Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

The Gentleman’s Game…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

selection-day-2Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. The game, once the preserve of all that was considered gentlemanly, has become all about money. The days of languorous five-day test matches has morphed into not only one-day cricket, but the hideousness of the ultra-short 20-20, which Adiga describes in his humorous glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book as “in the eyes of some older fans, almost as bad as baseball.” It’s not necessary, I think, to know about cricket to enjoy the book – Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities, and the sport could as easily be any other. But cricket has a particular resonance, because of its origin as a game of the British Empire, a period whose influence is still vital in understanding much of Indian society.

In the next few minutes, Anand Mehta came up with the following observations about cricket: that it was a fraud, and at the most fundamental level. Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well. If we had any self-respect, we’d finally grow up as a people and play football. No: let’s not expose ourselves to real competition, much safer to be in a “world cup” against St. Kitts and Bangladesh. Self-obsession without self-belief: the very definition of the Indian middle class, which is why it loves this fraud sport.

Poised to offer the world more deep thoughts about the gentleman’s game, Mehta heard:

Shot! Bloody good shot!…

Confronted by the sound and smell of an instant of real cricket, Mehta felt all his mighty observations turn to ashes.

As Manju hits adolescence, he becomes fascinated by another young player, Javed. Javed is gay and Manju’s attraction to him suggests that he is too. But Manju is of a lower class than Javed and has a father who’s not likely to be the most supportive, so it would take considerably more courage for him to admit his feelings than Javed. But his relationship with Javed isn’t purely about physical attraction – Manju finds himself influenced by the older, more confident boy in other ways. Javed, another talented cricketer, sees the corruption in the sport and wants Manju to give it up. So poor Manju has a jealous brother who feels he deserves to be the best, a friend pulling him away from cricket, and his father and his coach putting pressure on him to practice every moment he can. It’s not altogether surprising that he’s confused before he gets to Selection Day, the day on which the big teams pick which young players they will sign.

Sachin Tendulkar, India's finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He's also much loved by advertising executives...
Sachin Tendulkar, India’s finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He’s also much loved by advertising executives…

I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai or Bombay (names which he uses interchangeably). He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but, unlike some of the (usually ex-pat) Indian writers who love to wallow exclusively in the misery, Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature. There’s also a good deal of humour, often very perceptive and coming at unexpected moments, startling me into laughter. This book tackles some tough subjects, but on the whole Adiga simply lays the arguments out and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusions – there’s no whiff of the polemical in his writing.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

There is, however, some great characterisation, and he writes about them empathetically so that it’s hard not to see why even the less savoury characters have turned out as they have. One of the things I loved was seeing how the perception of Mohan, the boys’ father, changed as they grew up. This man who loomed over them in childhood shrinks as they grow – both physically and in terms of his influence. It’s the mark of the quality of Adiga’s writing that this happens so gradually there’s no jarring moment, but towards the end I realised I had come to feel about him quite differently than I had in the beginning.

For me, this was a slow-burn book. It took at least a third of the book before I was convinced that this tale of cricketing brothers was going to hold my interest. But as it progressed, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Adiga was showing various aspects of contemporary Indian life, and as always I found his writing pure pleasure to read. And by the time I reached the end, I found he had again created some characters who had become real to me, in the way Masterji did in his excellent Last Man in Tower. This book confirms Adiga’s place as one of my favourite authors, and gets my wholehearted recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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40 thoughts on “Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

  1. Great review! It sounds like a very good story to have a better understanding of life in India. I love how you talked about the characters’ development and struggles. Cricket is not a sport I know, at all!, but it’s good to know the author doesn’t lose his storyline in endless descriptions of the games. It sounds like there is a great balance and a strong characterization in this, which makes me very curious.

    • Thank you! 😀 I love the way he writes about India – he always makes it feel so vibrant but without ignoring its problems. And I love his occasional humour. I do know cricket a bit, but really felt it wasn’t necessary. I’d maybe say that if you do decide to read it, you might want to read his cricketing glossary at the back first, though – it kinda explains any references that you might otherwise not get. Or if the idea of the cricket puts you off, then I highly recommend his last book, Last Man in Tower, which I think is still my favourite overall… here’s my review of it… 🙂 https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/last-man-in-tower-by-aravind-adiga/

  2. This sounds fantastic! I am a fan of Adiga’s ever since I read The White Tiger, and Between the Assassinations. I now have to pick up this one.

