Murari, in this cross-border love story, brings us frighteningly close to the Taliban.
“The laws of cricket tell of the English love of compromise between a particular freedom and a general orderliness, or legality” wrote Neville Cardus. The Taliban, not known for any great love of freedom nor of legality, decided in a moment of aberration to promote cricket in Afghanistan and this provides the take-off point for Timeri Murari's latest work of fiction, The Taliban Cricket Club.
Feisty, reckless journalist Rukhsana is under a terrible threat. A powerful Talib leader Wahidi intends to marry her; her wishes in the matter do not count. When the Taliban announces that there will be a cricket tournament and the winners sent to Pakistan for further training, Rukhsana, as one of the few Afghans familiar with the game, decides it is perhaps the only way to escape Wahidi, and get out of the country.
Wearing a burqa, she begins coaching her team of cousins. “Through the mesh, I could barely focus on a bowler, let alone the ball… When I tried to bowl, my right hand became entangled in the flapping garment, I lost sight of Parwaaze, the ball flew over his head.” The reader is treated to a description of the rudiments of cricket, played on a makeshift pitch in war-torn Kabul. It is here that Murari's skills as a writer are evident, because he does not yield to the temptation of waxing lyrical about a graceful ballet of sportsmen on emerald fields nor of displaying his intimate knowledge of the game (his grandfather and father were legendary players in the annals of pre-independence cricket).
“There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play” rules the MCC and the Spirit of the Game is juxtaposed against the wanton brutality of the Taliban regime. “Cricket is theater, it's dance, it's an opera. It's dramatic. It's about individual conflict that takes place on a huge stage. But the two warriors also represent the ten other players; it's a relationship between the one and the many. The individual and the social, the leader and the follower, the individual and the universal.” Cricket becomes a metaphor for everything the Taliban is not.
Murari introduces a third element in the novel, the Shakespearean motif of cross-dressing, flagged by a reference to Shylock. While in his earlier work The Square Circle (Daayra) both sexual and gender identities were explored through the means of disguise, Murari uses clothing here in a more ironical way for all women under the burqa are interchangeable and unrecognisable.
Rukhsana, chaste and determinedly feminine, becomes Babur and disguise affords her a greater invisibility than that beneath the burqa. Cross-dressing, by men who played women who then played men in Shakespeare's romantic comedies, becomes a means of personal safety and the expression of great courage by Rukhsana who is certain to be summarily shot if discovered.
I must admit to a great resistance, on first seeing the evocative cover photograph by Mustafa Quraishi, to being taken back to the days of capricious violence inflicted on women by the Taliban. Why return there, I wondered, to distress that was unbearable even when felt the first time, say at the execution of Zarmina. However, Murari deftly portrays a heroine who fights against unbeatable odds, in the midst of a totalitarian regime, and wins. By making Rukhsana the personal target of Wahidi, Murari brings us frighteningly close to the Taliban and allows us to participate in the attempt to outwit him.
One's attention is held throughout, with a cross-border love story involving an Indian adding to the drama, and the possibility of the triumph of true love impelling one to turn the pages. Even if there are some coincidences that seem staged, one goes along quite willingly suspending disbelief. In the end, it is love that is celebrated: Romantic, familial and fraternal.