Considering what a space-constrained city Mumbai is, it’s truly astonishing how much cricket is played here. And we aren’t talking about the “gully cricket” variety that takes place on street corners, building compounds, parking lots, alleys and bylanes; this is actual cricket, formally organised with a structure and hierarchy in place, with support systems and non-playing staff, uniforms, schedules and coaching. At the city’s famed Azad Maidan-Cross Maidan stretch, hundreds of cricket matches are simultaneously taking place, with the result that players themselves are often unsure about which match they are playing in, which ball to run after, and which one to run from! Aravind Adiga’s latest book Selection Day belongs to this happy world.
It’s a book about cricket, about Mumbai, about class conflict, about adolescence, and — somewhat jarringly — about coming to terms with one’s sexuality. It’s obvious Adiga sees himself as the antidote to the Chetan Bhagat school of Indian English literature: Where Bhagat writes about India shining, Adiga focuses on the grime and muck underneath. It continues from exactly where he left off in his previous books, White Tiger and Last Man In Tower. A lower-middle class milieu, people living in high-rises ripping off those from “mildew-stained” buildings, who in turn begrudge the slum-dwellers, a world where everyone hates everyone else, where the only way to ascend to the top is by hacking others. Selection Day belongs to this despicable world.
There is a passage in the book, where a rich Indian businessman tells a perspective American partner, “We Indians want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But we are animals of the jungle who will eat our neighbours’ children in five minutes and our own in 10.” Selection Day belongs to this neighbour-eat-neighbour world.
Connecting everything together is cricket. Manoj Kumar is a chutney seller who has two precociously talented sons, and it’s his life’s mission to make cricketers out of them. Tommy sir, named “as if a Labrador was knighted by the Queen of England” is a cricket coach scouting for the next Sachin Tendulkar from the streets of Mumbai. Anand Mehta is a businessman prepared to invest in the sons’ future by granting them a loan in exchange for a third of their career earnings. And each person is constantly at war with the other two, although they are all working towards the same end. At the heart of it are the two sons, both told about their prodigious talent from the minute they were born; tailored, customised and manufactured to become cricketers, they play out of necessity not choice.
In his incredible book Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes has written about renouncing life: “Life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is the moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”
Does one renounce a gift given by life just because one has no need for it? Or is there a moral duty one faces to act upon it, if only to justify the efforts put in by others and to reassure humanity about the worthiness of such a rare gift? Selection Day belongs to moral conundrums like these. For, younger sibling Manju has no love for the sport; he plays because he is told he is good. If he were told, from the moment he was born, that he was good at watching paint dry, he would have made it his profession.
It is something that should resonate with a lot of us, leading deadbeat mundane lives, at faceless, nameless corporations just because we were once told we’re good or talented in a particular sector. If a corporate professional is allowed to let boredom make him resent his industry, why should the same not apply for an aspiring sportsperson, especially a cricketer in India given the relentless scrutiny and pressure?
The book is constantly, even needlessly at times, cynical. There is to be no happiness for anybody in this world; the closest our protagonists get to experiencing joy is when they've just ripped somebody else off, defeated another in the rat race and left him to die.
It might well be what Adiga thinks of the world, it might even be what the reader thinks of the world; where the book falters, however, is in assuming all characters think so. Everyone is uniformly sardonic, identically cynical. Take the lines given to one person and attribute them to another, and there will be no change, neither in the personality arc nor in character development. As a reader, no matter which character is in focus, it’s the same mixture of pessimism and hate that you encounter. By not giving them individual voices, and instead having them speak in similar tongues does the book a major disservice.
As also does the complete lack of female figures. The fairer sex is extremely conspicuous by its absence, which is a damning misfortune for a book already accused of sameness of thought among its principal characters. And it's not like the protagonists are all male with women on the fringes, no. There are literally no women in this masculine landscape. It's like any of the short stories from Hemingway's classic collection Men Without Women, but with twice the cynicism and stretched to over 300 pages.
It’s an unfortunate problem, because the book itself is brilliant and poignant. It raises issues, concepts and philosophies that we have been happily ignoring, and does so in a manner that hasn’t been done too frequently in Indian English literature. How many books before have dealt with cricket and did it in a gritty, realistic manner? It’s a pity that a few odd problems along the way are threatening to take the sheen away from an otherwise accomplished portrayal of life in Mumbai, life in cricket, and life as a cynic.