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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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Abandoned, but not lightly…

😦

a fine balanceShortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize, and recommended by just about everyone who’s read it, this book has accumulated 244 5-star reviews on Amazon UK, and only three 1-stars. Well, four now. I began the book on the 27th July and finally abandoned it on 1st September at just over the half-way mark. So this review is an attempt to explain why I struggled so badly with a book that apparently the whole world loves.

The book is set in the period of the late ’70s/early ’80s, probably in Bombay, I think, though I don’t think Mistry ever actually says so. Mrs Ghandi is in power and ‘The Emergency’ has been declared – a period, it would seem, when the government was cracking down on opposition and civil liberties in general. I say ‘it would seem’ because again Mistry doesn’t really bother to tell us about the political situation – he implies his characters are too poor or disinterested to care about politics and, since we see only through their eyes, we get only a vague, fuzzy view of what’s going on. Fine, if you already have an in-depth knowledge of Indian politics of four decades ago, but unfortunately I don’t.

Indira Gandhi Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS
Indira Gandhi
Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS

The book starts with the coming together of four people whose stories make up the heart of the book. Dina Dalal, a widow on the edge of poverty, takes on a contract to make clothing for one of the big new companies that have taken work away from the traditional tailors. To fulfil the work, she hires two such dispossessed tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. At the same time she takes in student Maneck, the son of an old school friend, as a paying lodger. The first half of the book is taken up with the backstories of these characters, explaining what tragedies have led them to this point. And when I say tragedies, boy, do I mean tragedies. Rape, murder, all forms of cruelty, racial and religious attacks, threatened incest – all human misery is here, often several times over. But these poor people don’t realise this has actually been the good part of their lives – things are going to get worse…

But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

Mistry’s writing style is very good. The descriptions of these awful lives in this horrible country are detailed and convincing. So convincing, in fact, that one is left wondering why anyone would choose to go on living at all. Each day is a joyless burden, filled with nastiness and filth. There are only two groups of people in this country: the oppressors and the oppressed. No hope, no chance for escape from the degradations and privations that increase with every passing day. Not a picture of India that I recognise from other novels, the best of which do show the extreme poverty and huge inequalities, but also show the diversity and even vibrancy of the country as a whole.

The characterisation is strong in the sense that each of the four main protagonists is well delineated and their behaviour is consistent with their past experiences. But the problem is that Mistry clearly has a political agenda and the characters are no more than puppets. I felt that Mistry had started with a list of all the bad things about life under Mrs Ghandi, added all the different ways people can be nasty to each other, and then dumped all this misery on the heads of this tiny group of characters. I’m sure all these bad things happened, indeed still do, but I’m equally sure they don’t happen every single day to the same people. If there’s a riot, they’ll be caught up in it. If a slum is pulled down, it’ll be their slum. If a father is murdered for being the wrong caste, it’ll be their father. If a wife is raped for being poor…well, you get my point. Even if one of them pauses to make friends with a dog, you can be sure the dog will die hideously within a chapter. The strange result of this was that I didn’t care what happened to any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as people – merely as fairground ducks for Mistry to shoot over and over again.

Mumbai slum
Mumbai slum

I’ve had a long, long time to think about why I found it so difficult to pick the book up and read even a few pages each day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the book lacks two fundamental necessaries. Firstly, there is no plot. There is simply a description of the miserable lives of these miserable people – we’re not heading towards, or even away from, anything. And secondly, there is no glimmer of hope. I’m not suggesting there should be a happy ending with them all becoming rich and happy, but there has to be a possibility of something in the future that would make their present lives worth the horrible daily struggle. But there isn’t – it’s crystal clear that things are going to get worse and worse until Mistry finally runs out of things to torment them with; at which point they will be abandoned to their miserable fates. (When I decided to give up, I flicked ahead to the end to see if I was being unfair – I wasn’t.) I’m a political animal, so I love novels that include an element of politics in them. But there must be something else in them too – otherwise it’s not a novel. This book is about one important sector of society, the poor, at a particular point of Indian history; but I got no overall picture of the society, no understanding of why the political situation had reached this stage, no glimmer of what opposition might be in train. As an extremely lengthy description of how awful life can be for people caught up in hopeless poverty and cruelty, full marks. But then we already know that, don’t we? We watch the news…don’t we? A novel needs to be more than that, surely? It needs to tell us what we don’t already know – it needs to make us think…to care. And ultimately this one doesn’t…

‘Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’ he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.’

For me, Mistry failed to achieve a balance – the book is too heavily weighted towards misery and hopelessness. The quality of the characterisation and descriptive writing makes me feel that my 1-star rating is harsh, but since I can’t bring myself to finish the book, I feel it’s the only rating I can give it.

If you’re one of the people who loved it, I’ll be interested to hear why…

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfThe best laid plans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Despite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

Light on plot, but long on characterisation, this is a deliciously bittersweet little comedy. Arzee has been happy in the Noor, nestled in the womb-like darkness of the projection room. He counts the images of the Bollywood starlets whose posters line the walls of the cinema as friends and is proud of being in charge of the machine that projects the magical beam of light onto the screen. He might now be relying on his mother to bargain for a wife for him but he has known the joy of true love – a love lost when his prospective father-in-law objected to the match. And he hopes to rediscover some of the sweetness of that love with his new wife, once she has been found. But when the cinema closes, he will lose not only his job but his hopes of marriage. It is time for Arzee to reassess his dreams and try to take control over his own destiny.

“Languorous music would be playing on Monique’s stereo – some French Edith woman with a last name full of huffs and puffs, her delicate syllables overlaid with the sound of pigeons cooing in the skylight, and the silences between words sometimes filled in with sounds from the neighbour’s television set to create a new Indian mix.”

As we follow Arzee through the streets of Bombay (not Mumbai in this book), we meet a host of characters, each brought vividly to life; Arzee’s mother, always favouring Arzee over his brother because of Arzee’s dwarfism, a staunch and sometimes overbearing protector; Deepak, the not-very-hard hardman pursuing Arzee for a small gambling debt – the two of them locked in a cat-and-mouse game where it’s not at all clear which is the mouse; Dashrath, the taxi driver who dispenses philosophy as he drives; and Monique, Arzee’s beautiful and rather nebulous lost love.

The characterisation of Arzee himself is excellent. The narrative is third-person but always seen through Arzee’s eyes. While we get to see the difficulties and mockery he’s had to face as a result of his height, Choudhury neither makes Arzee an object of pity nor does he portray him as a hero. He’s just a flawed man – bombastic, prone to self-pity and annoyingly talkative; but he’s also a dreamer who, even at the darkest moments, clings to his dreams.

“The mirror made it seem as if there were two of each of them, and this was true in a way, for (Arzee thought about this carefully) she was both the Monique that she was and the Monique he took her to be, and these two were similar but not the same, and he was both himself and the Arzee who belonged to her. And in the gaps and linkages between these real and reflected beings, all kinds of meanings and suggestions seemed to be lurking.”

Chandrahas Choudhury
Chandrahas Choudhury

Choudhury’s prose flows smoothly throughout, with some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. Something of an unexpected delight, this is one of those rare books that makes me smile each time I think of it.

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

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