Review: Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians by Boria Majumdar
Full of reportage, history, trivia and anecdotes told in an effortless style, Boria Majumdar’s 450-page Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians is a eulogy celebrating Indian cricket, its cricketers and the billion or so people who follow itbooks Updated: May 25, 2018 17:22 IST
If there is one sub-genre in literature that historically produces work of both high literary quality and sports historiography, it is that of ‘cricket writing’. Here, I am not talking about biographies or autobiographies of cricketers, but cricket writing as literature. Off the top of my head, I can think of books written by the towering great CLR James, plus others by Clive Lloyd and Tony Cozier from the West Indies; the English PG Wodehouse, Neville Cardus, Michael Parkinson, Mike Brearley, David Gower, Christopher Martin Jenkins, Henry Blofeld; the Australian Don Bradman, Richie Benaud, and so many others. Even modern fiction writers like Simon Raven, Romesh Gunesekera and Shehan Karunatilaka, have written wonderfully in their novels about this beautiful game.
In India, we have fine examples by Ramachandra Guha, Shashi Tharoor, Mihir Bose, Mukul Kesavan, Rahul Bhattacharya, Soumya Bhattacharya, Rajdeep Sardesai, Ayaz Menon, Boria Majumdar — just to name a few. Majumdar’s newest book on Indian cricket, Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians, is the latest weighty addition to the ever-growing bibliographical list. Majumdar’s cleverly punned email ID includes the conflated word ‘cristorian’ in it — and quite aptly, he lives up to the mantle of being a serious thoroughbred ‘cricket historian’. Majumdar is a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford who holds a PhD on the history of Indian cricket.
Unsurprisingly, the book is a eulogy celebrating Indian cricket, its cricketers and the billion or so people who follow it at large — but it is also a remarkable book of painstaking research, reportage, history, trivia and anecdotes told in an effortless style. According to the author, “The effort was to document the story of Indian cricket as objectively as possible. Not hold back, not be politically correct, and not hide facts.”
It takes a lot to gain the confidence of the players in the dressing room, and then write about it with honesty and integrity. The book balances the on-field and off-field narratives with cinematic clarity and pacing. Majumdar asserts in the book, “to write an accurate historical account of Indian cricket one needs to first understand that it is not simply a history of what is happening on the field. That is only a part of it. What is played off the field is equally important and fascinating. These two stories which run concurrently on and off the field make Indian cricket what it is.”
This 450-page encyclopaedic book is divided into five parts with multiple chapters. The ‘Prologue’ opens in media res with the 2017 Indo-Australian Ranchi Test Match, a series that was high octane and severely competitive, as it should be — “intense, passionate, and at times, over the top.” The book’s range and content is centrifugally expansive — including sepoys batting for India in the 1850s, to “cricket’s cash box revolution”, “Monkeygate”, captain-coach spats, intricate highs-and-lows in the Indian cricketing saga, Sachin as a God-like figure, present day demigod Kohli, a nod to Indian women’s cricket (for a future book), among others. The ‘Epilogue’ signs off with a moving encounter where the author recalls meeting the same sari-clad candy-seller he has seen for over two decades outside Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, someone who has never been inside the cricketing sanctum sanctorum of India, but is part of the “billion Indians” who make up the wider story of Indian cricket — a lovely human way for this compendium to be bookended.
One of the most moving episodes in the book details Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test Match in Mumbai against the West Indies. After he returns to the pavilion for the last time, we are told that he is sitting on his own. The very young Virat Kohli at the time goes up to him, gives the great man one of the ‘sacred threads’ that he wears on his wrist, saying his father suggested to give it to someone he most respects. It is the respect for this wonderful game, “the game of glorious uncertainties” that is the running thread through this voluminous and remarkable book.
Commenting on the book and wider aspects of cricket at the Mumbai launch recently, the current Indian coach Ravi Shastri and the former Australian captain Michael Clarke attested to the fact that the current Indian team is perhaps the best and most well rounded one with an incredible bench strength to boot. Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma, also on stage, spoke with grace, humility and passion about this book’s extraordinary latitude — “the on and off the field story of cricket in India and beyond.”
Another episode, this time one tinged with couched hilarity, is of the then captain Saurav Ganguly, Dada. Allegedly against Ricky Ponting’s Australian side at the toss — he swiftly called “head-tail” and chose that India would bat first. Before Ponting could decode Dada’s double-barreled option and what transpired in a flash, the Indian opening batsmen were well on their way taking guard on the field.
One of the memorable sections of this book is the one that includes archival photographs — numerous facsimiles of letters, posters, scorecards, autographs and other rare images. It is “a photographic history” that words cannot do justice to. The back cover, for instance, shows the letter from the Cricket Advisory Committee written to the BCCI on June 17, 2017 at the height of the Virat Kohli-Anil Kumble standoff. None other than the Indian cricketing triumvirate — Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman — signed this letter.
Among the book’s many strengths and highlights is that it takes the reader backstage, into the corridors of power, into dressing rooms, private conversations that only the privileged are privy to, and presents new material that is not yet part of the public domain. It is equally a great multi-layered story that often reads like a well-paced thriller or a novel, the reader forgetting that it, in fact, is a book of non-fiction.
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For a large part, this is due to Majumdar’s wide knowledge and flair for language, him never mincing any words to please anyone, and his concern and care for accurate reporting. Finally, it is the tone of his writing itself — it is akin to a voice of an avuncular well-informed storyteller on a winter night around a fireside — teasing and keeping listeners/readers’ interest riveted with many diverse plot lines, sidelights, asides, digressions — all the while upholding the sanctity of cricket, Indian cricket — both for the players and for the people of India who follow it passionately. This book is a must read both for sports lovers as well as for lay readers, and especially those who wish to get a peek into a certain kind of cultural/sporting history through a unique lens — Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians is a very fine book, highly recommended.
Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions) and EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House).