Three quarters of the way into Aravind Adiga’s ambitious and disquieting novel, Anand Mehta – a glib, smarmy, businessman who is a champion at failed projects – says what could be seen as a sort of coda to the book: “But you know, Ms Rupinder, what we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written [by Indians] in English, is not literature at all, but flattery. We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But the truth is we are absolutely nothing of that kind. What are we then, Ms Rupinder? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbour’s children in five minutes, and our own in ten.” Man’s cruelty to man is a dominant theme in the book, but Selection Day is too layered a novel to preoccupy itself with a single, overriding theme.
Adiga is fascinated by how the uneducated and the underprivileged, armed with grit and guile, and driven by overwhelming aspiration, can come from the rural hinterland to the big city in search of all that is denied them; and how their collision with the city, and all that it represents, shapes and irrevocably alters their lives. Like Balram Halwai in The White Tiger and Dharmen Shah in Last Man in Tower, Mohan Kumar in Selection Day is a dreamer and schemer, who leaves his remote village to seek his fortune in the metropolis.
Convinced that his two sons, Radha and Manju, can become the world’s best and second-best batsmen, Mohan travels to Mumbai, the crucible in which some of the country’s greatest batting talent has traditionally been forged. He then unleashes his sons on the many maidans of the city.
Duly, they come to be noticed by the legendary coach and talent scout called Tommy Sir, whose mission in life is to unearth the next Sachin Tendulkar. Seeking to loosen Mohan’s vice-like grip over his sons and save them from their pushy father, Tommy Sir persuades the businessman Mehta to offer a loan and a monthly payment in exchange for a percentage of the boys’ future earnings. This allows Mohan and his sons to move from a slum on the margins of the city to a middle-class housing society in Mumbai. It is the first big step in Mohan’s intended climb up the social ladder.
Unfortunately (but, given that this is Adiga, not unexpectedly), that is about as good as it gets for the family. Radha is the one who his father feels is destined to be the greatest. But things don’t go according to plan. Manju, who has dovetailed a perfect technique that is demanded in the longer format of the game with the unbridled aggression of play suited to limited-overs cricket, outdoes his brother. He then proceeds to embark upon a homo-erotic friendship with his fellow cricketer, Javed Ansari. And things begin to spiral out of control.
The Kumars are beautifully realised characters, as is the demanding, scholarly Tommy Sir. But Mumbai, shape-shifting, remaking itself every day, full of complexities and dualities, is as living – and as important – as any of the other protagonists. While describing the city, be it the slums of Dahisar or the bars of the wrong side of the tracks in Santa Cruz or the landmarks of south Mumbai, Adiga’s touch never falters.
His eye and ear are sharp, and his humour dark and mordant. Here is Adiga on the smell of a temple the Kumars frequently visit. “Camphor, crushed marigold, wet stone and stale coconut combine to produce the body odour of a South Indian god, an odour not always pleasant, but always divine: and this is the smell which exuded from the closed wooden doors of the Subramanya temple at Chheda Nagar, Chembur.”
The characters in Selection Day are perhaps the most complex Adiga has created. For the most part they are hard to categorise as good or bad. They can at once be invincible and fallible; mean and generous; loquacious and cryptic; predictable and baffling; vulnerable to cruelties and capable of kindness and sacrifices. They soar, they fall, they contain within them multitudes. That is one of the triumphs of the book.
Read more: Another review of Selection Day
Cricket is a game that thrives on its sense of narrative, of dramatic confrontations, of sub-plots. One would think that of all games, it would inspire fiction the most. But despite having generated a great deal of excellent narrative non-fiction, cricket is at the heart of not too many novels. Off hand, I can think of LP Hartley’s The Go Between, PG Wodehouse’s Mike, Romesh Gunesekara’s The Match, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Malcolm Knox’s Adult Book. And although the game is perhaps our strongest national bond, no Indian writer in English (other than Anuja Chauhan in The Zoya Factor) has made central to a novel the game with which our country is obsessed. Now Adiga has joined that tiny club. It could not have happened a moment too soon.