Book review: Selection Day
Aravind Adiga’s latest novel goes back to an old theme, the pursuit of social mobility, this time through cricket
There is beauty in cricket; and in Aravind Adiga’s fourth novel, we see the beasts. In the pursuit of social mobility—a recurrent idea in Adiga’s novels—Mohan Kumar, father and tormentor of his two sons, Radha Krishna and Manjunath, attempts to break the chains weighing them down in the class hierarchy by creating the best and second best batsmen in the world. But what he doesn’t see as he chases his dream is that these chains are being replaced by another, which has a tighter grip on their free will and spirit.
In cricket, Mohan, an agricultural worker in a Karnataka village, sees salvation, so he moves his family to a one-room shed in a filthy slum in Mumbai. For, where else can a book centred on the game be located than in that most romanticized mecca of club cricket in the country, in a city that allows rags-to-riches dreams to be realized?
Yet, Mohan also knows that the natural talent he has spotted in his young sons is not enough; a secret pact with a trustworthy God is not enough; to truly rise, there must be pain—which he proceeds to inflict on the boys with a brutal training programme. The novel begins three years before “Selection Day”, when the under-19 cricket team is to be chosen, and then proceeds to unravel Mohan’s carefully laid-out plan.
A moving, subtly portrayed homoerotic friendship that develops between Manju and his rival, Javed, brings into the open the former’s real ambition, to be a forensic scientist. The free-spirited Javed, who can see through the “pro-pah-gan-duh” machinery driving the aspirations of the middle class, is a forceful presence in Manju’s life. One roots for Manju to discard his fears, both to rebel against his father and join college as well as to publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation—in other words, to not “be a slave” to other people’s ideas of what he should be.
Adiga’s novel oscillates between lyrically exposing what the brutal system in the business of creating sporting heroes does to the minds, and lives, of vulnerable youth and an amateurish filling in of gaps with monologue and characters that are inadequately fleshed out. The very first chapter shows us Adiga at his best: Here is humour that the writer doesn’t have to work hard at, as well as a superb characterization, through a single conversation, of two talent hunters in Mumbai cricket—the portly Pramod Sawant, who can clearly see talent when he sees it, but is equally adept at swaying the opinion of his senior, the ferocious Tommy sir, newspaper columnist, cricket coach, painter and historian, whose ambition is to discover the next Sachin Tendulkar. The impression that Tommy sir leaves, however, doesn’t last the length of the novel, where we encounter him all too briefly.
Then there is Anand Mehta, a venture capitalist with bright ideas that all come to naught, sponsor to the Kumar brothers —he is clearly the joker of the pack. The monologues are reserved for him, but here the humour is as grating as his observations on cricket and society are puerile. And there are those predictable “tips from a creative writing class” moments, when Adiga deviates to describe in detail the preparation of a cricket ground or the route leading up to a cricket club. While he may have benefited from working on the novel a little longer, these irritations don’t distract from the darkness at the heart of the book. The writer, though not the narrator, seems always present in the pages, casting a censorious eye on the cruelty and nonchalance of a cricketing culture—the mindlessly aspirational society we have become—where “some boys rise and some fall”, where heroes are hoisted over shoulders and discarded within no time.
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