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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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

the white tigerEscaping the Rooster Coop…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Having given the FictionFan award for Book of 2011* to Adiga’s great novel Last Man in Tower, I backtracked to this earlier book with very high expectations, perhaps too high. The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker Prize but, while it shows all the same skill in writing, the humour and the ability to compel the reader to keep turning the pages, for me it lacks some of the humanity and warmth that characterises the later book.

On the eve of the Chinese President’s visit to India, Balram Halwai, the White Tiger of the title, writes him a series of letters ostensibly to explain how democracy and entrepreneurship are the factors that differentiate the two countries. However as Balram’s story unfolds, it become a confessional, as we learn of the unconventional way in which he broke out of the ‘Rooster Coop’ that keeps the lower caste Indian in a state of poverty and servility to the rich.

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

Balram’s job as driver and servant to a rich businessman gives Adiga the opportunity to show the contrasts in Indian society, as does Balram’s move from the poverty of rural India to the rich parts of Delhi in the wake of his master. Adiga’s writing is so assured and flowing that the book is a pleasure to read and Balram, despite his faults, is a character it’s hard not to empathise with and like. But somehow the descriptions of the society seem a bit shallow – not enough shades of grey. Adiga is wryly scathing about the corruption endemic in politics and the police, but so many of the characters seem purely driven by greed that often there’s very little room for the reader to sympathise with them.

Overall, I found this a well-written, enjoyable read with obvious signs of the talent and promise that, for me, Adiga fulfilled in Last Man in Tower. Recommended.

*The prize for this prestigious award is that I buy the author’s next book.

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Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

last-man-in-towerUK300When a community divides…

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Sometimes a book is so good it’s hard to do justice to it in a review. This is one of those books.

As the Vakola area of Bombay (as the author usually calls it) begins to come up in the world, the inhabitants of an apartment block are offered money by a developer to move out. One man, Masterji, a retired teacher, wants to stay. This is the story of how the promise of wealth changes and corrupts a community. But it’s also so much more than that. The author takes us into the lives of Masterji and his neighbours, letting us see their thoughts and dreams and fears. With humanity and humour he paints a picture of the friendships, favours and shared histories that bind a community together; and then shows how small envies and old grievances are magnified when that community is divided.

Bombay itself is a major character in the book. There is a real sense of how the city is changing as India becomes richer. The contrasts between the lucky rich and the frightening hand-to-mouth existence of the very poor are woven into the story, but subtly, so that the reader accepts these contrasts as easily as the inhabitants. The author also highlights the cosmopolitan nature of the city, the differing religions and cultures all forming one vibrant whole.

Aravind Adiga (www.bbc.co.uk)
Aravind Adiga
(www.bbc.co.uk)

This book made me laugh and cry. It is full of warmth and the characters are drawn sympathetically and affectionately. In many ways an intimate portrait of a small group of people, but also an in-depth look at the strengths and frailties of human nature. By a long way, this was my favourite book of 2011 and winner of that year’s FictionFan Award, the prize for which, as regular readers may know, is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book. I’m still waiting, Mr Adiga!

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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