Review: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: Reading Around the World: India

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Cricket is a sport no American understands unless, like the late William F. Buckley or Ted and Bobby Kennedy, they were forced to attend a British public (private) school. So, it’s no surprise that a book on cricket was hidden under a cover design that mimics other recent successful diverse or international novels while the rest of the world was given cricket on the cover.

You know, it’s often said that Indians have two real religions, the cinema – Bollywood – and cricket. It’s the equivalent of sort of baseball, basketball, football and Christmas put together. The question is not why cricket. The question is how you can escape cricket in India.                      (Aravind Adiga on NPR)

One of the strangest legacies of British colonialism is cricket. Many countries in the British Commonwealth (i.e. former Empire) play cricket–though Canada isn’t one of them. India has made cricket, as the quote above says, into a religion–a national obsession, like hockey in Canada or the NBA in America. Never mind in the bygone days of the Raj, Indians would only have been allowed into the Cricket Club as waiters or cleaners. Today it is truly their game.

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The Good

Happily, you don’t have to understand a thing about cricket to read the book. Other than understanding that it goes on for ever and that a Century is a good thing to earn for your team, you can just lalalala thru any action. The focus isn’t so much on the game as on the behind-the-scenes.

Radha and Maju Kumar are the sons of an itinerant chutney salesman living in a poor area of Mumbai, India. Cricket is the fast track to prosperity for all of them and their father has raised them to be the best. (Think NBA straight from high school and you have an idea how this will go.) His peculiar methods of “training” his sons include examining their genitalia and regulating their diet. Both boys have done little in life except go to school and then practice cricket. “Selection Day” is like the NFL or NBA draft. Since no one has the insanity of college-to-pros that the USA has, the selection is for “junior” teams. So imagine being drafted in Middle School for, say, the Junior Detroit Pistons, or the Junior Dallas Cowboys. You get the idea.

The talent is there. Getting selected is another story–a story of corruption. (Think inner city basketball players being recruited by excellent suburban schools and helped to move). The Chutney Salesman (the father) goes all out to get his sons into sponsorship that will lead to selection. But Tommy Sir, as he’s known, isn’t the most scrupulous guy around. He sponsors the boys then, in a way, pits them against each other. The result is ugly.

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I found the story of corruption in cricket very interesting. I’ve read a few things on cricket for one of my novels and found that not everyone likes the way televised cricket especially is going. It can be played in “pajamas” as the newly allowed bright-colored uniforms are mockingly called (like tennis, once upon a Wimbledon, cricket has historically been played in long white trousers and white shirts with team blazers, caps and tennis-style sweaters only betraying team colors). Critics say it’s being made over into baseball for television. In fact, baseball, is teased about in the story.

Oh, my Darling, my Cricket. Phixed and Phucked (p. 143)

But with two teenage boys and an odd father, you know there’s more to the story. In addition to Radha’s desire to study chemistry and be a CSI investigator like those on his favorite imported t.v. show, there are is the story of another boy. Enter wealthier, suburban cricketer, J.A. His life is worlds away from that of the brothers–in more ways than just economically. The coming-of-age part of the story centers around his homosexuality and the sexual coming-of-age of the brothers–especially Manthu.

The Bad

After about midway I found the novel disappointing in many ways. Coming-of-age stories are a favorite of mine and this one, with the added element of taboo sexual preference should have been interesting. Sadly, this part of the story didn’t go well. J.A. is not the most likable of characters. Exploration of sexuality is a normal and expected part of growing up. J.A. though was spoiled and manipulative. I disliked the boys’ father, loathed Tommy Sir and didn’t really like the way this part of the story went.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the look into Indiana life and into the country’s obsession for cricket. I love any book that shows normal, daily life in another country and this part of the book did not disappoint. I could feel, smell, taste India the way Adiga portrayed it. It makes me want to visit the country even more. I will definitely read more from this author.

Verdict: Three Stars

You can read a transcript of the author’s NPR interview here.

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