Timeri Murari's latest novel weaves fact and fiction to tell the story of Afghanistan under the Taliban rule

How would The Guardian's cricket team have fared against a fledgling cricket team that is central to writer-filmmaker-playwright Timeri N Murari's latest novel “The Taliban Cricket Club”? Posed this question by N. Ram, Director, Kasturi & Sons Limited, and former Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, during the book's launch, Murari said that The Guardian's cricket team had an unblemished record of defeats. It toured all over the world — India, America, Sri Lanka — without winning a match — all because the team was made up of journalists, and they walked on to the pitch, every morning, with a hangover. The audience laughed.

“The Taliban Cricket Club” is the story of a woman journalist, thrust unexpectedly into the role of a cricket coach. The book, published by Aleph, is a marriage between historical research and a firsthand view of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

When Ram asked Murari about the challenge of getting a slew of facts pertaining to Afghan culture, customs and politics right, the author spoke about his Afghan contacts and visits to the country while it bled because of internal turmoil. He talked about his poignant introduction to Kabul, where, at the airport, he gained the acquaintance of a man whose hotel had been bombed. From the gate to the lobby of the hotel Murari checked into, his car had to pass through a succession of steel barriers manned by gun-toting soldiers.

Besides someone who slipped him reliable information, Murari had a driver who could bail him out of any tight spot (In other words, his right foot accelerated perfectly when a military convoy was in sight.). Murari got into trouble three times for hanging around aimlessly and taking pictures, and each time the street-smart driver employed the right words to save the author from getting arrested.

Stories shared by Afghans also helped shape the book such as the account of a family in trouble for watching Bollywood films. The family had been reported to the moral police, who arrived promptly and smashed the television set. The family relocated and bought a new television and was now careful to keep the volume low.

Murari called this an act of rebellion, and others were rebelling against the Taliban regime (1996-2001) in their own quiet ways. When Ram asked Murari if he met brave and freedom-loving journalists during his quest for information, the author said how writers kept alive the voice of truth by smuggling articles out of Afghanistan. The stories that found their way to the foreign press alone gave a true picture of the country. These brave journalists were also writing for publications run by organisations such as RAWA — the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan — that voiced strong dissent.

The book thus is an interplay of fact and fiction. The hunt for a cricket team worthy of being groomed by cricket gurus in Pakistan and of being allowed to represent Afghanistan, which forms the kernel of the story, is based on news reports.

Referring to a statement by one of the Taliban bigwigs in the book (“We banned cricket because it was a legacy of the evil British”), Ram asked how the Taliban could turn to cricket. Murari explained that cricket, “being rooted in civility”, would help the rulers project an image of fair play. The fact that cricketers were covered from head to toe — wearing caps, full-sleeved shirts and trousers — appealed to their sense of modest dressing. And the long duration of the game kept unemployed youth engaged for hours, preventing them from slipping into vice. This statement is made in the book by the minister responsible for moral standards.

As the unfolding drama is largely viewed through the prism of cricket, Murari has avoided cricket jargon for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the sport.

Recalling how R.K. Narayan was caught in a quandary when he was close to completing “The Guide” and was uncertain about letting the protagonist die, Ram asked Murari if he was also faced with a choice between a happy and a sad ending. Without giving away the denouement, Murari said the book kept getting darker and darker and he “pulled back” at one point.

Expressing certainty that the book would become a film someday, Ram asked Murari to speculate on the casting. Before Murari could answer, Ram proposed Kapil Dev for the role of a last-minute coach. The author laughed and, secure in his knowledge that nothing sells in Hollywood like star power, opted for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.