Manju Kumar and his brother Radha are pushed by their father to play cricket well, above all else. To someone like me, unschooled and ignorant of the ways of cricket and the fundamental basics of the game, this might be a poor choice for a novel that would keep me engaged. Instead, I found it an easy read for it’s not actually about cricket at all! Even the “cricket glossary” at the back of the book is really just an excuse for Aravind Adiga to write a bunch of jokes into a serious and sobering novel (trigger warning & spoiler: there’s some scenes of how Manju & Radha’s father abuses them, and that’s a vitally important part of the story.)
Rather than spending his time on cricket as a game, cricket becomes a greater metaphor in Selection Day for India, aspirations, and the escape from the economic oppression of poverty. Manju and Radha are from the slums of Mumbai, and while Manju dreams of becoming a forensic scientist while watching episodes of CSI, the overbearing influence of his father (abandoned many years ago by their mother) forces him into cricket practice every day. As unrealistic as the expectations of salvation from privation due to excellence in sports are; it’s a very real feature of poverty that the only apparent escape into wealth and the safety wealth brings with it is the fame and glamor of excellence in professional sports. In America, we usually think of that as the kid who wants to play basketball or football, and our literature and our society is filled with stories of the kid who made their fortune that way. I worry about the kids who expect that to be their path, and are disappointed when it becomes clear that not everyone can be a LeBron James or a Johnny Unitas and make it to the highest levels of the game, but it’s a very real aspiration, and it’s impossible to fault those who have little else that could serve as an example for their success and freedom.
I do love about this novel that it’s not about “cricket superstar Manju.” Instead, the story focuses on the person Manju, and when he gets the opportunity to give up cricket in favor of attending a college for science, what he does as a teenager who doesn’t conform in a variety of ways, and how he reacts to the dilemmas of love and hope in a world that is calculated to grind him down. The cast of characters that surround Manju is fascinating, from his rival Javed to the bizarre characters of his cricket coaches and the very strange investor Anand Mehta, whose bankrolling of Manju’s father to provide for the tutelage of the Kumar sons in cricket is alternatingly hopeful and disturbing. Anand becomes a point-of-view character in a couple scenes, which is helpful for Western readers because he was educated in the United States and lived in New York for years, loving his adopted city before moving back to Mumbai.
Anand is particularly interesting – not only does he have vast moral conflicts within himself that he is failing to win, but unlike many of the characters – Manju’s father with his ‘secret knowledge’ about how to raise amazing cricket player, Tommy Sir with his obsession with rewriting history to impose changes, Sophia with her need to have a gay friend – Anand’s perspective directly highlights his failings:
Yes, he would lead the good life – servants, a big flat, a wife, home-cooked food, weekend fucks in air-conditioned hotels near technical colleges – but he would also do good things for his motherland. It would be simple enough, he had imagined. There would be Rotary clubs and blood banks on every street – a man would just have to sign up and show his face on Sunday mornings; moral glow would be one of the ancillary benefits of living in India. Now, watching the old man strain his muscles to row his boat, Anand Mehta wondered: What if doing good in India was like going against the current? You can barely make a buck here, and in earning it, what if you end up screwing the poor, the people you imagined you would help a bit in your spare time? The boat struggled to reach dry land; Anand Mehta dreamed of New York.
Needless to say, Anand Mehta does not wind up helping people in this novel; and is a bit of an irresponsible threat.
I was a little flabbergasted by how many characters in this novel held weird and bizarre beliefs about antibiotics, superstitions, sports, economics, the law, and so many other things. Everyone seemed to have their own quirky hobbyhorse counterfactual. I don’t know if this is a technique Adiga uses to individualize characters, if this is something common everywhere, something specific to India – I have no idea, but I found it fascinating, if somewhat disturbing to my empirical leanings.
I found Selection Day an easy and dramatic read, for its heavy material. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a serious story, and ask those uninterested in cricket to set aside that worry, since understanding and interest in cricket is not required to enjoy this novel.