by Rajeshwar Mittapalli (Kakatiya University, India) and Letizia Alterno (University of Manchester, UK)
Delhi, Atlantic 2009






Postcolonial literature is more than a bridge between settler and settled cultures. It is a new kind of space that does not establish boundaries: it dissolves them. More a way than a place, it looks familiar to a psychoanalyst eye. Vikram Chandra writes about illusions whose fading does not unveil a new ideology nor an impotent cinycism. In his Sacred Games we notice the irreversible weakening of the phallic identity. Gaitonde, a major gangster, and Jojo, a procuress, defend their identity playing the favourite strife between men and women, the same represented by Carmen and Don Josè in the famous lyric opera by Bizet.
The sikh inspector Sartaj is in charge of foiling a fundamentalist atomic attack which could destroy Bombay, and he investigates more as a detective than as a policeman.

The ethic of Sacred Games is close to Freud's one, to be found, for example, in Vergänglichkeit (1915).


1. 'Don't you understand?'

2. The favourite strife
3. The phallic axis grows dim

4. Another day

1. ‘Don't you understand?’

Ganesh Gaitonde, the wealthy head of one of Mumbai’s most powerful criminal gangs, has secretly collaborated with the Indian secret services, and has had as his spiritual guide an internationally famous guru.  He has discovered that his Guru-ji has organized, with his help, an atomic attack that will destroy the city, in order to attribute responsibility to an Islamic terrorist organization that has been created for this purpose.  The aim of his spiritual guide, whom he had considered as the caring father that he had never known, is to bring about a pure India, cleaner and more orderly even than Singapore.

Ganesh Gaitonde has unsuccessfully tried to stop the attack, and is now waiting in the atomic bunker at Kailashpada, where he will survive the city’s destruction.


He is very lonely, however, and his identity has nothing left to support it: only Jojo Mascarenas, to whom he is linked by the understanding experienced in so many telephone conversations over the years, is able to stop his being slipping endlessly away:


We were so small, and this world was so vast. Without her voice in my hear, I was smaller still.

I had to bring her in. (Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, 2006; p. 805)


Jojo Mascarenas had once tried to become an actress, and then became a success procuring models and aspiring actresses for rich and powerful men.  The most important of these is a former Miss India who has become a famous actress, Zoya Mirza.  Jojo has proposed that she becomes Ganesh Gaitonde’s lover, and has thus found her the financier for her cinema career and for the plastic surgery that has made her perfect.  The gangster first tries to convince his friend, whom he has never met in person, to join him in the bunker.  Meeting with no success, he brings her there by force.


She tries to convince him to let her go, but Gaitonde is unbending:


‘Don’t you understand? I can’t stay like this. I can’t. I have to go out. You can’t keep me in this jail.’

‘Don’t you understand? Up there you’ll die.’

‘So what? I would rather die than stay in this hole.’ (Ib., p. 813)


Gaitonde forces her to stay in the modern bunker, which is supplied with every luxury, as an expression of the force that allows her to save herself.  For Jojo it is an unbearable prison.

In this confrontation, their understanding, thanks to which each had been able to understand the other’s mood just from hearing their voice on the telephone, vanishes.

Gaitonde is unable to take Jojo’s words seriously, and tries to impose himself, maintaining that what she is saying is nonsense: he, unlike her, knows what she needs:


‘That is complete nonsense. You’re crazy right now. You know that’s not the truth. You don’t want do die.’ (Ibidem)


Why does Gaitonde not try to understand her, why does Jojo not take into account the fact that Gaitonde cannot remain in a situation that puts his back to the wall?

Don’t you understand?’ they ask each other as if in mutual incomprehension.  Jojo Mascarenas should put her pride to one side to allow him to show his virility and should bear witness to the only truth that he can manifest: only I can save you, and if I hurt you it’s for your own good.  She could manage to understand that his unstoppable blind determination is the only form of love that he can give her.  She could at least pretend to listen to him to save herself.

But Jojo is unwilling or unable to play the game between men and women that accepts ancient limits, which seems ridiculous to her.  Her aim is not to be subjected, to challenge him:


Shall I tell you the truth, Gaitonde? You are a coward. You used to be something, you used to be a man, but now you are a trembling little madman hiding in a pit.’ (Ibidem)


Jojo knows that his reaction will be violent, and is not surprised when he responds with a violent backhander and follows her shouting words that could very well emerge from the mouth of a sexual abuser :


‘Randi.’ I followed her around the room as she staggered back. ‘You want to see what kind of man I am? Let me show you. No, come, come. Here, you want some more? Who’s trembling, han? Who’s shaking?” (Ibidem)


Her mouth bleeding, Jojo laughs: he has not shown her anything, he cannot shock her, stop her, master her, silence her.  The mirror that Perseus used to defeat the petrifying Medusa can also be wielded by a woman:


‘You, you’re not a man,” she said. She spat laughter at me, and stood her ground. “You bought women so you think you’re a great hero. None of them never liked you, you bastard. Without your cash, you wouldn’t even have been able to come near them.’ (Ibidem)


Gaitonde does not want to believe and cannot believe that she is telling the truth, and tries to hit her again, telling her that he wants to save her.  Jojo agilely dodges the blow and counterattacks:


‘Bas,’ I warned her. ‘Enough. Be quiet. Understand - I am trying to help you. I am trying to save your life.’

‘They laughed at you, gaandu. They made jokes together, about what a pathetic, weak little rat you are. You think you are anything in front of a woman like Zoya? She told us that she never got one good night in bed out of you.’(Ibidem)



His masculine pride cut to the quick, Ganesh Gaitonde forgets that Jojo is as fragile as he is, and that like him she is afraid.  Jojo becomes immense, supported by the mocking choir of all the women that she has procured for him.  If he is unable to subject her, if his pride is humiliated, then it is the woman who has taken away his phallic power.

Gaitonde has always been afraid that Zoya Mirza did not love him, that she faked her pleasure with him. Visiting Universal Studios, when Zoya dreamed of working with Arnold Schwarzenegger and winning an Oscar, Gaitonde  imagined that he gave her the pleasure that she was looking for and that she faked with him.

When Jojo tells him what he has always suspected, she breaks the veil of doubt that protected him from this humiliating truth.  Gaitonde is now helpless, like a child caught by his mother whilst doing something wrong.


In order to understand the fascinating and tragic sacred game of Ganesh Gaitonde and Jojo Mascarenas, we need to open a psychoanalytic map.

The mother has the power to deceive her son into believing that he is her favourite, her only love, and to disillusion him harshly when ever she prefers another, older and more powerful: the father.  An equilibrium is needed between illusion and disillusion, without which the debt that the child will incur to preserve his ability to grow up will be so great that his whole life will not be enough to pay it, to free himself from it.  We may think of our growing up as a possibility that we obtain on the condition that we accept a debt: we have to believe what our parents say of us, whatever story they tell us.  If we are unable to become part of the story that they have prepared for us, we can only close ourselves in a form of autism.  It is better to take on the debt with the hope of paying it off with time, once we are grown-ups.       .

