Timeri N. Murari, author of The Taliban Cricket Club, in conversation with novelist Tulsi Badrinath, at his century-old ancestral home in Chennai.
Timeri Murari gets candid about his latest book — a cross-border love story — that takes one frighteningly close to the Taliban.
The title of your novel, The Taliban Cricket Club, is really an oxymoron, isn't it?
It is very much an oxymoron. I'm always convinced that Planet Earth is a lunatic asylum for the rest of the universe. They are dumping people here… because there is so much insanity in the world. And here comes this little insane piece of news that the Taliban whose reputation is for the most brutal regime there is, suddenly announce out of the blue that they are going to promote cricket. And that fascinated me. I kept thinking about it. It suited their ethos of how a man should dress.
Would the main character Rukhsana really name her team the Taliban Cricket Club? Would she not choose something that signals her defiance?
For me, that sentence popped up when I was writing. It really is a counter to the Taliban. They are deliberately using it. It is really a kind of irony. It is making fun of them really, while also cleverly flattering them.
While you use cricket as a metaphor for all the things that Taliban isn't, you use your knowledge of cricket sparingly. While writing, how much of control did you have to exercise?
Quite a lot of control, because I was writing about a game that a lot of people don't understand. For instance my wife Maureen always reads the first draft and even though she's Australian and watches cricket, she said “I don't understand half of what you've written, what's silly mid on?”. In India and England people have a knowledge of the game while those in America don't. So I pulled back, though I know so much about cricket having played it for years. I had to distill what I know, my skill as a cricketer to make someone who has never watched the game understand what I was talking about.
Precisely because you are writing about a game as metaphor for the moral principles that do not exist in the brutal world of the Taliban — as in the saying It's not cricket — is there the risk that a reader unfamiliar with cricket might miss that whole aspect of it?
Well, I hope he won't, because any sport should be played fairly. In cricket at least it is demanded. To Americans even… it is a very English saying: It's not cricket. They might understand it, they might not, but they use it. In cricket there is a sense of democracy which is a counter to the Taliban's terrorist dictatorship. One was something that was absolutely free, coming up against something that is in total control. I'm hoping American readers will understand that.
You've had to write about cricket in a different way, not the quintessential summer game played in white flannels on the village green as described by Neville Cardus…
I didn't have to go too far. There's gali cricket here… takes place on the streets or some grubby maidan. What I've done really is transfer a gali cricket game to Afghanistan, because they have no facilities in Kabul and have to go to the University ground and try and make up a pitch. So in that context, it cleans cricket of all the trappings of men in white with their caps on, green fields and that beautiful sun shining down.
You've written 17 books, this is your 18th… If one looked, where would one find Timeri Murari in them? In your non-fiction?
My recent non-fiction, the journey to Kailash and the story about the little orphan boy has some of me, not everything. Fiction wise, there is Four Steps from Paradise, set in this city and vaguely autobiographical and Field of Honour set in Bangalore because I grew up there. So there are bits of me scattered in these books but not the whole!
You worked abroad for a long period and have now settled in your ancestral home in Chennai. Your thoughts on being identified as a Chennai-based writer…
The moment you go into a Delhi party and they say “where are you are from?” and I say “Chennai” or “Madras”, end of the conversation, they're gone, they don't want to know you anymore! It's the same with the media, they look down on anyone from south of the Vindhyas. Everything is Delhi-centric. I remember talking to an editor when I was planning to write a political novel and he said, “I hope it's not going to be set in Madras. You should set it in Delhi.” So there is this prejudice, not only editorially but culturally and socially. I now avoid dinners in Delhi.