my e-reader. As I began reading the novel, the number of its pages — 932 to be precise — were reduced to a concept, a footnote that I was only marginally aware of as I unbuttoned the book’s pages click by click. There was no milestone to mark my location in the book, no physical accumulation indicating what I’d finished and how much remained. There was just the page — each page unfolding as an event unto itself. It is too late for a scholarly review of Chandra’s much-analysed novel. I usually say this about every book I am caught up with, but I probably mean it most this time: Sacred Games is possibly one of the best books I’ve read. It is epic in scale and existential in its specificity. Take a little time to mull over the staggering effect of such an achievement. Imagine The Outsider set in Mumbai, crammed with hundreds of disillusioned, hard-boiled Meursaults, each of whom are intertwined in an array of intricate and powerful narrative strands that seem to have been conceived of by some other-worldly force. Well-written books induce envy in other writers; excessively well-written books invoke humiliation. Sacred Games is demolishing me.

THE E-READER has exchanged one sort of anxiety — about one’s physical progress through a book — for another: The panic over the narrowing bar of the battery indicator. My experience of reading Sacred Games is continually circumscribed by the remaining juice in my e-reader’s battery. Solarpowered cellphones are already a reality. Some day, e-readers too might no longer require electrical recharging. Until that happens, no matter how efficient e-reader batteries become, the usage of these devices will have to be undertaken within reaches of civilisation’s grid.

At 33, I can’t foresee too many instances of being away from an electrical outlet. But things were different a decade ago, when I was working on my first novel and would spend weeks at a time at an uncle’s beach-side bungalow in a little-known fishing village north of Mumbai. The electric supply at the village was spotty at best. I would often be up till late, reading and making notes under candle light. I was terrified by the rural isolation yet somehow energised by it.

Those years of rigour and discomfort were as much a test of my mind as they were of my physical stamina. I had instinctively shunned technology during those stays in the village, leaving my laptop in the city and carrying only a CD-walkman for times when I craved some relief. It was an intense, austere and authentic time of my life, and when I try to imagine what it would have been like with an e-reader around, I see my younger solemn self, with his ferocious literary aspirations, tossing out the device like it was some needless and silly distraction.

Tyrewala is the author of No God in Sight

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