The male character here has a personal history that represents a debt that it is almost impossible to pay.  Gaitonde despised his father’s weakness, and his mother was unfaithful to his father.  One day, his father killed his mother and fled, abandoning him, and his mother supported herself and her child with the help of her lovers.  Her son ran away as soon as he was an adolescent, changed his name (as if he were a child of no-one), and went to live in Mumbai, where he became a major gangster.  In the chapter that we are reading, Ganesh Gaitonde Goes Home, all the power that he has acquired funnels him towards the bunker, where he will meet his destined fate, that very fate that he had been trying to flee.  

He wants to have with him the only woman who has ever understood him, a woman who refuses to yield and claims not to need anyone.  If now he could save her, make her yield, possess her, he would pay off his debt, feel himself a true man, mitigating thereby his lack of confidence in his identity, which he has managed to keep hidden from everyone else, but not from himself.  The maternal feminine power, against which no father has shown himself able to resist, is represented by Jojo and a chorus of high-class randis.  This is unfavourable ground for Gaitonde, but he cannot afford to lose this opportunity, and rebuts the claim


“That’s a lie. Zoya liked me.”

She threw her head back and howled. ‘Zoya liked me,’ she crowed. ‘Zoya liked me.’ She bent over and put her hands on her knees. ‘Zoya liked me.’ Blood slipped and tripped on to the ground, but she was only amused. ‘Zoya liked me.’ Blood slipped and dripped on to the ground, but she was only amused. ‘Zoya liked me

‘She did.’ The voice coming out of my throat was strange to me, small and forlorn. (Ib., p. 813-814)



His voice now reveals that he is losing, but he can no longer stop himself.  It is as if his mother were speaking to him like a child: you’re imagining things, you silly fool... The child no longer has any excuse; he discovers that he has only imagined being his mother’s favourite, for she has instead always made fun of him.  Gaitonde debates this with himself and fools himself:


‘The first night we were together, she told me that. She said I was amazing. She did. We did it all night. That’s the truth.’

‘Gaitonde, you idiot.’ She was triumphant now. ‘You fool. She made a chutiya out of you. It wasn’t you, you simpleton. She gave you a glass of milk and badams. And in it she gave you a crushed-up Viagra, one full big tablet. She was going to give you two, but I was afraid we’d kill you. I told her, it’s okay to want to get ahead, you want to go to the moon, I understand, but don’t burst the rocket that’s going to get you there. And it worked. It wasn’t you, saala. It was the Viagra.’

A blue haze of rage came across my eyes. Through it I saw her, standing straight up, laughing. She was not afraid of me. (Ib., 814)


If Jojo is not afraid of him, Gaitonde is lost, because he has defended himself from his own fragility by frightening others, or dominating them with money and power.  He cannot buy her, because she is not for sale; he cannot forgive her, as she has no use for his forgiveness; he cannot save her as she prefers death to salvation by him.  Gaitonde is reduced to impotence, and his blue haze of rage is a sort of paranoid madness representing the last bastion of male pride and of the coherence of his identity.  Gaitonde must react, as like every human being he values his identity more than his concrete survival.  The perception of the integrity of his own being or the hope, however small, of obtaining that integrity allows existence as human subjects, even when burdened by heavy debts or when on the edge of madness or death.  If reality were only made up of biological needs and objects suitable or unsuitable for satisfying them, then our world would not be what we experience every day and we would not need to question the suffering and joy we feel, impossible to explain with common sense.


Yet not even Jojo, who appears to be so lucid and self-controlled, is following a sensible plan.  If her aim were to conquer him, then she would stop now that he is beaten; instead, she continues to challenge him, tauntingly echoing his words as if they were children making fun of each other.  Does she want to conquer or be conquered?


‘Zoya liked me,’ she said. ‘Gaitonde, you fool, you think she was some virgin you impressed with your huge manliness. You chutiya. She had had a dozen men before you, and many afterwards, and you were the most pathetic. You were, you were smallest.”

‘Liar. She was a virgin. You told me. She told me.’

‘A virgin?’


‘You idiot. How do you think she survived in this city before she came to you? You bhenchod men always pay more for virgins, so she became a virgin for you.’

‘No. I saw the blood.’

She laughed so hard she had to hold on to the side of a table. ‘Gaitonde, of all the pompous, gaandu men in the world, you are the blindest. Arre, inside ten miles of here there are twenty doctors who will make any woman a virgin again. The operation takes half an hour, it costs twenty-five, thirty thousand rupees. And in three weeks the renewed virgin can be ready to spread her legs on a white sheet, so some tiny little Gaitonde can see all the blood and think he’s big.’

I shot her. (Ibidem)



The shot closes the bodily struggle that destroys men and women when no-one is able to go beyond the mirror-like answerless question: “Don’t you understand? Don’t you understand me?”

Jojo’s blood gushes out from a hole at heart level, making the pain of the deceitful blood from the first night with Zoya Mirza disappear.

Gaitonde no longer has any doubt that he is a man; he can rest now, and lies down alongside her.  When he wakes up, he discovers that he has slept for more than one day and one night, and sees next to him Jojo’s foot as realization returns to him of the fact that he has killed her.


But what I noticed all new, all keen and fresh and as if for the first time, was how complicated a thing a woman foot is. It has little pads, and arches, and a convoluted network of muscles and nerves, it has bones, so many bones. It flexes and moves and walks and endures. Its skin takes on the colour of the year it passes through, until the cracks in it form a net as complicated as the life itself.

I held Jojo’s foot. I cupped its ankle and held its cold inertia. (Ib., p. 815)


For the first time, lying next to the body of the only woman by whom he has felt himself understood, whom he has stopped next to him with the gun, Gaitonde welcomes life, which manifests itself in all its complexity in a foot, just as it does in a glance or a lotus vine. Where does this salvation come from to reach Ganesh Gaitonde, and where does it take him? [i]

[i] I will tell you a story that will grow like a lotus vine, that will twist in on itself and expand ceaselessly, till all of you are a part of it, and the gods come to listen, till we are all talking in a musical hubbub that contains the past, every moment of the present, and all the future.  (Vikram Chandra, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Faber and Faber, London 1995; p. 617).  For the meaning of this image, which twines around the title on the cover of the edition of the novel quoted, see also: S. Albertazzi and A. Gasparini, Il romanzo new-global. Storie di intolleranza, fiabe di comunità; ETS, Pisa 2003; A. Gasparini, Farewell, Father Œdipus. Freedom and Uncertainty in Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games,to be published in the anthology Exploring Hidden Connections: Critical Insights into Vikram Chandra’s Fiction, edited by Sheobhushan Shukla,  Anu Shukla, Christopher Rollason; Sarup & Sons, Delhi.




