Playing in the Dark

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Aravind Adiga bats against a country ‘phixed and phucked’—like a white tiger

Selection Day | Aravind Adiga | Fourth Estate | Pages 280 | Rs 599

IT CAN’T BE easy being Aravind Adiga. After your first novel has won the Man Booker Prize, once it has become omnipresent at traffic signals of the city and in pirated piles on pavements, where do you go from there? Do you try variations and permutations of what brought you success back in 2008, or do you select something altogether different? With Selection Day, Adiga chooses the blueprint that has reaped him rich rewards previously. If The White Tiger is the story of a man from Laxmangarh who used to wipe tables at a teashop and smash coal, and now works as a driver in Delhi, Selection Day tells of a chutney seller from Karnataka who has moved to Mumbai and wishes to sculpt his sons into the next Tendulkar(s).

The White Tiger and Selection Day map the trajectory of aspiration, and the hollowness of promises. The books set up cities as monstrosities and city folk as best to be avoided. The tone of both is more snarl than sermon. The undertone they share is that as a country, we are fully ‘phixed and phucked’. The White Tiger succeeded so marvellously because it was the first Indian novel of such blistering rage and sharp satire. Written as a letter to His Excellency Wen Jiabao from ‘The White Tiger/A Thinking Man/And an entrepreneur’, the reader knows from the start to expect a singular voice. That clarity of intent set it apart. It was also a novel that elicited varied responses. Over the years, different opinions on the book (ranging from admiration to derision) have brought literary soirees to an unceremonious halt. ‘Written for a Western audience’ is the accusation (baselessly) thrown at it. But a book that divides opinion so sharply is always an interesting book, and one worth reading and re-reading. Coming second, Selection Day has a similar bark but not the same bite. It will be read, but unlike its mentor, it is unlikely to be revisited.

Adiga’s most recent novel spans a timeline from ‘three years before selection day’ to ‘eleven years after selection day’. In these 15 years the reader sees the doings and undoings of an all-male cast of characters. We meet the 14-year-old Manjunath Kumar; his square-jawed, tall and muscular 15-year-old brother Radha; their father Mohan Kumar, who is always slap-ready and full of baseless theories; Narayanrao Sadashivrao Kulkarni aka Tommy Sir the coach, who wants to find a new Bradman more than he wants a glass of water on a hot day; Anand Mehta the soft-palmed, Nietzsche-reading, New York-obsessed financial analyst; and Javed Ansari, the batsman of money and pedigree who will open new windows for Manju.

Adiga’s mastery lies in his ability to unpack cities. His detailing of the urban landscape is never superfluous, never mere literary bluster. It is through the minutiae that he conjures inequalities. He writes, ‘In the slums along the edge of the maidan, aluminium pots were on the boil. It was lunch hour. At the triangular wedge of grass at the end of the park, Radha saw red flags tucked into the fencing. Something behind the trees blared: ‘Kohinoor Mills. Swan Mills. Sreeram Mills. India United Mills Number One. Where is our compensation, where is our justice, where is our share in Mumbai?’

The question that persists behind the ‘India Shining’ façade and which is posed by millions of Indians is ‘where is our share’, where is our slice of the pie? The White Tiger boldly provoked the question: in our divided times, is the slitting of the boss’ throat the only way to not be servile—even if just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute? Selection Day is a narrative about social mobility, a quest for selection that will remove a family from a slum at the edge of Mumbai’s municipal limits into ‘first-class Chembur’. And for this one family, cricket is a possible way out.

While Selection Day is a cricket novel, with thick descriptions of the Mumbai gharana of the game, the mahaul of the maidans, and a manual of shots, it is also a sociological novel. Mohan Kumar is a brutal father but ultimately a tragic figure because his (and his sons’) achievements will not be in sync with his aspirations. In the investor Mehta’s words: Mohan Kumar is a ‘Mumbai incarnation of that Mephistophelean Mexican bartender who secretly aspires to one day run the Gringo establishment that he is now a servant of’. Mohan embodies the economic upheaval of the country in a humane way. He knows not who he makes pacts with.