    • I preferred this one to The White Tiger, though Last Man in Tower is still my favourite. He’s one of my favourite authors – it’s been a long wait between books though! Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  3. This sounds really interesting, FictionFan! I really do like the sound of the description of Mumbai. And it’s funny…this is now the second book to feature cricket that’s been recommended to me (the other being Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket). I think it’s a message of some kind that I ought to pay attention to…

    • Ha! Yes, Angela managed to add The Rules of Backyard Cricket to my list too! The lasting legacy of the British Empire… 😉 I do like the way Adiga portrays Mumbai though – I find it much more believable than the picture of total misery some authors show.

  4. As a complete cricket nut, I may have to get hold of this one. It’s a pity that “Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities,” but even so . . .

    • Hahaha! There’s plenty of cricket stuff though – I just didn’t want to put the Americans off! 😉 And even though he’s criticising the corruption in the game, you can tell he’s a fan too. I think you’d probably enjoy it… 🙂

  5. I haven’t read this author, but your review makes me feel I’ve missed out on something special. I know absolutely nothing about cricket (and little more about India), so perhaps it’s time I remedy that ignorance. Thanks for the suggestion, FF!

    • I love Indian writing in general, and Adiga’s one of the best. There’s not so much cricket in this as to make it hard, I think. It’s more about how people feel about the sport than the technicalities of it, if that makes sense. But if you wanted to try him while avoiding cricket, I’d recommend his previous book, Last Man in Tower. 🙂

  6. Great review. I meant to read Last Man in Tower on the basis of your review of it, but haven’t got around to it. Maybe I’ll try this one instead. I rather like cricket – a terrible admission for a Scot! – and I love books that present a positive view of India, so this sounds like one for me.

    • Do you?? I never knew that! I like cricket too, though I vastly prefer test cricket to one-day matches – so relaxing! I think you’d enjoy Adiga – he’s not one of the misery novelists India specialises in…

      • I had cricket-loving friends when I lived in London, who used to take me to county matches, and twice to test matches. Once they explained the rules, I got it!

        • As usual, I’m a TV watcher rather than ‘in person’. I find test cricket beautifully stress-reducing – especially when they play for 5 days and end up with a draw…

  7. Oh Wow! I heard a review with the author on NPR a few days ago. I like how the topic is about an aspect of modern Indian life (cricket), but takes on larger questions as well.

    So I hurried to my library. It’s on order and I can’t wait to read it.

    And now I can’t wait to read it more! 🙂

    • Hurrah! I hope you get it soon and enjoy it! What I like most about him, apart from just the pleasure of his writing, is that he says a lot about modern India but without ever coming over as either polemical or info-dumping – it’s all observational, but very perceptive. I just wish he was a bit more prolific…

  8. Wonderful review! You managed to tackle the one thing that’s a bit off putting in Indian literature…the weight of intense poverty that can bury the narrative.

    Sadly it seems all sports are lost to 🤑. (Did you notice my emoji flaunting?!) 🤓😎 I couldn’t resist! 😉

    • You show-off!! I shall… I shall… well, I shall just have to have a slice of cake to cheer myself up… 🍰

      Yes, I do love Indian literature, but so many of them are just totally depressing, and unrealistically so, I always think. Adiga is one of the ones who gets the balance right, for me at least…

  9. What a great review as usual FictionFan and you’ve got me interested even though my knowledge of cricket is zero which would normally have put me off this one… the sibling rivalry is far more my line 😉

    • Thanks, Cleo! Ha! I know – the cricket will put half the world off the book, but really it’s much more about the boys than the sport. But, as I’ve been saying to other people, for non-cricket people his last book, Last Man in Tower, might be a better introduction – one of my favourite books… 🙂

      PS I started A Dangerous Crossing last night – couldn’t resist. Early days, but it’s so good so far! 🙂

    • Yes, exactly! Sometimes a character is created and then doesn’t change, whereas in real life people change all the time and so do our perceptions of them – he did it brilliantly!

    • Hurrah! I only read it because I already knew I loved his writing – the blurb would have put me off otherwise. But really it’s about the people much more than it’s about the cricket – enjoy! 🙂

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