2. The Favourite Strife


Ganesh Gaitonde Goes Home; in the bunker at Kailashpada he goes to meet his destiny, taking Jojo Mascarenas with him.  Their fatal bodily struggle recalls Carmen, the story set to music by Georges Bizet (1875).  The plot, with some modifications, comes from the short story of the same name by Prosper Mérimée (1845), and it has been retold and restaged so many times that we may consider it one of the great collective dreams of Western culture.

The most important difference between the couple in Vikram Chandra’s novel and that in Mérimée’s story is that the former pair do not have a sexual relationship.  As Gaitonde and Jojo meet for the first time in the bunker at Kailashpada, their tragedy is not caused by the erotic attraction of a femme fatale.  Imputing the tragedy to the diabolic seductiveness of the gypsy Carmen allows an attenuation of the anxiety of the bodily struggle with a justification that appears biological, almost animal.

By not having Gaitonde and Jojo meet sexually, Chandra allows all the disturbing intensity of the extreme bodily struggle between man and woman to emerge for whoever is willing and able to understand. 

At the end of the opera, Carmen is about to enter with her friends into the bullring where the toreador Escamillo is to dedicate the corrida to her when Don José, who has deserted and become an outlaw for her sake, comes on stage.  Like Ganesh Gaitonde, he has found no space in a consensual male order and now needs a woman to notice his desperation.  This desperate and rejected lover is a terrible danger for Carmen, and her friends recommend her to avoid him:


            Frasquita: Prends garde!

            Carmen: Je ne suis pas femme à trembler devant lui...
                        Je l'attends et je vais lui parler.


            Mercédès: Carmen, crois-moi, prends garde!

            Carmen: Je ne crains rien!

            Frasquita: Prends garde!

(Carmen, Acte Quatrieme, Scène I)[i]


Carmen stops in front of Don José: she does not run away.  He implores her, saying that he is not there to threaten her but rather to forgive her and begin a new life together.

But Carmen does not want this:


            Carmen: Tu demandes l’impossible!

                        Carmen jamais n'ai menti!

                        Son âme reste inflexible;

                        entre elle et toi... c’est fini
                        Jamais je n'ai menti!  

                        Entre nous c'est fini!

            Don José: Carmen, il est temps encore,
                        oui, il est temps encore...
                        O ma Carmen, laisse-moi
                        te sauver, toi que j'adore,
                        ah! laisse-moi te sauver
                        et me sauver avec toi!

                        (Ib.) [ii]


Don José wants to save her notwithstanding the fact that she does not want to be saved:


            Carmen: En vain tu dis: je t'adore!
                        Tu n'obtiendras rien, non, rien de moi,
                        ah! c'est en vain...
                        Tu n'obtiendras rien, rien de moi!

                        (Ib., Scène II)[iii]


In order for blood not to flow, woman must here lapse into silence.  His word must prevail – is it not in a Man that the Word becomes flesh? Is it not he that was created in God’s own image and likeness, according to the Old Testament? This truth is affirmed in all possible registers.  An Italian proverb in the Venetan dialect that is still quoted today peremptorily summarizes how a woman should be, and I hypothesize that the same thing is said, with minimal variation, in all the world’s languages:


          Che la piasa

            che la tasa

            che la staga in casa.[iv]


Nobody has ever pretended that women are never to speak.  It is enough to think of the great Scheherazade, whose words are enough to make up The Thousand and One Nights; the priestess Diotima, who reveals the nature of Eros in Plato’s Symposium; or the sibyls, who were consulted whenever knowledge other than that commonly accessible was needed.  But in the patriarchal order women must close their mouths so that the male word can prevail.  Female silence too, if it does not imply submission, is intolerable for men.  Scheherazade tells stories every night, but after having asked the sultan’s permission, and with dawn she lapses into silence: the sultan can thus go to exercise his power feeling himself fully able to encompass her. [v]

Unlike Socrates’ interlocutors, Diotima knows the truth about the nature of Eros, but it is Socrates who reports her words, including her in his own discourse.  The sibyls’ words were precious, but through their mouths the god Apollo was speaking.  The female oracles of antiquity lived apart from the cities, in places that were carefully marked out or hard to reach.

If a woman spoke with her own voice, without accepting male domination, she could only be a character in a tragedy, even if what she spoke was the truth.  The soothsayer Cassandra, who had not respected the will of Apollo, lived in the city of Troy foretelling the future, but was condemned never to be believed.  Antigone, who had honoured her dead brother’s remains against the decree of the king of Thebes, was put to death even though her liberated words had defended one of humanity’s oldest and most universal forms.

The male subject in the patriarchal order only exists insofar as his word, his body and his law limit and encompass women, condemning them to death if they refuse to allow themselves to be limited. To defend this patriarchal axis, the Inquisition of Holy Mother Church has sent eight million women to be burnt at the stake as witches in the five centuries of its history.

 What huge murderous power is attributed to a woman’s independent words and desires, if to manifest them corresponds to tragedy, if her autonomy brings about death for herself and others?

This myth of terrifying female power is nourished by other myths, and is fully present in the unconscious of both men and women, impermeable to modern scientific conventions, equal rights and clear critical thinking.  The myth of the wild woman, demonic and damned, wraps around the most external zone of male domination; it is the earth’s terrifying edge that forms the base of the axis mundi, the pivot of patriarchal culture.  Around this upwards-pointing phallic centre is the cultivated and generous earth, wanting only to support it and guarantee that it lasts.  It is made up of those women that are lovely and are silent when necessary, welcoming wives and mothers, celebrated by patriarchal culture as much as the heroic male, who liberates the earth from monsters with wars, scientific discoveries and the wielding of power. 

In this representation, reminiscent of the Ptolemaic cosmos, the male logos rises in the centre supported by the earth, and all of the demons and phantoms that refuse to be colonized or annihilated are pushed to the margins like the sea monsters on the edges of old sea charts.  The demonic female power is the representation of the remainder that culture neither knows how to or is able to dominate, a life force that is unseeing because it is unseen, removed or .  What is called demon is a power that does not co-operate with human order, and this naming has the function of pushing it into the most distant space possible[vi].  Beyond the borders of the world, or in the heart of its origin, in the female womb: from the body and soul of the woman who does not submit to men lies a danger that overturns everything.  This representation is a terrific structure in male and female psychic realities and can be recognized in every human culture.


The hypothesis of a matriarchal society preceding patriarchal society may be considered a myth presenting phallocentric organization as more evolved.  In a patriarchy, women must be lovely, be silent and stay at home, so that her children and husband may leave her there and find her there as they please.  An order assigning to men the right/duty to dominance dates back, perhaps, to the first human records that we have.  In Palaeolithic art women are often represented plastically, with monstrously developed breasts, buttocks and vulva, far more than in today’s sex symbols.  Their extremities are missing and their limbs are only lightly sketched (Palaeolithic Venuses), so as to indicate that they have nothing to do with autonomous movement.  Male figures, however, are often drawn in movement on cave walls, with stick-figure bodies, well-developed limbs and weapons in their hands.  An erect penis often crowns this representation of the male.   


