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20 September 2016

For all its flaws, Selection Day is still better to read than cricket is to watch

Aravind Adiga’s novel about cricket in India is more enjoyable than a day watching the game – then again, that's not saying much.

By Philip Maughan

During any major sporting event – take this summer’s Olympic Games – ­cynics will be heard complaining that sport is meaningless and without purpose. I would generally agree even though, while I was at university, cricket provided me with a useful linguistic marker: a phenomenon for comparison akin to a Dantean circle of hell. “At least it’s not cricket,” friends and I would say, whenever we faced a dull lecture, a lengthy exam or a party that nobody wanted to attend. Watching cricket was, as far as we could imagine, the worst possible use of one’s time.

Thankfully, novels about sport are seldom (if ever) exclusively about sport, and Selection Day, the fourth novel by the Man Booker prizewinner Aravind Adiga, is no exception. Cricket here becomes a shorthand for nation-building. It is the means by which three ageing Mumbaikars – one a chutney dealer from the Western Ghats, another a liberal-minded businessman educated in New York and the third a sentimental talent scout with an anglophone name – intend to transform their country. They are all invested emotionally, financially and professionally in two promising young slumdog cricketers. And they will all be disappointed.

Radha and Manjunath Kumar have been abandoned by their mother – an absence explained best by the presence of their overbearing father, Mohan, who beats them (as he presumably beat his wife), forces them to pay obeisance to the cricket god Subramanya and lays down bizarre prohibitions – against “premature shaving, pornography and car-driving” – that he believes will secure their path to glory.

Mohan’s principles are tested by the arrival of a sponsor, Anand Mehta, whose interest in cricket began only after he learned how a notorious one-dayer between India and Sri Lanka was thrown, or “phixed”, in the 1990s. “This is brilliant,” he announces, seeing in match-fixing an example of the subcontinent’s entrepreneurial potential. “This is cricket!”

At the same time, the dreams of the ­elders are being undermined by the preoccupations of Mohan’s sons, which include girls, boys, internet cafés, junk food and a preference for school over sport. The younger and more talented brother, Manju, is primarily distracted by a rival batsman, a middle-class Muslim boy named Javed, who comes to see cricket as little more than “pro-puh-gun-duh and manipulation and mind-depopulation”.

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Javed is openly gay and much of Manju’s internal struggle can be read in the conflict between his father’s unreconstructed conservatism – which he retains even as the family transitions to the upwardly mobile suburb of Chheda Nagar – and Mehta’s ­social, economic and sexual liberalism. “[Let’s] declare a republic of cunt & cock . . .” he says to himself, “and force everyone here to live in the twenty-first bloody American c&c century, please.”

The advantage of casting three armchair politicians at the centre of a novel is that it provides an excuse to include recurring monologues on the state of the nation. The disadvantage is that, in a work of fiction, this may soon seem confected and essayistic. It is perhaps reductive to imagine the dividing line between literary style and journalese as being the difference between showing and telling, but all too often Selection Day offers up its themes in the form of dialogue and direct action – a no-frills prose that lacks atmosphere and ambiguity.

This is a great shame because, on the few occasions when the narrative seems to exceed what is required for the plot, some rather lovely images occur. For instance, the headshots on political campaign posters are described as being like “so many medieval criminals whose grinning heads had been hoisted up above a city gate”. The furrow that crosses Manju’s worried forehead is recognisably his mother’s: “like a bookmark left there by the woman”.

Although this is a novel about neglect, sexuality and corruption, it has none of the brutal honesty that made An Obedient ­Father, the debut novel by Adiga’s contemporary Akhil Sharma, published in 2000, so unforgettable. There is, however, an excellent barb towards the end of the book, when Manju disappears into the bathroom to masturbate over a photograph of the Nawab of Pataudi, a scene that calls to mind Philip Roth’s Portnoy sticking his manhood wherever it will fit in an attempt to cast off the image of the respectful Jew. “Don’t do immoral things in there,” his father begs. “He was our greatest captain!”

For all its flaws, reading Adiga’s story of cricket is still better than watching the real thing. Then again, that isn’t saying much. 

This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation