“Javed Ansari stood tapping his bat, imitating Manju, beat for beat.
Fascinating, Tommy Sir thought, an hour later… Both Ansari and Kumar were playing better than they had ever done before: and this partnership of theirs, which had already accumulated 90 runs, might as well make tomorrow’s newspapers, if it continued like this. The two boys were perfect contrasts. Long sleeved, elegant, Javed’s footwork was basic, but his southpaw strokeplay had the intricacy of exquisite filigree-work; Manu’s batting was direct, simple, iron. As they played together, they did not speak and barely acknowledged each other’s existence: yet Tommy Sir saw the two styles blend.
As the papers reported the next day:
“…The bowlers have given up; the fielders have given up. The real contest now appears to be between the two batsmen themselves.”— From "Selection Day", Aravind Adiga
Ansari and Kumar don’t know this yet – they are simply two 14-year-old boys batting in the Harris Shield competition – but Aravind Adiga has just set the stage for one of Indian literature’s most searing and complex teenage relationships. Adiga says it's not a love story, but the romance between Javed Ansari and Manjunath Kumar seems palpable.
Which also means it is fraught with confusion, self-loathing, and secrecy. It is set against the backdrop of competitive cricket in Mumbai, where every boy wants to be the next big thing from Shivaji Park. In a sport where few have come out as gay or bisexual. In a country where no sportsman has ever come out openly.
The challenges the boys will soon face are immense, and they form the premise of Adiga’s fourth novel Selection Day. Among the many themes the book explores – class mobility, Indian obsession with cricket, South Bombay apathy – homosexuality in sport is the most significant.
And this is the conclusion Adiga gently offers at the end: we will not have a gay cricketer.
Not in the foreseeable future anyway. And Adiga is probably right.
Far away from fiction
Shiva Sharma has played cricket for Delhi U-19, IPSC School Nation team and for the Goa U-22 team. Over the course of those years he grew accustomed to cricket camps, where 22 boys would train together, live together in two big halls, and share bathrooms that had no partitions. Fourteen of those 22 would then be selected to tour the country to compete with other state teams.
“We were not very body-conscious. We couldn’t afford to be. We spent too much time together with no privacy. But every time someone’s eyes lingered on someone else’s body, even momentarily, even accidentally, someone would yell, 'Tu gay hai kya?' (Are you gay or what?).”
Tu gay hai kya would eventually become a common refrain in locker rooms. A crude form of humiliation. Of keeping unwanted attention at bay and simultaneously distancing oneself from the any non-heterosexual interests.
Some boys were suspected of being gay due to their “odd behaviour”. Such a boy would then be “boycotted” – bullied, ostracised, and placed outside the “inner circle”. His performance would suffer. And his days on the cricket team – unless he displayed tremendous resilience – would then be numbered.
Among Indian female boxers, in comparison, the locker room shaming is less crude, yet prevalent. There has been one lesbian boxer who has won India gold medals at international events. Yet she was forced out of the sport by “politics”, a euphemism for less than generous sentiments among her colleagues.
This boxer has never come out. Instead, after the sudden death of her career, she was married to a man from her village.
This is not a new phenomenon. The locker room is considered one of the last bastions of homophobia – a place where the careers of LGBTQ sportspersons die before they are born. Where superiority is expressed by condemnation of differences. Where uniformity masquerades as discipline. Where compassion is reserved for more extraordinary circumstances only.
The problem is compounded significantly by the fact that the formative years of a sports career are the late teens and the early twenties.
Those are years when even the most heterosexual among us experience confusions about our sexualities. When we are most vulnerable to self-loathing. To self-doubt. To that desperation to be the absolute normal.
Put a gay teenager in a locker room full of heterosexual teenagers vying to be Maximum Heterosexual (and waiting to sniff out the outliers). That teenager is now unlikely to emerge with his sense of self-intact. And the world now has one less chance at getting a gay century-scorer.
55 out of 11,303
The Rio Olympics were hailed as a landmark event because of the largest number of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes participating – 55 publicly LGBTQ out of 11,303 participants.
The conversation around this was celebratory – it was about encouraging more LGBTQ athletes to come out. Largely because we tend to believe that there must be plenty of successful gay sportspeople – it’s simply a matter of making it possible for them to go public.
But perhaps that’s not the case. Perhaps the truth is even darker. Perhaps sexual minorities simply aren’t making it in numbers matching their strength to the upper echelons of sport. Perhaps LGBTQ sportspersons have their self-confidence pummelled out of them many years before they can get their chance at the Olympics. Or at a World Cup final at Wankhede Stadium.
It’s a matter that’s begging thought, and Aravind Adiga is happy to help you have it.