The persistence of the myth of masculine superiority, the conviction that the subject of culture is male – the words Man and mankind use the ‘man’ to include both men and women – is still expressed today even in the very moment in which we deceive ourselves that we are looking at it critically.  When we believe that the logocentric and phallocentric patriarchy is something desired by men against women, all we are doing, men and women both, is attributing to the male part of humanity the responsibility for how culture and the social order are: this is an only apparently different way of repeating the supremacy of the male.  To talk of a male tendency to prevarication, dominance, arrogance and war and a female tendency to conflict resolution, meekness and peace means changing the terms of the game whilst leaving it intact.  The myth is so powerful that we can turn it upside down, not distance ourselves from it, and thus it happens that in Europe we have passed in the space of a century from the certainty that women cannot vote to the affirmation that more women in parliament and government means a guarantee of peace.    

What guarantees the permanence of patriarchal culture, the only of which we have any historical record, is the existence of a phallic axis mundi; it would therefore be preferable to grant possession and care of it to women: it is not rare to hear it affirmed that women are considered inferior in order to limit their real superiority.   In order not to ask questions about the imaginary make-up of the phallic axis mundi, we think with laughable naïveté that patriarchal culture has been imposed by one sex on the other.

In my psychoanalytical experience, I have long observed how many women, of every age and socio-cultural condition, demonstrate an unconscious tendency to back up what men say, even when they are fighting him as much as possible on the conscious level.


The myth of a unique centre suggests a reading of the story of Carmen as the violent suppression of female liberty by the male.  From this point of view, Jojo Mascarenas is a free woman and Ganesh Gaitonde the representative of a purely male violence.

Can we forget that Jojo, who knows Gaitonde well, provokes him to the point of killing her?

Can we forget that Carmen could ignore Don José and go to see Escamillo kill the bull for her?

When the fanfare and the cries of the crowd go up for his victory over the bull, she is already dead, having preferred to fight Don José.

Carmen and Jojo do not want to be limited or stopped by men who want to save them, protect them, love them.  Or do they want to be stopped?

Don José and Ganesh Gaitonde know the indomitable natures of Carmen and Jojo: why is it them that they want?

Don José lives the same tragedy as Ganesh Gaitonde; like him he has lost every certain reference to a cultural system and has left his family and become an outlaw.  But why, like Gaitonde, does he think that only this woman can provide a base for his heart and that only a masterless woman who knows how to tell the truth is able to accept his uncertain soul like a hospitable house? This woman is not maternal, does not want to accept him or give him the time to regenerate himself in her womb.  Or does she desperately want to be a life-favouring womb to him but is unable to succeed?


Words reach their maximum violence, and then verbal language gives way and the body enters into action:


            Carmen (voulant passer): Laisse-moi... laisse-moi...

            José:    Sur mon âme,
                        Tu ne passeras pas,
                        Carmen, c'est moi que tu suivras!

            Carmen: Laisse-moi, Don José, je ne te suivrai pas.


            José:    Non, par le sang, tu n'iras pas!
                        Carmen, c'est moi que tu suivras!

            Carmen: Non, non! jamais!

            José (avec violence): Je suis las de te menacer!

            Carmen (avec colère): Eh bien! frappe-moi donc, ou laisse-moi passer.

            (Carmen, cit., Ib.)[vii]


This male violence is at one and the same time an expression of impotence and a desperate barrier against that very impotence, felt as it is to be the annihilation of the male subject.  If Carmen and Jojo were to understand the weakness of the men confronting them, why should they fight them? Why do they continue to challenge them when they see that they are defeated? Do they want to destroy them or do they want their phallic maleness to demonstrate itself mythically capable and able to contain female destructiveness?

Carmen, like Jojo Mascarenas, does not seem able to bear Don José’s weakness, and cruelly lets him know this, challenging his maleness, no matter the cost:


            José (éperdu): Pour la dernière fois, démon,
                        veux-tu me suivre?

            Carmen: Non! non!
(à demi voix, avec rage) Cette bague, autrefois, tu me l'avais donnée... Tiens!
            (elle la jette à la volée)

            José (le poignard à la main, s'avançant sur Carmen): Eh bien! damnée!
            Carmen recule... José la poursuit... Pendant ce temps fanfares et chœur dans le    cirque.

Chœur : Toréador, en garde!

Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant
qu'un oeil noir te regarde
et que l'amour t'attend,

            José a frappé Carmen... Elle tombe morte... Le vélum s'ouvre. La foule sort du cirque.

            José (se levant): Vous pouvez m'arréter... c'est moi qui l'ai tuée!

                        Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!(Ib.)[viii]



The curtain falls; the fatal bodily struggle has once again been won? She is dead, and Don José gives himself up to the guardians of the law, ready to be executed.  He has nothing more to say; there is nothing more to hear.

But in Mérimée’s story, Don José has time left to him between Carmen’s death and his own, and it is the time in which the story may be told.  Just before being garroted, Don José says something to his listener about truth and falsehood that does not cease from making us ask ourselves questions, if we are able to control our fear:


Elle mentait, monsieur, elle a toujours menti. Je ne sais pas si dans sa vie cette fille-là à jamais dit un mot de vérité ; mais quand elle parlait, je la croyais : c’était plus fort que moi. (Prosper Mérimée, Carmen; p. 38)[ix]


[i] Frasquita: Carmen, take my advice, you’d better not stay here.

Carmen:               And why not, may I ask?


Carmen:               I am not the sort to be frightened by him, I have stayed, since I have something to say.


Mercedes: Carmen, believe me, be careful!

Carmen:               I’m not afraid!

Frasquita: Be careful! (Ib.)


[ii] Carmen: What you ask can never happen!

                Carmen never yet has lied!

                Her mind is made up completely,

For her and you... it’s the end.

To you I’ve never lied!

For us both it’s the end.

To you I’ve never lied!

For both us it’s the end.

Don José: Carmen, you have your life before you,
                O my Carmen, oh let me save you,
                Save you, for I adore you,
                Then you will have saved me too!
(Ib., Sc. II)


[iii] Carmen: No use your saying: "I adore you!"

                You will get no more from me.
                You waste your time,
                I'll give in no more,
                Not to you!


[iv] She has to be lovely  | She has to be silent | She has to stay at home.


[v] But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence, leaving King Shahrayar burning with curiosity to hear the rest of the story. [...] The king thought to himself, “I will spare her until I hear the rest of the story; then I will have her put to death the next day.” When morning broke, the day dawned, and the sun rose; the king left to attend to the affairs of the kingdom... (The Arabian Nights; p. 18)


[vi] A beautiful example of the power of the name is in the tradition of  The Thousand and One Nights: when a demon, a djinn, refuses to convert to Islam, Solomon condemns him to enter a brass pot, which he then seals up with his ring, on which the secret name of God is impressed. Then, the enchanted demon is thrown in the sea, where it would still lies, if a fisherman had not found it by chance.


[vii] Carmen (trying to get past): - Let me pass, let me pass!

Don José: On my soul,
                I'll ever let you pass, Carmen,
                I'll make you follow me!

Carmen: Let me pass, Don José, I'll never go with you.


Don José: No, by the saints, you'll not do that,
                Carmen, for you're coming with me.

Carmen: No! No! Never!

Don José :  I am tired of using threats!

Carmen (furiously): All right, kill me at once, or let me go inside. (Ib.)


[viii] Don José (out of his mind): Now for the last time, you fiend,

                Will you come with me?

Carmen: No! no!
(half-voice, with rage) You remember this ring - the ring that once upon you gave me...

                Take it!
(throws it at him)

Don José (drawing his knife, moves in on Carmen): Well then! Be damned!
(Carmen retreats... Don José pursues her... Fanfares and shouts in the arena.)

Chorus: Toreador, on guard now!

Do not forget that when you draw your sword,
Two dark eyes look down,
And love is your reward.

(José has stabbed Carmen... She falls dead. José kneels beside her... The curtain to the arena opens. The crowd comes out of the bullring)

Don José (rising): You can take me away ... I am the one who killed her.
                Ah! Carmen! My Carmen ... I adore you!


[ix] She was lying then, sir, as she has always lied. I don't know that that girl ever spoke a word of truth in her life, but when she did speak, I believed her - I couldn't help myself. (Translated by Lady Mary Loyd; 2003-2008 Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation. 




There are blind antihistorical truths that justify violence.  In Sacred Games, the truth of fundamentalism is sustained by Guru-ji, who has a huge faithful following all over the world.  In order to bring about a pure and perfect India, he does not hesitate to destroy all of Mumbai with an atomic bomb.

The mingling of politicians, or guardians of order, with illegality is elevated to the level of a system.  In his latest novel, Chandra relates to us that though honesty is something that may exist, it has to be spoken of under one’s breath.  Before the nineteen-sixties, it was improper in Italy to discuss sex; people now hesitate before they speak about doing something because of their ideals.  Taking pleasure in doing something that brings with it neither money nor exposure is becoming an intimate act, as Katekar, who has worked with Sartaj Singh for seven years, knows well.  He is unable to find a response to a relative of his who asks him why he doesn’t leave his badly-paid job, and reflects to himself:


Yes, really, Sadrakshanaya Khalanighranaya. Katekar knew he could never confess this urge to anyone, much less Vishnu, becouse fancy talk of protecting the good and destroying evil and seva and service would elicit only laughter. Even among colleagues, this was never spoken about. But it was there, however buried it may be under grimy layers of cinycism. Katekar had seen it occasionally in Sartaj Singh, this senseless, embarassing idealism. Of course neither of them would ever so much as hint at the other’s romanticism, but perhaps this was why their partnership was so enduring. Only once, when they had rescued a trembling ten-year old girl from a shed in Vikhroli, from her kidnappers, Sartaj Singh had scratched at his beard and muttered, ‘Today we did good work.’ That had been enough. (Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, p. 220)


Words like those of the Sanskrit motto of the Mumbai police, Protect Truth, Destroy Evil, are part of the grand ideals that in the twentieth century have been used to cover the worst of crimes.  It is right to be distrustful of them, but it is impossible to orientate oneself in life’s labyrinth without giving life a meaning, which functions like Ariadne’s clew, and allows us, at least sometimes, to think that we have done good work.


Just as in all of our world, in Sacred Games there are rich people who think only of making themselves yet richer, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish the morals of the gangster from those of the guardians of order.  We hear of people of every faith who suffer persecutions and atrocious losses, but no-one thinks to look for justice for them.  There are young people who, in order to escape from poverty or simply from being invisible, are willing to sell themselves to pimps; there is, above all, the immense city, with its luxury areas and its slums, and its beautiful sunsets that are perhaps caused by air pollution.

There are many truths co-existing inside the characters and moving through the city streets like the tendrils of a vine that even winds around itself in the hope of finding something to support it so that it can climb and flower.

In Sacred Games the flower is the salvation of Mumbai from atomic destruction, a metaphor for the radical risk that we perceive is faced by this world of ours – so unfair, so full of contradictions, and so rich.


Ganesh Gaitonde, after having held Jojo’s motionless foot in his hand, reflects:


I had slept for more than twenty-four hours.

Get on with it. But get on with what? More money-making, more woman, more killing. I already lived that, I had no appetite for more. So, get on with what? Lying on the ground, next to Jojo, I asked myself that. I felt whole again, delivered from fuzziness and distraction and exhaustion by this long rest on this bloodstained ground. (Ib., p. 815)


What is this integrity that Gaitonde feels for the first time? How is it possible that a gangster is aware of it after he has killed the friend that he wanted to save alongside himself?

When a part of the meaning of life manifests itself, it has a subdued and invincible force.  No religious practice, no ideology, no scientific research, possesses it.  It has the indomitable force of a budding leaf, and its nature is the same as that of the voice of the intellect that Freud says is soft but that insists until it has gained a hearing.


The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which it may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but in itself it signifies not a little. (The Future of an Illusion, p. 53)


Something pushes through and only emerges when we renounce to trying to dominate life and recognize that all of the knowledge of which we are rightly proud is impotent in the face of pain and love, of a sense of nothingness and of a communion with the whole world.  The voice of reason is the radical opening to reality, the discovery of the inevitable limits of our presence: our short time that may be enough.[i]  The paradox is that seeking to live ignoring our limits, we only find life by recognizing them.


Now that for the first time he is in possession of himself, Ganesh Gaitonde wants to give himself up, and chooses a guardian of the law, like Don José after killing Carmen in Bizet’s opera.  The only person who comes to mind is the Sikh inspector Sartaj Singh, who was on duty when, years before, he had gone to a secret meeting with Guru-ji.

Sartaj Singh doesn’t know why the gangster has chosen him.

The day before he had been called to a man barricaded in his bed room whose wife wanted to kill him and who kept stabbing a kitchen knife into the door panels.  During an argument the husband had thrown his wife’s white Pomeranian out of the window of their fifth-floor flat.

Thinking of the poor little body on the pavement, Sartaj Singh says:


Love is a murdering gaandu. Poor Fluffy. (Chandra, Sacred Games, p. 5)


When Gaitonde calls him the next day to the Kailashpada bunker, Sartaj Singh does not know why.  He does not know that he once looked at the terrible head of the Mumbai underworld with humanity; he does not even know that he has met him, as he was disguised.  Gaitonde chooses him because he is a guardian of order whose humanity is not cancelled out by his uniform: he is the only person to whom he can give up himself and his story.


