Americans know more about Quidditch than they do about cricket, but there must be magic in both games. Although the British import struck out against baseball on these shores sometime in the 19th century, readers here have shown themselves willing to tolerate wickets and stumps if the writing is good enough. After all, Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” attracted an appreciative audience in his adopted United States and went on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2009. And now Americans should venture onto the field again for Aravind Adiga’s tragicomic novel “Selection Day.”
Adiga is an Indo-Australian writer who won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut novel, “The White Tiger.” Its Bangalore setting may have felt remote, but the story of an ambitious chauffeur resonated with people around the world.
Although “Selection Day” explores a different species of ambition, Adiga’s wit and raw sympathy will carry uninitiated readers beyond their ignorance of cricket — ignorance that the novel’s “Glossary of Cricketing Terms” wryly anticipates. Among the helpful definitions provided is “Boring: What outsiders, especially Americans, find cricket.”
There’s nothing boring here, though. Adiga’s paragraphs bounce along like a ball hit hard down a dirt street. One gets the general direction, but the vectors of his story can change at any moment as we chase after these characters. They’re all men and boys enamored of cricket, “the triumph of civilization over instinct” — or a fraud perpetrated against impoverished kids who have no options.
“Selection Day” opens in the slums of Mumbai where a talent scout has spotted Radha Kumar, the best young batsman he has seen in 50 years. What is more exciting: This promising player has a little brother, Manju, the “golden boy,” who is even more spectacular. Two such stars in one family is practically “against Nature,” the talent scout claims, but it does not surprise the boys’ father, Mr. Kumar, a seller of “unique chutneys” who could out-push the pushiest Little League dad in the world. Adiga generates a lot of cringing comedy with this unhinged father who prays to “the thousand-year-old God of Cricket.” Living in a tiny brick shed, Mr. Kumar supervises every moment of his sons’ lives, examining their genitalia weekly and enforcing a regimen of training that includes walking like a duck and avoiding sugar, girls and shaving (“because the cut of the razor makes hormones run faster”).
What’s uncomfortable about this story begins like an itch, but for a time, the zaniness of Adiga’s novel camouflages its darker themes. Although tales of young people pursuing sports as a path out of poverty are hardly unknown, India’s unregulated capitalism greases this plan in a way that would not be possible in the United States: Mr. Kumar essentially sells off a percentage of his sons’ future earnings for about $225 a month. The only upside to this deal is that it provides the boys with some precious time away from their histrionic father.
For Adiga, cricket captures the confluence of India’s hatred and respect for England — and for itself. This is a nation, he suggests, whose identity remains contorted by colonial imposition. “Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well,” says a frustrated cricket enthusiast. “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.”
That bitter critique — delivered in dialogue that always feels like it is poking us in the chest — finds more poignant expression in Adiga’s portrayal of young Manju. His desires pull him in contradictory ways that threaten to derail his great expectations. The boy thinks he would like to become a scientist, but pursuing that dream would distract from his training. Even more confusing to him is his attraction to a fellow cricket player who urges him to ignore his father and live however he wants. “It’s not that easy to leave cricket behind,” Manju says, referring obliquely to the heterosexual identity his culture celebrates, particularly for its sports stars.
Starting with “Three Years Before Selection Day,” these chapters are situated in relation to the all-important moment when young players are picked (or rejected). By the end, though, “Selection Day” evolves into a bittersweet reflection on the limits of what we can select. Choice — that most enticing Western ideal — does not thrive everywhere equally. To Manju’s rich, gay friend, the decision to reject his father and express his sexuality is simply a matter of will, of personal honesty.
If Manju is not that courageous, he is at least more psychologically astute. “Repression may be a red-hot distortion of the truth,” he thinks, “but what follows it, acceptance, when a man finally examines his heart and says, ‘This is what I must have been partly or in whole,’ is hardly liberation. Nothing much changes because you have stopped lying to yourself. A moment of relief, yes, the sense of shedding some terrible weight — but it passes. . . . He had much more scorn for a world that had never shown him a clear path to love or to security.”
That sounds morose, but Adiga’s voice is so exuberant, his plotting so jaunty, that the sadness of this story feels as though it is accumulating just outside our peripheral vision. Or maybe we just grow to like this boy too much to acknowledge that’s happening to him. Suspended between ambition and fear, Manju must learn sooner or later that refusing to choose can be just as momentous as any other choice.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Aravind Adiga
Scribner. 304 pp. $26