The Roman poet Horace wrote the following: “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” Although my Latin is weak, here’s a Wiki translation: “seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.”
All humans seek a balance when they contemplate their past-present-future. Some tend to be past-centric; others seize the day; and still others focus on the future. Those in the latter group include those who lose sight of today’s gifts while yearning for tomorrow. The examples are countless: instead of enjoying a particular class, a student takes courses that she thinks will get her into a prestigious college; ignoring the joy of reading to her baby, a mother dreams about her child becoming President someday; and remembering how he missed making it as a professional athlete, a father pushes his boys on the cricket pitch so that they will be the last ones standing on selection day.
“Selection Day” is Aravind Adiga’s novel about a small-town father – Mohan Kumar – who is monomaniacally obsessed with his sons – Radha Krishan and Manjunath – making it to Bombay’s big-time cricket leagues. Taken at that surface level, the novel is a feel- good, “root for the underdogs” read. One cheers on as the boys heroically climb out of the slummy Dahisar suburb of Mumbai, with their willow bats, to perhaps become the next Sachin Tendulkar; even Mohan, who is a bit of a scoundrel as a peddler of chutneys and more than a bit of a creep as a groping father, will have some readers rooting for the Davids to defeat the Goliaths.
While the description of cricket is nowhere near as compelling as C. L. R. James’ classic “Beyond a Boundary,” the sports writing here has an edge to it that keeps the reader glued. At one point, a question is asked: “What is cricket?” A wag might respond, “It’s Adiga’s crutch, his back story.” That said, Adiga’s response would have made James proud: “Cricket is the triumph of civilization over instinct… When the short-pitched ball comes screaming, and every instinct of panic tells you, close your eyes and turn your face, you must do what does not come naturally to you or to any man: stay calm. Master your nature, play cricket.” Quite early on, one knows that this is not going to be a simple read about a cricket match or about a couple of strivers achieving their father’s goal of making them master batsmen. Like all literary fiction, it is about our natures, our characters.
The novel’s character-building carries the narrative. Beyond Mohan, Radha, and Manju are Pramod Sawant (cricket coach), Tommy Sir (cricket impresario), Anand Mehta (cricket investor), Spotty Neck Sofia (unapproachable girlfriend), Javed Ansari (inscrutable boyfriend), and Bombay itself (pulsating city). None of the characters are cardboard cutouts (though Sofia seems to be an afterthought in what is a very male-centered book). Mohan and his boys take center-stage throughout the novel, but when Pramod, Tommy, Anand, Sofia, and Javed speak, they come alive and move the tension forward. And the city they live in stands out most prominently.
Adiga’s Mumbai doesn’t come scintillatingly alive the way Bombay does in Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City,” but it is very present. It feels lived in, very much a breathing, raging city that is negotiating with Yama, the Lord of Death: “Mumbai is a dying city, true. But there is one thing that it will always have. One beautiful thing. Integrity. The integrity of the Bombay common man, known and celebrated throughout India, deeper than granite, the true bedrock of the city.”
But “Selection Day” demands a deeper reading beyond characters and settings, plots and subplots. This novel is about selection of a different sort: selecting self, engaging with the postmodern understanding of choice in the modern world. In this reading, the novel is about Manju finding his way in the world, his path that may or may not have anything to do with the footpaths that his father, the “Chutney Raja,” travels to earn his keep, nor anything to do with the cricket pitch between the wickets that his brother, the aspiring “world’s best batsman,” regularly ran on his way to record-setting centuries.
Manju’s struggles with his sexuality, his science, his suppression, and his sense of filial piety drive the heart of Selection Day. While seemingly a quotidian novel centered around cricketers playing their hearts out so as to be selected to represent their family, their city, and their community, this book is actually an act of subversion: Translate the old communal self into an individual whose motto is, “ My life is not limited by your imagination.” This is a self-help guide to half a billion people. Aravind Adiga takes on an alter ego character, a counselor who says to Manju: ” Fifty percent of this country, that is half a billion people, are under the age of twenty-five, and we older Indians have no idea how to listen to them. I want to be the Mother Teresa of listening to your generation.”
Although ostensibly about cricket-playing teen-age boys raging with hormones, raised by a controlling father, and ready for shaving razors, Adiga’s work borders on a frenetic rebellion: Rebellion against fathers, investors, coaches, the glorified past, the deferred future, and perhaps even rebellion against the given idea of India itself. Anyone seeking to preserve the status quo might find himself/herself afraid of this new voice of India, this voice raised from the neck upwards like a blade pushing up against the throat, scraping away innocent peach-fuzz and polluted urban filth from skin unprotected by soapy, perfumed lather.
Adiga’s effect is to encourage change in the young, while instilling fear in the old. Here is an emboldened Manju sharing his freedom with Javed: “This morning I shaved again, and I can’t believe it, the way my father [who has prohibited shaving] looks at me now. He’s scared.” There is a pause and Javed responds, “Mine is scared of me, too. All of them are.”
For Arvind and Ashok, two of the co-founders of India Currents who courageously found their paths.