Title: Selection Day
Author: Aravind Adiga
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: Rs 599
Cricket and fiction is a tough gig. Cricket novels usually tend to hover around introspection and identity, with a good helping of gloom — other than Shehan Karunatilaka’s utterly original and dazzling Chinaman or Pramesh Ratnakar’s unheralded and zany Centurion, which were genre-busters. Not sure how they cracked it on the literary circuit. As cricket fiction, though, those two were sixes over extra-cover.
When a Booker Prize winner decides to put cricket at the centre of his new novel, it almost seems as if the game must jump to its feet, button up, zip it and stand to attention. Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day is bound to grab the attention of the cricket-playing-novel-reading parts of the world and be quickly checked out for any familiar faces, in-jokes or suchlike. It’s got some and a potshot or two.
Set in Mumbai around two promising schoolboy cricketer–brothers and batsmen (what else, no wonder Indian bowlers call themselves the “labour” class), Selection Day careers towards the day they are destined to take the first steps towards “greatness” — being picked for a junior Mumbai team.
Adiga’s name carries a lot of heft — journalist, writer, novelist and the 2008 Man Booker Prize winner for The White Tiger, whose judges called it “a book on the cutting edge.” Selection Day, Adiga told an interviewer, was born out of an Italian movie called Rocco and His Brothers. Migrant Italians trying to make it in New York are finally consumed and enslaved by professional boxing.
In Selection Day, cricket, too, is treated as an enslavement of sorts for the brothers, Radha Krishna and Manjunath Kumar, sons of the tyrannical chutney-seller Mohan. Radha is older by a year, talented, better-looking, more marketable and as he grows older, trapped by a “weight transfer” issue. Manju is the more gifted, but conflicted about how much he wants to give of himself to the sport, his sexuality and from there it flows.
A large chunk of the book is covered between time frames referred to as “Eighth Standard” and “First Year of Junior College”, i.e. three years before Selection Day to the day itself. A cast of characters, led by their disciplinarian father, pushes the brothers along. Several are instantly recognisable to Mumbai cricket.
Hello Mac, aka Makarand Waingankar, who is part-inspiration for cricket scout “Tommy Sir”, who is heard one day lamenting that his darling cricket is “phixed and ph**ked,” and has “gone over to the other side and become part of the great nastiness.” Manju’s friend and conscience-keeper, Javed Ansari, is a wealthy, gay, young left-handed batsman who turns his back on cricket and tries to persuade Manju to do the same as a declaration of his independence.
The US-returned failed businessman Anand Mehta, often contemptuous of Indian cricket and its television (“essentially state-sponsored lobotomy”), tries to feed from its trough all the same, sponsoring the brothers as part of a future investment plan. The legality of his enterprise is questioned and we are told that in the US “you can’t bribe boys to play football or basketball until they are eighteen. Very strictly enforced. They send college coaches to prison all the time.” Right there is the chasm between what sports spells across nations, which could not be wider or more misunderstood. Amateur sport under the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) in the US and Mehta’s SIP around the brothers, happen to be parallel realities, rather than polar opposites.
The boys’ father Mohan is the familiar pushy parent found in sport, and also a product of 21st century India’s multiple injustices.“Big thief walks free. Small thief gets caught,” he says.
Adiga’s Mehta offers this as a description of the ‘contemporary’ Indian’: “We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valourous, wounded, tolerant and funny beings… we are nothing of that kind… we are animals of the jungle who will eat our neighbour’s children in five minutes and our own in ten.”
While rose-tinted aviators are certainly not being sought to avert our gaze from the fierce glare of our own cruelty, it must be pointed out that the evil empire of Indian cricket is a fairly common theme these days, one which ignores nuance and often meaning.
Selection Day describes much of Mumbai: suburban Dahisar where the boys grow up, Payyade Sports Club, Kandivili, (formed by a Karnataka boy who has risen to become a high-ranking Mumbai cricket official), Navi Mumbai as a counter to old Mumbai in rapid deterioration, with cricket cannibalising boys like Manju. In random snatches, the book captures Mumbai cricket and its inner life spot on, the crazy coaches, the rivalry, the chatter, the expectation.
Yet, for the better part of Selection Day, cricket at large remains the evil pox. The yearning for a life outside cricket is clearly established, but the strongest sentiment that keeps the boys in cricket is not so much desperation, but fear. The lure that cricket could hold for the cricketer beyond the financial is restricted to too few sentences in the narrative. In a team sport, remaining excellent when largely beyond caring is hard to sustain.
From the cricket, Selection Day rushes over to tick plenty of other boxes: corruption in business/ bureaucracy, homophobia, poor boy-rich girl and references to match-fixing, celebrity worship and plain worship. There is a hat-doff to the underclass’s ludicrous faith in faith; the Kumars’ family deity is considered a god of cricket, Kukke Subramanya. Who, in one magically realistic moment, speaks to Radha in the voice of “its living viceroy” (now, there’s a killer-descriptor if there ever was one), Sachin Tendulkar.
There is, in the adventures of Radha and Manju, a sell-able film script for a sports movie; with a sweetening of the metallic aftertaste of bitterness at the novel’s end. In which choosing cricket is compromise and being “martyred to this mediocrity.” Brando’s “I coulda been a contendor” to his gangster-brother in On the Waterfront becomes Radha’s “you could have become an engineer, a scientist, you could have gone to America by now. You could have sent me money from there…”
Cricket forms a background landscape of the novel rather than its heart, which happens to be the hellhole-ness of globalised India, and the Mumbai cricket machine serves as a coat-hanger for its shabbiness. Strewth, Selection Day could just as well have been set around the traumas of Bollywood and Audition Day.