ARAVIND ADIGA has been writing about areas of darkness in India for a long time now. In the Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger (2008), it was ‘India Unshining’; in Last Man in Tower (2011), it was real estate; and now in Selection Day, he holds up the mirror to cricket, our national obsession. Adiga chooses to place the story in Mumbai, home to one of the richest cricket boards in the world, master batsman Sachin Tendulkar, as well as the aspirations and dreams of an entire nation. He tells the story of 14-year-old Manjunath Kumar who is good at cricket—if not as good as his elder brother Radha.
Their dominating, cricket-crazy father, Mohan Kumar, who makes a living by selling chutneys out of a one-room tenement in a slum in Dahisar, has only one aim: his sons should make it to the Mumbai—and then Indian—cricket team. The brothers’ prayer to Subramanya, the 1,000-year-old god of cricket in their village in the Western Ghats, is: “One of us should become the best batsman in the world, and the other second best.”
The brothers, pushed by their obsessive father, land up in a Bandra school, far from their Dahisar room, thanks to cricket scholarships. Soon, they are spotted by NS Kulkarni, or Tommy Sir, a legendary cricket scout and journalist. After years in the service of cricket, Tommy Sir knows that the game in India no longer smells good. In fact, it’s “Phixed and Ph…ed”, and yet he devises a scheme to get the brothers out of their father’s clutches and into a future team to become part of all this “great nastiness”. He teams up with venture capitalist Anand Mehta, who agrees to sponsor the brothers, but on one condition: he wants one-third of the boys’ future earnings.
As a result, Manjunath, who is obsessed with science and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation reruns, is forced to work on his batting skills. Despite his primary interest being chemistry, he is good at the game and is soon part of record-breaking partnerships on the field. Anyone who follows cricket will immediately be reminded of Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli’s 664-run partnership during their school days and the teenage sensation, Prithvi Shaw, who has been hauling up runs recently. Radha practises harder, working on his “weight transfer issue” while batting. He is out in the maidan even in rain, from 7.30-11 am and 3-5.30 pm, but will that be enough on selection day?
As success and failure are divided between the brothers, we can’t help but ponder over the human cost of our aspirations. It’s a common sight on every maidan and in every nook and corner of the country—boys aged five to 15 slug it out to become the next Tendulkar or Virat Kohli—but what happens when dreams are shattered? What happens to those who fail, because in this game, like any other sport, everyone knows that “some boys fall”.
As Adiga looks into the human costs and the moral corruption around us, he delves into class, caste, families, religion and sexuality. The relationship between Manjunath and the dashing and affluent cricketer Javed, who gives it all up and wants Manjunath to do the same, is moving. The relationship between the brothers and their tyrannical father is one we are only too aware of from our daily newspapers. Away from the game, Manjunath is repressed and can do little about it. “For himself, for his lies and cowardice, Manju had scorn… but he had much more scorn for a world that had never shown him a clear path to love or to security.”
Like Balram Halwai (The White Tiger) and Dharmen Shah (Last Man in Tower), there are some characters in Selection Day—Mohan Kumar, Anand Mehta and even Tommy Sir to an extent—whose vision of life is limited. It’s as if they have no shame or guilt in running after whatever they are pursuing in this new social framework of greed and grab.
But unlike The White Tiger—for which there were whispers that Adiga’s voice was sometimes inauthentic—little rings false in Selection Day. Yes, Mehta’s satirical haranguing of the Indian way of life may be a bit too much—“Indians are basically a sentimental race with high cholesterol levels”—but what is an innings without a few daring shots? Adiga scores big with his third novel.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer