Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cricket, aspiration and a crisis of masculinity: Aravind Adiga on his new novel

[Did this interview for Scroll]

Introduction: Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was among the first Indian-English novels to adopt the vantage point of an underprivileged man moving through an increasingly capitalist, post-liberalisation India – a world ridden with danger and opportunity in equal measure. Adiga’s new novel Selection Day revisits the theme using a different lens: the main context here is Mumbai cricket, and the book centres on a chutney vendor named Mohan Kumar who lives in a slum with his two brilliantly talented boys, Radhakrishna and Manjunath, dreaming that they will be the Best and the Second-Best batsmen in the world.

Manjunath, who is 14 when the story begins, becomes the protégé of a legendary scout and is sponsored by an investor-visionary. But is he as passionate about the sport as everyone around him expects him to be, or does he have another sort of inner life? And what effect will his ambivalent relationship with another young boy, Javed Ansari – also an aspiring cricketer, but born to a life of wealth and comfort – have on his personality?

As the narrative raises these questions, India’s most popular sport is intriguingly used as a framework. The story dwells on the changes that have taken place in cricket, from being a genteel sport built around notions like personal honour and sacrifice to becoming a commercialized spectacle with temporary heroes and match-fixing (“How did this thing, our shield and chivalry, our Roncesvalles and Excalibur, go over to the other side and become part of the great nastiness?” an old cricket-lover bemoans) – and how this changing trajectory in some ways mirrors that of the nation.


From the cover to the jacket description, Selection Day seems positioned as a book about cricket, but you use it as a pretext to examine many other things: the parent-child relationship, the link between sport and masculinity, the interaction between the privileged and the poor in a country where many different universes coexist. Are you interested in cricket on its own terms? Did you set out to write a “cricket book”?

The best way to answer this would be to tell you about the original inspiration for Selection Day. I’ve always loved the Italian neo-realist film directors of the 1950s, men like De Sica, who made Bicycle Thieves, and their successors like Pasolini. Nearly fifteen years ago, in a cinema hall in New York, I watched Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, and was profoundly moved. It’s the story of a group of brothers who migrate from a village to the big city of Milan, in the years after World War Two. They hope to become rich, but discover that all they have done is exchange rural poverty for urban destitution. The only way out for the brothers is to enter the world of professional boxing. The brothers come to hate boxing, and what it forces them to do, but they are trapped.

I knew even as I was leaving the theatre that I wanted to write a novel that would be both intimate and sweeping, as the film was. I returned to India from America in 2003, and I was always on the look out for a way to write a Rocco and his Brothers here. Boxing isn’t particularly big in India, though, so the idea lay in dormancy for a decade.

In 2011, I was having lunch in a Mumbai restaurant with a businessman who began telling me of his new venture: he was sponsoring two exceptional young cricketers from the city’s slums. Every month, their father came over and took a cheque from the businessman; in return, if the boys ever made it into the IPL or the national team, they would have to hand over a big part of their fees to the businessman. I immediately asked him how old the boys were. Thirteen and fourteen, he said. ‘What if the boys, or one of the boys, decides he does not want to play cricket, but wants to be an engineer or doctor?’ The businessman said that this wasn’t possible. Every Indian boy wants to play cricket. (He went on, if I remember right, to suggest that this was the kind of doubt I had only because – like some other N.R.I types – I wasn’t ‘mentally Indian’ enough.)

I thought his statement was rubbish – ‘Every Indian boy wants to play cricket’ is the kind of cloying generalization, so common in India, that hides many stories of frustration. The other thing that struck me was that what this businessman was doing would be strictly illegal in America, where they have laws to protect underage athletes from the greed of coaches, businessmen, and team selectors. You can go to jail in America for doing what this businessman was doing here. We always talk about America as a land of money, but the truth is, there are more laws there to regulate capitalism – or there were, until the late 1990s – than there are anywhere else. After lunch, I walked over to my favorite restaurant in Mumbai, Café Ideal on Chowpatty, and there I thought this could be my ‘Rocco.’ Two brothers playing cricket, and one of them, the more talented one, would start to dislike the game. That’s how the novel began, in 2011. It took me five years to finish it, and in the course of that time it went strange places.