Sartaj Singh arrives in the Kailashpada bunker and uselessly tries to convince the gangster to leave it.  He remains there, listening to Gaitonde as he tells the story of his first exploits in Mumbai, and at a certain point becomes interested in the story, but when the bulldozer that he has requested manages to break down a hole in the bunker’s walls he stops listening.


You’re coming in. I’m still talking, but you aren’t listening to me any more. Your eyes are afire. You want me, you and your riflemen. But listen to me. There is a whirlwind of memories in my head, a scatter of tattered faces and bodies. I know how they skirl through each other, their connections and their disjunctions, I can trace their velocities. Listen to me. If you want Ganesh Gaitonde, then you have to let me talk. Otherwise Ganesh Gaitonde will escape you, as he escaped every time, as he escaped every last assassin. Ganesh Gaitonde escaped even me, almost. Now, at this last hour, I have Ganesh Gaitonde, I know what he was, what he became. Listen to me, you must listen to me. But you are now in the bunker. (Ib., p. 817)


What is the purpose of telling the story of a life?

Even though Sartaj is no longer listening to him, as he has his work to do, the discovery of the bunker and the two people in it is the start of the foiling of Guru-ji’s atomic attack, involving policemen, gangsters and secret agents, people from every religion and faith, ne’er-do-wells and idealists, men and women...  Gaitonde gives himself up to Sartaj, who completes the task of stopping an attack that is so terrifying as to seem only possible in a film.  The head of the Mumbai underworld had tried to defeat the fundamentalist Guru-ji, and his defeat is the starting point for the Sikh sardar’s success.

Gaitonde’s bequest is an act of faith without any guarantee, just like any true gift from one person to another.  Sartaj’s impatience does not stop the gift reaching its destination:


Under each step of yours, I can see dozens of my years pass. I can see it all together now, from the very beginning to the first house I built for myself, my first home in Gopalmath. (Ibidem)


In the time that it takes to take a step, a dozen years pass for Gaitonde.  Within the pages of a book that only takes up a little less than ten cubic centimetres for all that, like of Chandra’s novels, it is big, a mass of interweaving stories are found, an intricate labyrinth of lives, pain, disappointed hopes, deaths and hopes, heavens, sewers, luxurious rooms...   Vikram Chandra’s ability to keep the thread of all these stories together is his extraordinary power as a narrator.  Rather than an omniscient narrator in the classic canonical tradition, Chandra seems to be a listener renarrating stories without taking possession of them, welcoming them instead, taking care of them like a gardener in order that they flower.


Each Inset is so rich as to make one think of a rough sketch for a new novel, but although the pages multiply space, Sartaj Singh’s investigation and the gangster’s story claim the majority of the narration.  No-one is listening to him, but Gaitonde goes on speaking:


Here is the pistol. The barrel fits snugly into my mouth. I think of what Jojo would say: Bastard, you’re scared or what? You want me to do it for you?

No, Jojo. I’m not afraid.

Sartaj, do you know why I do this? I do it for love. I do it becouse I know who I am.

Bas, enough. (Ibidem)


The magical force of literature may still be experienced today: the expanses of time that comes pouring out in a river of words, one person alone narrating, aware of the fact the he or she is collecting the words of many people, of all people.  There is an interesting coincidence: Chandra’s two big novels fall either side of two centuries, two millennia.  As in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), in Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) the protagonist is dying and recounts a whole novel in the first person.

In Sacred Games a narrator dies at the end of the second chapter: what does this mean?

The chapters that Ganesh Gaitonde narrates in the first person alternate with the events involving the Sikh inspector, reaching thereby almost the end of the novel, and the topological equivalence between the Sartaj’s footsteps and the dozens of years of life, or chapters, is only announced before the salvation chapter.  The person to whom Ganesh Gaitonde’s story is addressed both is and is not inside the novel: it is us, the readers, as grasping this topological time Vikram Chandra has been able to listen to it and recount it to us.

In Sacred Games, there are large-scale representations of the dramas afflicting our global world, the contradictions of history, but the flower blossoms thanks to Chandra’s ability to go down into the tiny infinite drama of the subject: here the world dies, resprouts and is reborn.  


There exists a linear, irreversible time and a regular, measurable, space.  It is possible to build watches that are ever more precise and to measure things unthinkable a century ago.  Knowledge extending beyond the limits of our perception disturbs us, especially when applied to our minds.  This is the theme of the Inset The Great Game, in which K.D. Yadev, director of the Indian secret service, is dying from a disease that is destroying his mind.

We may consider K.D. a model of maleness due to his intelligence, ability to command, compassion and love for his nation.  His faith is fading, not because he is dying, but because he can no longer distinguish present reality from long-ago memories:


K.D. Yadav now has memory, but not sequence. He has elements, but not the distance between them. To him the past is no longer separated from the present by a distinct and comfortable boundary, everything is equally present, all things are connected and are here. Why? What’s happened to me?K.D. can’t remember. But he can remember. (Ib., p. 298)


How are two opposing affirmations possible? Can we say that one is true and one false?


...He is in a hospital bed in Delhi, losing his mind.

He considers the phrase: to lose your mind. What would be left, if you misplaced your mind? If there is no mind, is there still a self? He remembers the parable, that to know the I there must be another I, an eye that watches the birds of the self feasting on the nectar of the world. But will there still be a watcher if you take these mind-structures away, these façades of language, these foundations of logic, these narratives of cause and effect? What will be left when it all comes crashing down? Bliss, or numbness? A presence, or an absence? ‘The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.’ (Ib., pp. 305-306)


Control escapes K.D. Yadav, and what he understands finds an explanation in parable, whilst his memories crowd uncontrollably.

Where do stories dwell, if they continue when the mind has lost control over reality and self-expression?

Stories have one root in dreams, one in delirium; they have roots everywhere in daily reality, allowing our character to emerge with all its otherwise unnameable twists, and can at once hide and unmask our souls.

In what part of the mind do stories dwell?


With every one of Sartaj’s steps in the Kailashpada bunker, Ganesh Gaitonde remembers a dozen years.  Memory is like a book: it is enough to open it and leaf through in order to visit countries and cities, see once again those we love and have lost, feel once more pain and defeat.  Memory is immense; it expands and contracts infinitely, but if our brain is switched off then everything disappears. 

Writing increases the subject time; it carries its story across generations and allows it to cross borders undreamt of in life.  The communication made possible today by the web, the immense quantity of information that we can store in a small PC: these things are miraculous, but they are a realization of the same human desire that led to the invention of writing.  Our mind accepts and reproduces the immense game of life, and literature is the living mirror of its breath.

Even if Sartaj Singh does not have time to hear Gaitonde’s story, it is out of his determination to deliver his story and himself that the investigation is born  that will lead to the Sikh inspector’s saving Mumbai from the atomic explosion and finding love once again when he meets Mary Mascarenas, Jojo’s sister.


