Watching the second season of Sacred Games is an exercise in self-torment, as you are informed in painful detail, of the depth that is normally found in FIRs and nowhere else in real life, that Ganesh Gaitonde, who strove for 20 years to be a free radical, was always a marionette in the hands of a faraway babaji. A babaji armed with a dirty bomb, a device which would have been interesting in 2006, when Vikram Chandra’s book appeared, but which now seems as trite as a Stinger missile that has fallen into the wrong hands. Malware designed to wreck the financial markets would be a more credible weapon.
The reduction of Gaitonde in one’s imagination was profoundly depressing — if a criminal who has cast off the trammels of civilisation cannot be free, what hope is there for middle-class viewers like us, burdened by families, EMIs, busted plumbing and dreary offices? For relief, one wistfully recalled the other Ganesh of the criminal world, a much more cheerful prospect, who lives on the other side of the thin, wavering line between crime and punishment.
HRF Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the CID first walked the streets of Bombay in 1964 in The Perfect Murder, and has remained in print for 55 years. He was also immortalised on the screen by Ismail Merchant, with Naseeruddin Shah playing the title role, along with an extraordinary cast including Viju Khote, Pearl Padamsee, Ratna Pathak Shah, Vinod Nagpal, Mohan Agashe, Johnny Walker, Amjad Khan and Dalip Tahil. An ordinary man living in government quarters, Ghote stands apart from the canon of detective inspectors in English fiction. He is riven by guilt for neglecting his family, is afflicted by restless awe of his oppressive superiors and miraculously survives as an honest man in a corrupt system, where power flows across cities in channels that are barely visible to common people like him. Unlike the great gumshoes of English and American fiction, he is so clearly at a disadvantage that he is Everyman, and the reader simply must root for him.
Significantly, he does not aspire to heroism. In the classic pattern of the hero’s tale, the protagonist must leave behind his familiar world and face the demon alone. The device is frequently seen in serials and cinema — in Sacred Games, Sartaj Singh is taken off the case when he fails a drug test. Hollywood requires the police officer to “surrender his sidearm and badge.” It is only after these tribal markers are discarded that the hero’s journey begins. But Inspector Ghote remains within the system, doggedly facing whatever barricades it throws in his way.
Keating’s most significant achievement in the Inspector Ghote series remained a secret from his fans for years — eight of the books, starting with the first one, were written before the author visited India. Publishers had found his earlier work “too English” (a polite way of saying “obscure and whimsical”) for American audiences, a market crucial for financial success. The obvious way out would have been to set a story in Reno or Los Angeles, but again, Keating chose the path of whimsy. He turned the pages of an atlas and stopped at the map of India. Scant months later, America embraced him — critics declared Ghote to be the most significant find of 1964.
Perhaps, it wasn’t as sudden as that. As Alexander McCall Smith notes in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 2011 — sadly, the year that Keating died — there is an authenticity to Ghote’s Bombay that one does not expect in a real but imagined location. He is convinced that this is not a case of appropriation, an armchair first-world author expounding on the characteristics of a former subject nation. Indeed, this is discounted by Keating’s popularity in India, which he visited by invitation in the 1970s. But he got the setting amazingly right. For instance, without understanding caste, he instinctively understood the networks of power, patronage and rent-seeking that underlie everyday life here, and he was extraordinarily perceptive about local colour. “…I was aware from the moment my plane landed that I was on hallowed turf: I was in the city of Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay CID. Others feel the same way, no doubt, when they first set foot on the pavements of Baker Street,” wrote McCall Smith, on his first visit (transit) to Mumbai.
Keating was writing at a time when feature coverage of India in the international press was quite limited. And yet, there is no heat-and-dust fabulism here. How did he get it so right? The answer may lie in another feature of India that he gets right: the zen patience with which we must explain our country to curious friends from overseas, who have questions about everything from elephants to pav bhaji. In The Perfect Murder, Ghote is tagged by an enormous Swede studying police methods in “emergent nations” (the parent of “emerging economies”), who seeks everything, including the Indian Rope Trick. One suspects that in the months and years before the birth of Inspector Ghote, Keating was keenly avoided by his Indian friends in the UK, on account of indefatigable questioning about the landscape that the policeman would live in.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Hero’s Journey’