You often use animal metaphors in your work. In your first novel, Balram Halwai was the “white tiger”, a rare creature of initiative and daring, who tries to transcend the class he was born into. Did you conceive of the precocious, 14-year-old Manjunath in similar terms? Or is he more like the turtle, the “domed creature” mentioned in this book, peering cautiously out of his shell?

Manjunath Kumar is certainly not Balram Halwai; he is, if anything, his opposite. All of us in India have seen the schoolboy in cricketing whites on his way to practice. When you attend a lot of school cricket matches in Mumbai, as I did during the writing of this novel, you see variations on that familiar theme. You see, for instance, the cricketer in stained white clothes, who is walking alone, his head bent, mumbling to himself, the epitome of abject humiliation. You look at him and you know something really bad has happened that morning—he has been dropped from the school team, perhaps.  I was watching a boy like this once, one Sunday morning right outside the Azad Maidan, when a taxi driver began laughing. ‘Tendulkar! Tendulkar!’ He yelled at the boy, to rub it in further. I could see that the poor boy was close to tears now. That was how Manjunath Kumar (and his brother Radha Krishna) were born.

There is a hint of child abuse – in two sense of the term – in Mohan Kumar's relationship with his two young sons. He seems to fit the image of the obsessive "sports parent", pushing his kids into a world they don't want to be in, and consequently stunting their development.

Much of what Mohan Kumar is doing to his sons – and there are hundreds of fathers like him just in Mumbai – would be illegal in the West. I interviewed a few of these 'cricketing dads' – lower-middle-class men whose obsession is turn their sons into the new Tendulkar. Some of them regulate every aspect of their child's life, including nutrition, exercise, and even in some cases hair-style. After a while, their desire to control their son's body and mind starts to feel creepy.

Many of the book’s funniest observations about India and Indians come from Anand Mehta, a globe-trotting investor who left Manhattan to return to Bombay. For instance, at one point you have him say that Indians are basically a sentimental race and that their hunger for social-realist melodrama is no longer being satisfied by Hindi cinema, but cricket is still serving this purpose. At another point he suggests that cricket is a narcotizing force that aids “male social control in India”. Are some of his views a stand-in for your own?

Each character in the book, I hope, represents some aspect of me, but no character is all of me. Anand Mehta has studied and lived in New York, like me, and he shares my interest in World War Two history. But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. I meet people like him in Mumbai and I don't like them. You must remember that I was born in Chennai, a big city, and when I arrived at the age of seven in Mangalore, I thought I was superior to everyone there because my English was better. I was the local Anand Mehta. But when I would return to Chennai on my holidays, I was mocked by my old classmates because I now spoke English with a thick accent. Like all humiliated provincials I became suspicious of the big-city boy.

It's a double perspective I retain to this day. When I am in Mangalore I wonder why people can't be more modern, and when I am in Mumbai I wonder why they can't be simpler and more honest, like they are in Mangalore. So it's hard for me to explain my attitude towards Anand Mehta easily. I'm sure I've distanced myself from him – and indeed, from every character in this book – adequately.

Perhaps he is the kind of person I was back in 2003, when, like many foreign-educated Indians who have returned to the homeland, I felt I was honouring all of you with my presence here. Numerous book reviewers in this country, including you, teamed up to disabuse me of this notion. Anand, who has not yet encountered the Indian literary establishment, still lives in NRI fairy land, and blames Mumbai, rather than his own mediocrity, for his failures as a businessman.

Without giving away much of the plot, the book has a very unusual romance in it, between two young people who start out as nemeses, or distorting images of each other. Did you see it as a love story on some level?

I wouldn’t say it is a love story. I’ve always been interested in the genre of the bildungsroman – the novel about the growth and development of a young man. David Copperfield is a classic example. Possibly because my own adolescence was so disturbed; my mother died when I was fifteen. Balram Halwai becomes a man only through betrayal and murder, and The White Tiger is a parody of the bildungsroman. So is Selection Day. Manjunath Kumar fails to become the man he should become in a double sense: both professionally (as a cricketer), and also emotionally. His inability to recognize his own bisexuality (or homosexuality) leaves him, at the novel’s end, as a stunted figure.

With a homosexual subtext in the story, was it your intention to parody the rigid ideas people have about sport being a “macho” thing, meant for “real men”?