[i] I thought: we are blessed. And how strange it is that we can learn to hate even this, that we forsake these gifts and seek release ; the sheets are cool and smooth below me, and this I am grateful for, I can feel the breath slide in and out of me, and this I am grateful for ; surely, this must be enough, to feel these things and know that all this exists together, the earth and its seas, the sky and its suns. (Vikram Chandra, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, p. 20).  Sanjay, who in another life has committed suicide, has now the body of an ape and has to die again. He is contemplating the common beauty of the world the night before telling his story. This deep feeling of beauty is connected with the presence of death, as well as of Eros with Thanatos. It seems to me that Vikram Chandra’s narrative springs from this deep connection. Regarding suicide and love for reality, see also : A. Gasparini, Farewell, Father Œdipus, 2008.


With psychoanalysis, Freud started a radical revolution regarding the question of what the mind is, not only the subjects’ psychological life, but also their culture.  Contemporary neurology proposes models far more similar to those of psychoanalysis than to those proposed by medicine in Freud’s day. 

The borders between normality and madness show themselves to be similar to those separating nations or social classes.  They exist, but they change with time; no longer representing a certainty, they fade like the distinct and comfortable boundary between past and present in K.D. Yadav’s mind.


If borders fall, we can experience the joy of broadening our horizons, but we must also face the uncertainty of our identity, which loses its traditional waymarks.  In his novels Vikram Chandra seems to have contemplated every character, great and small, before telling their story and showing us their faith, simple or complex as it may be: no-one is condemned; no-one is saved.  There are characters that survive, like Sartaj Singh and Mary Mascarenas; there are others that die, like Ganesh Gaitonde and Jojo, to whom we have compared Don José and Carmen.

We have mentioned Prosper Mérimée’s story, in which Don José says that Carmen had always lied, yet he had always believed her:


I believed her:  it was stronger than me. (Cit.)


In a patriarchy, the domination of women is supported by the attribution to the male sex of a greater reasoning power.  Man is born first, as in the Old Testament, and woman is formed from a part of him.  It may be remembered that in pre-modern western medicine the sex of the child depended on the temperature of the mother’s womb at the moment of conception: if it was not hot enough, then the foetus was able to grow, but the genitalia were unable to emerge and remained inside the body.  The child born was thus female, minus habens with respect to the male.  It may also be remembered that ovulation was discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century: before that, it was thought that sperm contained the homunculus and that the woman was to the child as earth is to the seed.  A couple’s infertility could thus always be attributed to the woman’s sterility.  

We have to understand how science is based upon cultural myths and how no human thought is possible except within a cultural myth.  The primacy of affect with respect to thought processes is ever more evident, even for those who are unaware that Freud provides its first and most decisive theorization.


This understanding implies a suspension of judgement about what is true and false and what is real and what imaginary.  But this does not mean being unaware of the difference between good and evil, because doubting which is the right direction to take in life’s labyrinth is not a form of ethical relativism, as if accepting the radical questioning of our epoch were less courageous than choosing sides under the flag. 

The phallic axis mundi, the pivot of patriarchal culture and support of the dominant male, has been examined over the last century just as much as subquantic physics, and its nature, perceived at first as solid, has been revealed as instead resembling a nebula.  No longer making use of the prospectives opened up in all the sciences implies regressing, as has happened, to forms of fundamentalism that terrify us with their irrational and antihistorical violence.


To speak of maleness today means taking into account the weakening of the male subject, who has the right and the duty to limit the female word.  It means understanding that the centrality of the single logos, of the phallic axis, is a cultural need that cannot be refused, and that keeping its absolute singularity means reaffirming the ancient maîtrise over what is different, considering it nonetheless minus habens.

For Guru-ji, all Muslims should wiped out from India; for Islamic fundamentalists, the influence of the West should be eliminated from the Arab world; America and Europe try to impose their democracy with force of arms.  Nihil novi sub sole, given that history tells us of alternating empires: even though they may last for a millennium and appear eternal, they die, just as languages do, just as every living organism does, allowing other languages and other forms of culture to develop. 


What is new, however, is the fact that an immense number of human beings are able to observe in real time the simultaneous actions of different peoples and cultures, all equally convinced of their right and duty to dominate.  Are we obliged to hope that one of them prevails, so that the logocentric and phallocentric axis mundi may be restored?

Or may we consider the possibility, once reserved to mystics and the wise, of contemplating the great game of life?

If our control turns out to be illusory, if we see in front of our eyes the ruin caused by affirming a unique superior principle, then why should we be obliged to choose sides and to affirm that our way out of life’s labyrinth is straighter and better than all the others? And how can we believe that this gives us the right and duty to impose it with force?


Contemplating the foot of the friend whom he has killed, Ganesh Gaitonde wakes up out his dream of power, which has become a nightmare.  The truth that he utters before he shoots himself is the same as that which we can find in the Mahabharata.  When Dharma asks his son for an example of victory, Yudhishtira replies to his divine father: defeat.


‘Sartaj, you called me yaar. So I’ll tell you something. Build it big or small, there is no house that is safe. To win is to lose everything, and the game always wins.’ (Ib., p. 42)


The sacred game of life wins out over every attempt to control it and to seize once and for all its meaning.


The fatal bodily struggle between Gaitonde and Jojo, like that between Don José and Carmen, is the sacred game through which, not stopping at the limits ascribed by a patriarchal culture to a man and woman in a patriarchal culture, they find their deaths.  In pathological terms, it is the fatal meaning between the hysteric and the obsessive.  But this diagnosis does not take into account the fascination exercised by the countless stories that show it in action, and the meeting is not necessarily tragic: we need only recall that it was hysterical patients who led Sigmund Freud, who was certainly obsessive, to discover psychoanalysis.

There is something so vital in these stories that death itself seems to stop and listen, fascinated by the rhythm of the story like the god Yama, who in Red Earth and Pouring Rain sits on his throne of darkness to listen to the stories told by the ape who had been a Brahmin.

What Gaitonde and Jojo find, in each other, for each other, against each other, is their story, which we love to listen to, because in the moment in which we identify ourselves with them and transcend the limits of our everyday experience we are returned to a time common with theirs that remembers them in one of the soul’s tiny yet immense spaces.

The patriarchy always expels what it cannot dominate or control, but the richness of chaos is no less important because of the life of its miraculously regular processes.

When a woman is not considered an emanation of man and reclaims a limitless freedom, she meets the man who cannot resist the desire to love her in order to become her civilizing hero; the vital and terrifying chaos expelled by patriarchal culture returns from unknown lands, from islands where the only people who put to shore are those who have lost their course.


