It’s disconcerting to see cricket, the gentlemanly game that gave its name to fair play, revealed as corrupt, exploitative, and a sop to the masses. This, however, seems to be the case in India today, and the sport — as cut-throat, commercialized, and media-saturated as American college basketball and football — provides the milieu for Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day, the author’s third novel. The book follows The White Tiger, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, and Last Man in Tower of 2011, both of which were mordant satires on India’s social inequalities and ruthless economy. The present novel is also a satire, but it goes more deeply into hearts of its characters than its predecessors and, in that way, is an even more accomplished work.
Mohan Kumar, deserted by his wife a decade ago, is a chutney salesman, a bully, and the father of two sons, Radha and Manju. When we meet the boys they are in their teens living in a one-room shed in a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai. Their lives are regulated by their father’s eccentric and oppressive rules by which he means to preserve them from the trinity of evils: germs, sex, and interests other than cricket. He has devoted his life—and theirs—to forming them into India’s greatest cricket players. The older boy, Radha, is already a celebrated young star, but it is Manju who seems to have the greatest potential and has caught the eye and exuberant imagination of Pramod Sawant, head cricket coach of a highly competitive school. Coach Sawant is, in sum, “a fat pipe in the filtration system” through which promising young players are channeled, finally pouring “them out into an open field where two or maybe three new players will be picked for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team.” These life-altering, fortune-making decisions occur on Selection Day.
Sawant infects cricket journalist and scout Tommy Sir with his enthusiasm; and he, in turn, agrees to peddle Manju’s promise to businessman Anand Mehta. Scion of stockbrokers, Mehta has forsaken the family tradition, “handed down from generation to generation, of gently ripping off loyal customers.” Instead, he has become an entrepreneur of sorts, engaging in one (failed) enterprise after another. Now, dazzled by visions of the pelf to be gained through product endorsements, he agrees to sponsor both boys. He will issue monthly payments in return for a share of future earnings. Tommy Sir agrees that, for a substantial fee, he will publicize the two—and everyone’s in business.
But all is not well. While Manju moves from triumph to triumph as a batsman, his heart is set on studying science and becoming a forensic scientist as seen and admired on CSI Las Vegas. Radhu, on the other hand, lives for cricket, but his performance is slipping, his growing body having altered the mechanics of his swing. Enmity grows between the brothers. Meanwhile, Manju has met Javed Ansari, a handsome boy from a rich Muslim family, and, as it happens, the object of Manju’s romantic desire. The two enter a tormenting, up-and-down relationship, each drawn to the other: Javed, openly though capriciously, Manju more problematically. He feels threatened by the implications of their social and economic inequality, to say nothing of the opprobrium attached to homosexuality. It is in following this relationship, so perfectly drawn in all its bewildering contradictions, uncertainties, and reversals, that the novel develops beyond social satire. Adiga shows Manju’s raw confusion, resentment, and fear, and his conflicting desires both to please others and to be free. This last is, of course, impossible for a boy from the slums, one who has to repeatedly truckle to someone or knuckle under to something in order to survive.
Again and again we glimpse the desperation and sordidness that lies behind these lives of single-minded striving. Mohan’s tyrannical grip on his sons has impoverished not only their lives, but his own. In a striking image, Adiga shows him, fearing the collapse of his plans, sitting in a bar where he has been drinking for hours: “Late afternoon is when the sunlight hits the tables, and the germs and the slime begin to shine. Darkness will clean the bar, but right now nothing is concealed. The life you have made for yourself—and have hidden from yourself—is on full display. ”
Adiga’s disgust with the inequity, exploitation, and hypocrisy of Indian society runs through the novel in a subtle, acidic current, but it is also spelled out, in one case by Anand Mehta himself. At a conference of “social entrepreneurs” (“a bestiary of financial analysts, brokers, and bankers who had been transformed, from the waist down, into Mother Theresa”), he describes the Indian character to an American representative of a venture fund: “We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant, and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But the truth is, we are absolutely nothing of the kind…. We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor’s children in five minutes, and our own in ten.”
Except for providing a short, insouciant glossary of cricketing terms, Adiga does not pander to those of us for whom the game is a mystery. Instead, he writes about cricket just as his characters see and understand it. But whether one has made cricket one’s life study or just blundered on in American innocence, one can still thoroughly appreciate the predicaments, conflicts, and torments of Adiga’s characters, and that, after all, is this fine novel’s real subject.