Literary Review

Straight drive to stardom

Selection Day; Aravind Adiga, Fourth Estate, Rs. 599. Photo: Special Arrangement

Selection Day; Aravind Adiga, Fourth Estate, Rs. 599. Photo: Special Arrangement

Like its predecessors, Selection Day , Aravind Adiga’s new novel, is a moving, unsettling and absorbing story of aspiration and its discontents in contemporary urban India. In Adiga’s second novel, 2011’s Last Man in Tower , aspiration was the villain, in the form of the ruthless property developer Dharmen Shah. Selection Day , while in many ways a very different book, returns to the territory of Adiga’s Booker-winning debut, The White Tiger . Like Balram Halwai, that novel’s narrator, the Kumars, the father and two sons at the heart of Selection Day , are driven by liberalisation’s most seductive promise: social mobility.

The vehicle of their aspirations is cricket; more specifically, batting. Mohan Kumar, the father, observes his son Radha’s ability to hit a cricket ball and moves the family from rural Karnataka to Mumbai, where he eventually finds unfulfilling work as a chutney-seller. His true vocation, however, is turning his sons into the two best batsmen in the world. He studies, and develops theories — alternately ingenious and eccentric — on every aspect of the mental, technical, and physical education of cricketers. In Mumbai, his wife leaves him, an event that only hardens his commitment to this task.

Radha, the first-born, is the chosen one, possessed of a “secret contract” with the god Subramanya, guaranteeing that he will be the next Bradman or Tendulkar. But his brother Manju, younger, shorter, uglier, can play too, and the pair bat their way to scholarships at a middle-class Bandra school, a world away from their one-room home in Dahisar. There their exploits draw the attention of N.S. Kulkarni, or “Tommy Sir”, a journalist and legendary cricket scout on the maidans of Mumbai.

Tommy Sir, sensing that the father’s combination of poverty and totalitarian control will hold the brothers back, devises a novel scheme: venture capital for young cricketers. He ropes in Anand Mehta, the U.S.-returned son of a rich stockbroker. For Rs. 5,000 a month, and a one-time loan, Mehta purchases the right to one-third of the boys’ earnings for life.

Much more than just a cricket book, Selection Day is one of the finest novels written about the game, combining astute judgements with accounts of individual innings marked by an unobtrusive lyricism. Adiga may be the first novelist to truly grapple with the post-1983 phenomenon of cricket as a force of social mobility. Cricket writing, both in fiction and otherwise, is often charged or marred by sentimentality; Selection Day is an unromantic book, because to love the game is a luxury denied to those like the Kumar brothers, who play it not out of choice but necessity.

As a cricket novel Selection Day is evidently the product of deep research, and watchers of Mumbai cricket are likely to note the more-than-passing resemblance between Tommy Sir and Makarand Waingankar ( The Hindu columnist, historian, and talent scout), as well as the parallels, too many to be coincidental, between Manju and Prithvi Shaw, a record-breaking teenage batsman. Off the field, however, the book is less committed to documentary realism.

This is most true at the level of language. The representation in English of speech and thoughts that are partially or wholly in the vernacular is the oldest technical problem in Indian English fiction, and unlike most of his predecessors, Adiga does not attempt a solution. Of all the characters in the book, only Tommy Sir thinks or speaks in a voice recognisably his own. Most of the dialogue is stylised: sometimes, as when a BCCI official says that a match was fixed “in our dismal, derivative, scatterbrained South Asian way”, too much so.

For the most part, the absence of convincing individual voices does not hold the novel back. Mohan is a magnificently realised character, equal parts loathsome and pitiable. Manju, who emerges from his brother’s shadow to be the better batsman and the book’s protagonist, may be the most indelible figure in any of Adiga’s novels, a mix of fear, genius, and all kinds of repression. The most profound absence is that of women: this is an all-male world in which, we sense, each character is fatally constricted by his inability to truly know women.

Only in the case of Mehta does the author’s touch falter. Mehta begins as an intriguing and menacing combination of naivete and entitlement: but his extended monologues, both internal and oral, fail to convince, both in voice and in content. In an often very funny book, Mehta is the only character played for laughs: but the satire is far too on-the-nose.

Adiga has often been compared, most notably with Last Man in Tower , to Charles Dickens, but Selection Day is reminiscent of a very different Victorian novelist: Thomas Hardy. The plot’s forward movement is deterministic, its characters imprisoned for life by their circumstances. This is most true of the book’s dramatic centrepiece, the passionate, homo-erotic friendship between Manju and his wealthy teammate Javed Ansari. Every development in this relationship is telegraphed, there is never any doubt of its tragic resolution; yet it loses none of its emotional force.

Selection Day is written at an angle to conventional realism; Adiga does not construct the illusion that we see this world through the eyes of his characters. We see it through the author’s eyes, and what emerges most powerfully, as with Hardy, is the author’s own personality: the force of his humanity and his social and political vision.

In the quarter-century since liberalisation, urban India has seen more social and economic change and upheaval than in entire centuries. To a remarkable and depressing extent, Indian fiction in English has failed to reckon with this change. For the third book running, Adiga rises to the challenge with a novel of ambition, originality, moral seriousness and sociological insight. To use an analogy appropriate to a novel about batsmanship: where so many of his peers are content to safely nudge ones and twos, Adiga remains willing to take risks in the pursuit of fours and sixes. If he is sometimes caught on the boundary, it is only to his credit.

Selection Day; Aravind Adiga, Fourth Estate, Rs. 599

Keshava Guha is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 4:10:18 pm |