His dreams make him ruthless, even abusive, towards his sons. He hammers into them that the ‘three principal dangers to the path of glory’ are premature shaving, pornography and car-driving. His theories might be absurd, but the driving force behind them is fear. Fear (with a capital F) that his ‘chutneyboys’ will never become young lions, terror that he will not succeed in rising above his given circumstances. After a deeply unsettling encounter with Anand Mehta, Manju looks at his father’s face and sees ‘All these years, there had been no secret contract with God, no scientific method, no antibiotics and no ancient wisdom: just Fear.’

This same fear seeps into the son Manju, albeit in a different way. A homoerotic angle simmers just below the surface of the story, always present but never flogged. Just when Manju is about to take the final plunge into a relationship, he is crippled by the fear of being identified as a ‘homo’. He feels himself falling ‘…through the well’s darkness into something deeper—into fear, all the fear that had ever been born on earth, his brother’s fears, his runaway mother’s fears, Mohan Kumar’s fears, the fears of his village, the fears of the time before he was born—and then, instead of turtles, Manju saw the faces of Mohan Kumar, Radha, Tommy Sir and Anand Mehta merge into one collective animal—and this animal bellowed at him: Do you know what name we’ll give you if you stick with Javed?’

The root of the fear might differ from father to son, but it runs rampant through both and determines the life choices they make and the ones they spurn. In the father, it is a fear of unrealised dreams; in the son, it is a fear of breaking free from his father, his diktats, and accepting who he truly is.

Today, Adiga is an important Indian author, writing in English, because he is chronicler of the changing face of the country and critic of our many inequalities. In Last Man in Tower he immersed the reader in the merciless world of real estate and in Selection Day he reveals the movements of power and pelf in the cricket maidans of the country. But at times his extrapolations slacken the pace of the novel. Describing the relationship between Mohan Kumar and Anand Mehta, he writes: ‘Revenge is the capitalism of the poor: conserve the original wound, defer immediate gratification, fatten the first insult with new insults, invest and reinvest spite, and keep waiting for the perfect moment to strike back.’ When Anand Mehta looks at Mohan Kumar’s eyes, he sees in them a ‘pre-liberalization stare’—‘an intensity of gaze common in people of the lower class before 1991’. This interpretation of emotions as the stuff and substance of economics and painting the actions and reactions of people in terms of capitalism, investments and liberalisation feels like mere varnish to the text. A varnish that Adiga did not need to slosh on.

Balram Halwai (of The White Tiger) is assured a place in posterity, it is unlikely Manjunath Kumar and his family will enjoy the same longevity. But at the end of the novel, the two lines that remain with the reader are from the little Kannada poem Manju would recite when he comes out to bat. ‘Obbane Obbane / Kattale Kattale’ (Alone, Alone / Darkness, Darkness).


Third Day: Teatime

Tommy Sir was trembling. Not because of anything so crude as the fact that Manju, having broken his brother’s record for the highest score in Mumbai school cricket, was now all but certain to become the first under-18 in the city’s history to go past 500 runs in a single innings. No. He was trembling because to watch young Manjunath was to observe a remarkable fusion. See: in the old days of cricket there used to be good technique and bad technique. There was such a thing as proper footwork, playing within the ‘V’. But then the new cricket, twenty-twenty, American- style, came along. Bad technique became good. Batsmen withdrew their front foot. They lofted the ball in the air. They reverse-swept; they switch- hit. Now a batsman had to have two techniques, good and bad, and two cricketing personalities, traditional and maverick, and produce the right one on the right occasion: and this confusion undoes even the best batsmen— who loft when they should block and block when they should loft. But as Tommy Singh observed the continuing evolution of Manju’s batting, it occurred to him that this boy, who was switching at will between classical and contemporary footwork, between ‘good’ technique and ‘bad’, was fusing his two cricketing personalities into something new and flawless—and unprecedented in the history of Bombay cricket.