Saga of two talented cricket-playing brothers in the dark, teeming morass of Mumbai
Arvind Adiga’s new novel, “Selection Day,’’ riffles like Mumbai, the city in which it is set, hunting for meaning in false starts, split seconds of fame, crescendos of glory, and personal disaster wrapped around the game of cricket as it is played by, and among, the masses of India’s horny, vengeful poor.
The novel by the Booker Prize winner opens with wonderfully original brothers, Radha and Manju Kumar, who are being groomed to become the first and second best batsmen in the world — with all this implies about unequal expectation and rivalry. To this end the brothers are chased and misfielded like a glanced ball by three neurotic men and a boy.
First, their father, Mohan Kumar, a self-taught cricket-coach, nutritionist, and pharmacist, whose rules include examinations of his sons’ bodies from facial hair to foreskin.
Next comes king maker and stalwart savant, Tommy Sir, driven to discover the next cricketing legend while penning a history of the Maratha army in the 18th century. He believes that “cricket is the triumph of civilization over instinct” and harbors little prejudices about the evils of “fecundity and fundamentalism.”
A wealthy, mostly failed speculator, Anand Mehta, who left the “meritocratic metropolis” of Manhattan to return to a Bombay whose corruptions he understands but cannot outpace, bets on the kids with his sponsorship.
And finally there is Javed Ansari, troubled son of a rich Muslim businessman who presents to the younger, more gifted, brother, a scale weighted on one side with the vagaries of cricket, the other, an adrenaline-raising, pheromone-altering, dizzyingly undefined “everything,” from education to homosexuality.
Selection ultimately becomes not about being picked for the Mumbai Cricket Team and a chance to join the big-money Indian Premier League or chasing destiny, but choosing one’s poison.
Sadly, despite rich individual narratives, there is little time allowed to linger over star or bit player. In Adiga’s India of ancient rules and modern life, where nothing and everything is illegal, the cast of Indians, with their singular depravities, perversions, and fantasies, are folded into the stew of slum and cityscape at high speed. In pacing that seems more screenplay than novel, the story careens through domestic, street, and cricketing scenes like a cross between Danny Boyle’s “Slum Dog Millionaire” (2008) and Craig Gillespie’s “Million Dollar Arm,” (2014) to a raucous chorus made up of India’s police, small and large entrepreneurs, politicians, film stars, crows, pigeons, and vehicular traffic.
We are left with the impression that the narrator who remains phlegmatic, unimpressed, neither amused by the chaos, nor in possession of fancies of which he might become disabused, is a close relation of Anand Mehta, who screams at the entire city of Mumbai: “I gave up Central Park for you.”
Adiga novel is as global in its references as Tommy Sir’s English, culled from every continent and sans anchor. There is baseball and tennis; a touch of Manhattan; a spot of England; mention of Trinidad and Capetown. There are hipsters, aspiring actors, quartets of Muslim beggars, gay mullahs, “Mad Max’’ gangs, brahmins churning in sewerage-saturated rivers, glamorous girlfriends, and degenerate drunks. All interspersed with literary references delivering praise to men (from Rushdie to Homer) and disparagement of the one woman mentioned (Lahiri).
With America reigning over the interiority of a main character, as well as over all aspects of asinine adolescence — from Eminem to the “CSI’’ juggernaut — in “Selection Day,’’ it is difficult not to recall the last book that related to cricket with which American readers might be familiar, Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland.” The focus of that book’s story, the late Chuck Ramkissoon who aimed to create world peace in New York City, is ultimately more fully realized than Tommy Sir, a character of staggering promise, the true-blue native cricket fiend unearthed in, nourished by, and returned to rest in the soil of cricket-mad Mumbai. He deserved better.
Cricket, for all its leisurely grace, has produced some of the most exciting moments in international sport, and India in its 84 years of high-level test cricket, has headlined many, alongside Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Yet despite numerous mentions of Indian stars from Pataudi to Tendulkar, cricket takes a seat at the back of a packed bus in this novel. The game frames a blurry snapshot of a chaotic city, a place where corruption is rife, young men “scaveng[e] for identity,” and “[t]hings just happen to people like Mohan Kumar and his sons. No reason. No meaning. No ‘Because.’ ” Interesting, but not quite cricket, is it?
By Aravind Adiga
Scribner, 304 pp., $26
Ru Freeman is the author of the novels “A Disobedient Girl’’ and “On Sal Mal Lane,’’ and the editor of “Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine.’’