Nobody knows why Ganesh Gaitonde, a man who controls at least half of the underworld in Bombay, would choose to give himself up to a lowly police inspector like Sartaj Singh--least of all Sartaj himself. Nobody knows why Gaitonde has sequestered himself in a concrete building that resembles a cube, why he tells Sartaj the story of his criminal beginnings while the police lay siege to the bunker, and why the body of a woman lies beside Gaitonde's corpse when Sartaj reaches the heart of the stronghold. And nobody knows why agents from India's foreign intelligence agency, RAW, take charge of the post-mortem scene and order Sartaj to ferret out the details that will explain the inexplicable.
Sartaj, a man who was once chosen by a women's magazine as one of "The City's Best-Looking Bachelors," is in the throes of a full-blown midlife crisis, "past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects…just pedaling along, doing his job." He's lost his youthful belief that he could "hold the whole city in his heart." When he begins to investigate the life and death of one of the most powerful men in India, his own life starts to expand as he uncovers other people's secrets.
Bombay is a city filled with people who have moved there to recreate themselves, and secrets are perhaps its most valuable currency, upon which power rests. Everyone—the beautiful movie star whose photographs fuel magazine sales, the woman who was Gaitonde's best friend for years without ever meeting him face-to-face, Sartaj's professional mentor who has known him since childhood, Sartaj's mother—has an untold history that forms the base of their visible lives.
As Sartaj explores the mysteries that surround the death of Gaitonde, he is led deep into the heart of Bombay, into his own heart, and into a world beyond, where corruption and greed can lead to annihilation. The mythic life of Gaitonde becomes smaller and more human, while other forces stretch beyond India's borders, and the terror of 9/11 presages the end of the Kaliyug period.
While Sartaj's investigation takes shape, so does the city that he lives in. Vikram Chandra has a Dickensian skill for bringing life to a multitude of characters who at first seem to be a random cluster, but who fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. When all of their stories fall into place, piece by piece Bombay is brought into being—its dark corners, its blaze of vitality, "the jammed jumble of cars, and the thickets of slums, and the long loops of rails, and the swarms of people, and the radio music in the bazaars." This book is far more than a subcontintental version of The Godfather, or the middle-aged love story of Sartaj, a wounded romantic who learns that "to be rescued from one’s foolishness was the greatest tenderness." It’s a portrait of Bombay, of Mumbai, and to read it is to "hold the whole city" in your hands and perhaps in your heart.