This book is a rare commodity - an absolutely outstanding maiden work of fiction written by one Gaurav Bhalla, unknown in literary circles, who describes himself as a 'business educator' and consultant and not a writer of fiction.
Be that as it may, this debutante's first novel, the one under review, is not only extraordinarily original in concept but also in the tantalizingly slow unfolding of the tension-laden plot which grips the reader's attention all through.
The story is wholly set in South Africa in the shameful period of the 1970s and 80s when apartheid was the central policy of governance of the country's racist regime. Discrimination was enforced in ruthless, even absurd, measure. India's ruddy complexioned dashing wicket-keeper-batsman Farokh Engineer, a Parsi, who could well be treated as 'white', was denied entry at a South African airport because he had an Indian passport!
Somewhat like India, South Africa was (and indeed still is) a cricket-crazy country and Bhalla's story has cricket as its backdrop. Craftily woven into the story is South Africa's pariah status when every single non-white country in the world, including India, refused it diplomatic recognition. This reviewer's Indian passport of yesteryear said 'Valid in all countries of the world except South Africa'.
Owing to its non-recognition, South Africa was excluded from test cricket too and played only with England, Australia and New Zealand. However, being a large country, there were active and robust domestic cricket leagues in place whose matches were recognised as first class matches.
Bhalla's story is embedded almost entirely in South Africa's domestic cricket scenario except post 1991 when apartheid was officially abolished under Nelson Mandela's leadership.
Rather uniquely, the 'hero' of Bhalla's story is an African (non-white) family, the Linganis, and the narration spans three generations of the family. Ingeniously, Bhalla creates a Lingani virtue of a genius world class left arm spinner in each generation and these three bowlers spanning three generations form the remarkable warp and weft of the long novel's beautiful tapestry.
The Curse and the Cup; Gaurav Bhalla. gbkahanee, Rs 750, PP 375
The eldest Lingani, Vuyisa, created history by bagging all 10 wickets including two hat-tricks in a first class league match. The white establishment ignored his achievement.
With faith in himself and in Lingani talent Vuyisa taught and trained his son Manga to be the next generation top class left arm spinner in the family. Manga's son Themba continued the Lingani tradition.
This reviewer sees himself in danger of unwittingly giving the storyline away so at this point he'll move on to the advent of the dreaded curse. When Themba was still very young he lost his father (Manga) and grandfather (Viyusa) on the same day in what Bhalla describes as a 'bizarre tragedy'. By now South Africa had been taken back as member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), London, the governing body of cricket worldwide. Free of apartheid, at least nominally, South Africa was now allowed to play international cricket and to fight to win the ICC World Cup. The entire country was excited at the prospect of competing for the glamorous ICC World Cup in 1992.
But the scourge of apartheid lingered. The legendary Linganis were overlooked because of their colour. Bhalla describes the horror of personal assaults on the Linganis by bullies intent on disabling their left arms. Two family seniors were dead (as noted above) while Themba was hospitalized with many left arm bones smashed. His grandmother then takes revenge by placing a dreadful curse on South African cricket denying forever World Cup victory.
Seven tournaments have been played since but South Africa has never won the Cup. Is the Curse still ruling? Will South Africa ever win? Bhalla's exciting denouement is a twist in the tale startlingly unveiled in this brilliant book's very last sentence.
Sujoy Gupta is a corporate historian and biographer.