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Book of the week

All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a wry, passionate, obsessive reflection on cricket and hero worship by a breathless, sardonic fan. Read on to know more...

books Updated: Jan 03, 2010 15:53 IST
Prem Panicker

Book: All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Author: Soumya Bhattacharya

Soumya Bhattacharya recalls the exact moment his cherished child Oishi took her first steps. He remembers dropping to the floor with his handycam to record the magic moment — only to get distracted by a re-run of a classic Tendulkar innings and end up focusing on that instead.

On March 30, 1997, I stood at a cremation ground in Calicut watching, through eyes blurred with tears and smoke, the flames that consumed the body of my father. And to this day, I recall the momentary frisson of joy when a cousin sidled up to whisper that India, needing 120 to win a historic Test against the West Indies, were 2/0 with a day’s play left.

That is the nature of the quintessential fan. For us, sport is not mere entertainment. Nor is it ‘like a religion’ (“You tend to see these silly placards at stadiums, too; a misleading platitude masquerading as an original aphorism,” sniffs the author of the book under review.)

It is more. Much more. Our lives play out not in isolation but always against the canvas of the sport and of the team we follow with an unreasoning passion; it is the game that gives context, meaning and nuance to our personal highs and lows.

You would imagine, therefore, that the ‘fanboy’ memoir is the easiest to write — a question, merely, of stringing together memories of cricket matches watched and juxtaposing them against milestones, major and minor, from our personal lives. Yet, when Soumya Bhattacharya released his slim debut, You Must Like Cricket? in July 2006, he broke new ground. Now he’s pushed further with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Reviews are generally done in isolation. Yet, just this once, it makes sense to consider these two books as a homogeneous unit that flows one from the other. The first begins with Bhattacharya’s initiation into the intricacies — and the serial heartbreaks — of cricket, as a then five-year-old in England, and proceeds breathlessly through his growing-up years in small town Bankura and so on into adulthood.

The second, more recent book, briefly treads some old ground, but expands into that characteristic territory of the obsessive fan: hero worship. Bhattacharya has his idols, as which of us doesn’t, and he uses a large segment of his narrative to paint crisp portraits of the individual against the backdrop of the team. This in turn leads him to a consideration — with daughter Oishi, now six, as both a prompt and a sounding board — of the conundrum posed by the Indian Premier League: when the ‘team’ is fractured, when individuals play not for flag and country but for club and money, who is a fan to support?

The style is interesting — a series of segues from far-flung cricket fields to family living rooms and back again, the whole punctuated with parenthetical riffs on socio-cultural constructs.

The books read deceptively easy, yet they take a great degree of skill to get right. Bhattacharya has that skill, and the voice — often wry, occasionally cynical, always breathless, passionate, artlessly unselfconscious and unapologetically obsessive — to weld memory and observation into a seamless, eminently readable whole.

At 144 pages, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is, like its predecessor, a small, flawlessly cut (well, almost — the odd, and oddly uncharacteristic, grammatical error appears to have slipped the editor’s eye) gem of a book that delineates one man’s obsession with his preferred sport, even as it tempts you to examine your own.

Prem Panicker is a Mumbai-based sports writer