Gaitonde has understood the meaning of being near to Jojo in the same moment in which he renounces trying to dominate reality: he has opened himself to the great game that makes all of us meet their own destiny, in an encounter that becomes more tragic the more one deceives oneself that one is able to flee it.  Anyway, even the attempt to flee one’s destiny is a destiny:


 Maybe Jojo was waiting for me on the other side. Maybe she would curse me and hit me, but finally she would understand. I would talk her and she would understand, as she always had. It was just a matter of talking, and time. And I would curse her for betraying me, for lying to me. But finally I would forgive her. We would forgive each other. (Ib. p. 816)


A force greater than him, Don José said, made him believe Carmen even though he knew that she was lying.  Perhaps the same force leads Gaitonde to understand what connected him to Jojo to the point of killing her only to die a little after her, as if their fatal bodily struggle were shown to be an encounter leading to a new understanding, the capacity to be together, forgiving each other.


Two sisters, Jojo and Mary Mascarenas, two protagonists who meet, the Sikh inspector and the famous gangster.  A city threatened with total destruction, a difficult path to salvation, only one couple that at the end is saved.  These are the ingredients of many stories, many fairy tales, but the protagonist does not resemble a hero, even though he has defeated the enemy Guru-ji, and fought against the old king, the powerful corrupt deputy commissioner of police, Parulkar.

At the end of the novel, before the blank page:


Sartaj got off the bike. He put up his shoes up on the pedal, one by one, and buffed them with spare handkerchieff untile they shone. Then he ran a finger around his waistline, along the belt. He patted his cheeks, and ran a forefinger and thumb his moustache. He was sure it was magnificent. He was ready. He went in and began another day. (Ib., p. 900)[i]


No hero ends his story polishing his shoes and adjusting his moustache.


A few pages earlier we read of another act that is no way heroic, like that with which a mother or father cares for their child or a healthy person someone ill.

Mary and Sartaj have made love and are now in bed, and she takes out a relaxing facial mask:


Mary wanted to put mud on Sartaj’s face. ‘It’s not mud,’ she said indignantly, but that’s exactly what it looked like, mud in a small pink pot.

“Yes, it is,’ Sartaj said. ‘You went downstairs and got it from under one of the plants.’ (Ib., p. 897)


The narrative voice shares Sartaj’s viewpoint, who has had Mary at his house for the first time, and the saviour of Mumbai:


...had spent the afternoon tidying up and cleaning away the dust that had accumulated during his Amritsar trip. (Ibidem)


Having explained how expensive this treatment is in the beauty salon where she works, Mary Mascarenas sets to work:


‘Arre, don’t move, baba.’ She dipped two fingers in the pot, and painted the stuff over his forehead. It felt cool going on, cool and smooth. ‘Pull your hair back.’

She worked carefully and slowly, her tongue between her teeth.


When she had finished, and nodded with satisfaction, he took the pot from her and scooped up a dab and smoothed it along the line of her cheekbone. The stuff was red and softer than ordinary mud, very even and fine-grained, and it went on easily. (Ib., p. 898)


This is a reciprocal act of caring, neither humiliating his virility nor making her feel less ready to accept him.  Many pages earlier, the Sikh inspector had confessed to her his uncertainties about his job, telling her that much of it depended on luck:



‘You sit around, and something drops into your lap. Then you pretend that you knew what you were doing all along.’


‘You have to be listening, but sometimes the trouble is that you don’t know what you’re listening for. Like there’s a song, but you don’t know what the tune is. So you just have to wander around, looking and listening. It can make you feel like a fool.’

She was very direct now, her eyes locked on to his. ’You are not a fool,’ she said.

It was a declaration, and Sartaj didn’t hesitate now. (Ib., pp. 592-593)


Although the hierarchy is dissolved along with the phallic axis, an exclusively male possession, this does not mean that men and women stop desiring one another.

A myth, even if, like an empire, it lasts for millennia, may be a season of human life, just one stage in the sacred game.


Salman Rushdie’s above-mentioned novels and, more innovatively and richly, those of Vikram Chandra, offer the possibility of sharing in a viewpoint that enriches our understanding of Western patriarchal culture, which seems to pervade all of the cultures of the planet in the very moment that it is showing signs of its decline.


A different perception of I and the self, both difficult and a daily event for those who, like the current author, practice psychoanalysis, finds a profound and luxuriant expression in Sacred Games.  An Indian author, with a culture of incomparable antiquity and richness behind him, after its long struggle with English culture, tells the story of our time and of the male subject in a new way.  The choice of the English language allows translation, in the sense of the Latin transducere, to traduce, an awareness of time and space that allows the subject to renarrate itself beyond the fall of the male phallic axis.

A different way of experiencing time, of including in one’s consciousness the perception of death rather than struggling against death: is this not the meaning that we may grasp in the sadhus who create vast mandalas of coloured sand only to destroy them? 

Sartaj sees them by chance during his investigation, whilst they are creating a peace mandala



It was restful to watch the fall of the sand from the sadhu’s hands, their sure and graceful movements. After a while, the general structure of the mandale emerged for Sartaj in dim white outline. Inside the final circle there were going to be several indipendents regions, ovals, each with its own scene or figures, human and animal and godly. Between these ovals, at the very centre of the entire wheel, there was a shape, Sartaj couldn’t make out what it was. Outside these ovals there was the inner wall of the square, and outside the square there was another wheel, and more figures, and then a rim with its own patterns, all of it hypnotically complex and somehow pleasing. Sartaj was content to be lost in it.

‘When they are finished, saab, they wipe it all up.’

‘After all this work?’ Sartaj said. ‘Why?’

Ganga shrugged. ‘I suppose it’s like our women’s rangoli. If it’s made of sand, it won’t last long anyway.’

Still, Sartaj thought, it was cruel to create this entire whirling world, and then destroy it abruptly. But the sadhu looked quite happy. One of them, an older man with greying hair, caught Sartaj’s eye and smiled. (Ib., pp. 221-222)


It is cruel to make a figure that will be destroyed, as long as one is trying to gain a mastery over life.  But we may begin asking ourselves whether the mandala of coloured sand is not in fact truly useful for peace.  Reading Sacred Games, we may think that it is worthwhile telling and retelling its meaning, like that of the rangoli and of the thousands of humble everyday tasks of men and women whose words do not reach us. [ii]


(Translated from the Italian by Luke Seaber)


[i] Sartaj, who is the only Sikh police inspector in Mumbai, has a beard, a magnificent moustache and very long hair. Like every Sikh man he has the name Singh, just as every Sikh woman has the name Kaur. These common names are meant to reduce the gap between the castes. It is charming that the main character of Sacred Game belongs to a culture that started its dream and its quest of a juster community assuming a collective legitimation of children and foreseeing long hair and beards for men.


[ii] Whilst I finish this essay, 7 May 2008, midnight, a speaker on the television says that a peace mandala is to be created tomorrow in Vicenza, Italy.

Penultimo aggiornamento 5 novembre 2018
Ultimo aggiornamento 9 ottobre 2022