Review: Selection Day28th April 2017
A derisive critique of one of India’s greatest pastimes – cricket – and a powerful satire that deconstructs the deep-rooted ironies of India’s post-modern society, Selection Day is a fictional novel by Aravind Adiga, an Indo-Australian writer and journalist, appearing in paperback for the first time in September 2016. Through the story of two young boys, aspiring for success on Selection Day at the trials for the state-level Mumbai Ranji Trophy cricket team, Adiga seeks to surface the religious, class, sexual and caste-related tensions that surround even this revered sport in India – a nation whose sky-high ambitions and optimistic GDP forecasts are but the silver-lining in the tale of this nation’s under-achievement since its Independence in 1947.
The plot itself is beautifully simple – it tells the tale of two boys, Manjunath and Radha Kumar, who are raised in the slums of Mumbai and whose obsessive father pressure them into becoming cricket stars. This domestic plot explores how Manjunath, while good at the sport, is second to his brother and is fascinated by so much else such as the world of CSI and scientific innovations, that he appears lost unlike those around him who seem to know exactly who and what Manjunath should be. He later forms a forbidden connection with Radha’s greatest cricket rival, Javed Ansari, and inner-conflict plays out as he is encouraged in his non-cricket interests, until Selection Day finally arrives and it is Manjunath who emerges triumphant. The denouement of the novel portrays all three boys as scattered and fragmented – not even a ghost of their friendship or relationships with their father has been salvaged as a result of Selection, or as it may seem, Judgement Day.
The plot itself is beautifully simple
What is most intriguing is the scathing and ruthless tone with which such domesticity is depicted – Adiga portrays this seemingly mundane set of events as a representation of Indian society itself, and thus is hyperbolic in his descriptions of the plot, characters and setting. Religious tensions manifest as Javed is introduced as a friend of the struggling Manjunath, juxtaposed by the image of this Muslim dominated slum being the realm of “vermin cavalry galloping”. Adiga explicitly attacks social inequality, as he describes the original slum where the brothers live, Dahisar in Mumbai, and their later home in the wealthy Mumbai suburb of Chembur, more so as the imagery of “corrugated tin roof” and “roads of wealth, not squalor”.
His critique climaxes, however, as one peripheral character says: “Without understanding what capitalism means, we’ve vaulted straight to post-capitalist decadence”. Ironically, he uses the context of one of India’s national prides – its performance in international cricket – as a symptom of capitalist decadence in its outward glory but internal chaos and messy tangle of politics, injustice, discrimination and a heap of shattered dreams. This not only encompasses the central, underlying theme of the entire novel but also is a perfect example of how Adiga has placed emphasis on people and their opinions, rather than on abstract socio-economic and political tensions, and this is a winning approach to preoccupy readers with individual narratives, helping the digest and adapt the ideas of these relatable characters rather than reading the novel as if it were merely a lesson to be learnt for school. His awareness that his audience are familiar with these problems is exquisite and hence he mixes the subtlety of familial relationships with the deeper, more underlying context of this literary work.
This subtle and yet simultaneously explicit critique is not nearly as daring as Adiga’s creation of doubt of the sexual orientation of Manjunath – still an extremely tabooed concept in a nation of nearly 1.3 billion, the novel is ridden with hints at Manjunath’s homosexuality, from his relationship with Javed to his “inability” to be like Radha and live up to his Father’s “expectations and desires”. This is a rather bold twist to the staple Bollywood storyline of fraternal rivalry, and when the reader swallows these hints along with Manjunath’s love of American TV and ambitions that threaten to move him away from the small bubble of tradition he has grown up in, it makes for a rather delicious scandal!
Without understanding what capitalism means, we’ve vaulted straight to post-capitalist decadence.
This is not to say the novel is perfect – which novel is, though? Yes, the narrative perspective gets confusing at times as Adiga jumps from Manju’s point of view to that of other male characters – emphasis on male here as male social control is of course a necessary ingredient to any tale of India – but this simply adds to the relatability of the whole scenario. Readers empathise with these various characters – Manju as the underdog, but also Javed and the Father, through which it is evident that the tensions that do exist are founded on mere speculation and deep-rooted in societal bias, rather than a product of actual personal experience. Yes, the plot loses altitude as Manju’s quotidian starts to become mundane and the pace slows to one of a cricket test match but not once is the essence of his message lost and Adiga manages, like any star test-cricket batter, to remain firm and continuously delivers. In between the lines of the long-winding descriptions of cricket and the beauty of the game, he seems to be urging the reader that while he, like many Indians, is a great appreciator of the sport, as he talks of nothing but cricket his words are meant to resound of everything but.