This is the story of Manjunath Kumar – the “complex”, CSI Las Vegas-watching dreamer, a turtle-watcher, and a natural-born cricketer with a scientific bent of mind, who believes he's the second best batsman in the whole world. Second only to his brother, Radha.
Enter Radha Krishna Kumar, the young lion from a slum in Dahisar, who, according to legend once clean bowled Sachin Tendulkar in a practice match.
In his latest novel Selection Day, Aravind Adiga takes us on a dark rollercoaster ride through the contemporary cricket factory that is Mumbai. Where cricket is just a metaphor for life. Adiga scripts a journey through the historic 150-year-old Mumbai gharana of Cricket. He brings to life Kanga Leaguers and those who trained at the Gymkhanas. He recalls the lives of legendary greats like Ajit Wadekar, Farokh Engineer, Vinoo Mankad, Eknath Solkar, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar, the two Dilips, Sardesai and Vengsarkar, and Sunny and Sachin – all local boys who learnt to play at the Oval and Azad Maidan.
And then he brings us up to speed with the story of the cricket-hopeful slumboys Radha Krishna Kumar and his younger brother Manju. And their tyrannical Tiger Dad, Chutney King Mohan Kumar, who will do anything to get his sons into the Mumbai Team.
“This absurd game”
While Radha only has one dream and that is to make it through Selection Day, his younger brother Manju dreams of a normal life. And although he has accompanied his brother for practice since he was a kid, what he really wants to grow up to become is a forensic scientist. And join the CSI team. But Radha and Manju have a clear sense of family hierarchy. They do their father's bidding.
Along the way we meet the head coach of Ali Weinberg School, Pramod Sawant, “...a fat pipe in the [cricket] filtration system that sucks in strong wrists, quick reflexes and supple limbs and pours them into an open field where two or maybe three new players will be picked for the Mumbai Ranji Team”. He is the man who “discovers” the brothers and points them out to the veteran talent scout, Tommy Sir, the Mogambo of Mumbai Cricket who has been on the lookout for a star batsman for the last forty years.
Tommy Sir believes that “if you have learned to give this absurd game everything, you will have learnt how to do the same in business or medicine or anything else, and you will be a king in that life.”
This is also when we come face to face with the ugly underbelly of cricket sponsorship in the form of the unscrupulous Anand Mehta, the wheeler-dealer who believes that “(n)othing's illegal in India, technically, because everything's illegal in India.” And the Kumar brothers become grist in the mill for Mehta's latest business venture – cricket.
And then there's that society brat Sofia, of the spotted-neck fame, who flirts confusingly with both the brothers.
“Darker than any English-language darkness”
It is in the character of the reluctant cricketer, Javed Ansari, that we find an unlikely saviour. He is the one who introduces Manju to a life outside of cricket. It is “J.A.” who shows him that it is possible to just do your own thing. He opens doors to hidden worlds. He is the one who makes Manju realise that his life is not limited by his father's imagination.
Selection Day is a raw take on growing up on the wrong side of the fence in India. Disturbing and amazing in equal measure, it is the kind of story that the Man-Booker-Prize-winning-novelist Adiga likes to investigate. And there is a tremendous amount of heartache and pain and loss and fire and light and kattale as we grapple with the circumstances our young heroes face. “Kattale is darkness in Kannada...and so much darker than any English-language darkness.”
Read the book to find out how sporting legends are made and dreams are shattered in this cricket-obsessed nation of ours, with aspiring stars, fakes, phrauds, scouts, wheeler-dealers, violent fathers, mothers who run away, slumdog millionaires, dreamers, would-(rather)-be scientists and poets, where “fortune favours those already fortunate”.
“Darkness, Mumbai. The bargaining goes on and on.”
Selection Day, Aravind Adiga, Fourth Estate.
Read an interview with Aravind Adiga here.