Yes, absolutely. Decades ago in Mangalore, a boy named Radha went to bat during a school cricket match, and someone shouted – he’s got a girl’s name, he shouldn’t be allowed to bat. That taunt that went on for the rest of poor Radha’s innings. I remember that incident vividly. Now Radha, short for Radhakrishna, was a common man’s name in south India in those days. It no longer is, and possibly for this reason. One of the results of our skewed male-to-female ratio is a crisis of masculinity. The crisis is well underway in the country and will only grow worse with time. It isn’t just India, of course. An Australian friend who read Selection Day told me that even there, in a very gay-friendly country, male sportsmen have problems accepting team-mates who are openly gay. Here, as we still live in a homophobic society, things are much worse.

We have needlessly damaged ourselves in India on the question of homosexuality. There is no line in the Geeta, the Vedas, the sayings of Buddha and the Tirthankaras, or even in that usually abominable book, the Laws of Manu, prohibiting same-sex love and marriage.  The British left us their 19th-century fear of homosexuality in the Indian Penal Code. They’ve outgrown it, and we haven’t. Even though the law against homosexuality is not enforced, it still casts a shadow over everyone, gay and straight alike, in this country. Look at this man, Baba Ramdev, agitating against the legalization of homosexuality. He prints advertisements against the East India Company on August 15, but he’s championing a prohibition foisted on this country by the Angrez themselves. Ramdev is like an Ashis Nandy essay on post-colonial irony come to life. Okay, he's easy to make fun of. Then there are the Islamic clerics who also want homosexuality to stay illegal; in the long run I suspect they will pose more of a problem. Secularism in this country has made compromises it should never have made.

The Bombay Book has long been a subgenre of Indian-English writing. Did you intend Mumbai to be very central to this novel? (The upward mobility of the central character involves moving from a slum to Chembur to Navi Mumbai.) Or could it just as easily have been set in another metropolis?

The Bombay that sustained those Bombay novels no longer exists. It wasn’t just India’s richest city, but also the most multicultural and exciting. For all its problems, it was in many ways a fair city. You notice this in Kannada novels and short stories written by migrants to Mumbai in the fifties and sixties. The boy writes home to Mysore or Dharwad, ‘Mother, I’m staying in Bombay. I have a fighting chance here.’ I won’t presume to tell an online publication run by Naresh Fernandes, who knows much more than I do about the city, why that Bombay no longer exists: but it does not. Except for one visit forced upon me by a stop-over, I haven’t been to New Delhi in ten and a half years, which gives you a sense of how much I adore the capital: yet by all accounts, it is now a more multicultural and diverse place than Mumbai.

There was a piece by Shekhar Gupta on the subject of Delhi novels and Mumbai novels a few year ago: Delhi literature is happy – Bombay books are grumpy. Manjunath Kumar is given the choice for a better life if he leaves the city, and goes to Navi Mumbai (and from there to Bangalore). It is the choice he probably should have made. Yet he comes back to the city. There are sacrifices made by people like him every day that still give Bombay a chance of recovering its glory.

You have written novels set in India’s big cities – the centres of so much social and economic churn in the last two decades – as well as a short-story collection (Between the Assassinations) set in a small town in the years before economic liberalization. Which period and setting have you found most challenging as a writer?

The past is always more challenging. I've been doing research for a novel set in an even earlier period of our history, 1971 to 1984, and even though I lived through a part of that era, it's still challenging to get the details and the mood right. I'd all but forgotten about trunk calls, for instance: how you had to book them and then wait patiently. Or that you sometimes had to bribe people for a confirmed seat on an Air India flight.

You’re a bit of a white tiger yourself when it comes to book events – it’s very rare to see you at them. During a mail exchange once, you told me that you had just been invited to a literature festival and you were feeling so “reckless” that you almost said yes, but then the recklessness wore off! Is this an innate personality thing – not wanting to socialize or be a performing flea – or do you simply find it more useful as a writer and observer to be cut off from the circuit?

Book festivals? I attended one in Chennai about three years ago. I have no objection to them, but no one invites me anymore. People in Italy have apparently not heard of my reputation. Someone from Mantua invited me to a festival in 2017. 'Si' I said, at once. Isn’t it ‘Si’ in Italian? Or is it ‘Prego?’ I can never tell.

[An old review of The White Tiger is here]

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