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The lat­est from Booker Prize-win­ning au­thor Aravind Adiga is a po­lyph­o­nous novel about con­tem­po­rary In­dia fil­tered through the cul­ture of cricket


When Aravind Adiga lived in Delhi, he would spend ev­ery Sun­day vis­it­ing one of the city’s three forts. Near the Pu­rana Qila (the 16th-cen­tury “Old Fort”) is the Na­tional Zoo, where Adiga came across a strik­ing im­age: a white tiger pac­ing madly in a cage, and as it paced, the black stripes against the black bars cre­ated a strobe ef­fect. The an­i­mal ap­peared to dis­solve.

Adiga told this story to lit­er­ary agent David God­win in a 2014 in­ter­view, where he also re­vealed the in­flu­ence of In­dian psy­cho­an­a­lyst Sud­hir Kakar on his work. Much of Kakar’s non­fic­tion pre­cedes the “new” In­dia Adiga chron­i­cles, yet Kakar’s fin­ger­prints are all over Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-win­ning de­but, The White Tiger, as well as his lat­est, Se­lec­tion Day, which re­fines the queries Adiga raised in that pre­vi­ous novel about the search for free­dom in 21st-cen­tury In­dia.

It’s in his de­scrip­tion of the psy­chic ef­fects of mass in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion – of the ru­ral poor mov­ing from In­dia’s vil­lages to its mega­lopolises – that Kakar is most ap­par­ent. The city, even in its slums, rep­re­sents op­por­tu­nity for eco­nomic ad­vance­ment and es­cape from fam­ily con­trol and strict so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion. But it also means liv­ing cheek-by-jowl with those of vastly dif­fer­ent back­grounds, where one’s tra­di­tional sta­tus, val­ues and iden­tity have no pur­chase, may even be source for de­ri­sion. Where, as Kakar puts it: “Progress of­ten turns out to be a glar­ing in­equal­ity, ra­tio­nal­ity be­comes self­ish­ness and the pur­suit of self-in­ter­est, and in­di­vid­u­al­ism comes to mean un­bri­dled greed.”

Hu­mil­i­a­tion, loss, grief, a “se­cret wound” fes­ter­ing into nar­cis­sis­tic rage – these threads run through Kakar’s anal­y­sis, and in Se­lec­tion Day find em­bod­i­ment in Mohan Ku­mar, mi­grant from “the poor­est end of a poor taluk,” failed hus­band, un­suc­cess­ful chut­ney sales­man and fa­ther to teenage cricket prodi­gies Radha and Manju.

Se­lec­tion Day is a po­lyph­o­nous novel about con­tem­po­rary In­dia fil­tered through the cul­ture of Mum­bai cricket. At the novel’s out­set, Mohan has raised Manju to be se­cond-best bats­man in the world af­ter his slightly older brother, Radha. Mohan is the fig­ure of the mad cricket fa­ther putting all his en­er­gies into his as­pi­ra­tions for his sons’ ca­reers as pro­fes­sional crick­eters: Cricket will be their ticket out of poverty, and for Mohan, re­venge for his wounded pride. Cricket is both the sport of English gen­try and a meal ticket for hun­gry boys from Mum­bai’s slums. It rep­re­sents an ideal of In­dian mas­culin­ity.

In his in­ter­view with God­win, Adiga re­called be­ing struck in Kakar’s es­says by how ur­ban mi­grants, in their sto­ries of mov­ing to the city, would fix­ate on an an­i­mal. “Kakar had sug­gested that this re­peated an­i­mal mo­tif might be their way of deal­ing with this beau­ti­ful and dan­ger­ous thing, their sex­u­al­ity, which they had gained con­trol of.”

In Adiga’s de­but, it was Delhi driver Bal­ram Hal­wai’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the white tiger. In

Se­lec­tion Day, an ele­phant has be­come a lo­cus of per­sonal mean­ing for Mohan. When Mohan was a child, a ma­gi­cian vis­ited his vil­lage in the West­ern Ghats and per­formed a trick: He could con­trol an ele­phant with noth­ing but his mind.

Writes Adiga: “That mas­sive beast, with all its mus­cles, was help­less: It obeyed the brain waves of its mas­ter, it suf­fered the en­chant­ments of his black magic. When he went back to work, Mohan, a think­ing boy, had looked around at the other farm­ers toil­ing in the wheat fields and re­al­ized: We are no more un­mana­cled than that ele­phant.

“This was a truth about life he had never for­got­ten, even af­ter he had left the vil­lage and come by train to the big city. … ‘Here, we can’t even see our chains.’ ”

Mohan’s sons have in­ter­nal­ized this story of slav­ery and free­dom, such that, in ad­di­tion to be­ing the se­cond-best bats­man, Manju can pur­port­edly read minds.

The one per­son whose mind re­mains a mys­tery to Manju is an­other boy, Javed – a good­look­ing, mid­dle-class, Mus­lim boy, with a beak nose like the Nawab of Pataudi and limbs like a pan­ther, who also hap­pens to be Radha’s main bat­ting ri­val.

Manju’s at­trac­tion to Javed is un­de­ni­able. As Se­lec­tion Day for the Mum­bai team ap­proaches, Manju’s sex­u­al­ity be­comes the source of ten­sion, as Adiga again asks what it means to be free.

Ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties are crim­i­nal­ized un­der Sec­tion 377 of the In­dian Pe­nal Code, a holdover from Bri­tish rule: “Who­ever vol­un­tar­ily has car­nal in­ter­course against the or­der of na­ture with any man, woman or an­i­mal shall be pun­ished with im­pris­on­ment for life, or with im­pris­on­ment of ei­ther de­scrip­tion for a term which may ex­tend to 10 years, and shall also be li­able to fine.”

A novel can re­veal the depths of a per­son’s in­te­ri­or­ity, what the most rig­or­ous jour­nal­is­tic or so­ci­o­log­i­cal in­quiry can only hint at. Through­out Se­lec­tion Day are ex­am­ples of vir­u­lent ho­mo­pho­bia – en­trap­ment by po­lice, “re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres,” the “jus­ti­fied” mur­der of a gay hus­band – but as Adiga jumps from mind to mind he re­veals a so­ci­ety silently done with the colo­nial, Vic­to­rian morals of this law, “the mad grand­fa­ther ev­ery­one knows should be locked up in the at­tic, but who sits in the liv­ing room with a cane in his hands.”

Still, quiet ac­cep­tance, even mid­dle-class en­cour­age­ment, is cold, in­ac­ces­si­ble com­fort to some­one in Manju’s po­si­tion.

There are point­edly few women in Se­lec­tion Day. “We are sit­ting on a time bomb: We’re miss­ing about 10 mil­lion women from our pop­u­la­tion, due to fe­male in­fan­ti­cide,” the Ku­mars’ spon­sor tells a po­ten­tial in­vestor. “This ex­tra­or­di­nary fact is known to you, I as­sume? Do not make any busi­ness de­ci­sion in In­dia un­til you fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with our male-to-fe­male sex ra­tio.”

The most no­table ab­sence is Radha and Manju’s mother, who has run away to es­cape Mohan. Mohan turns his wounded mas­culin­ity on his sons: He’s “in com­pe­ti­tion with the two penises he had cre­ated,” a cricket scout says. (That scout hates cricket fa­thers.)

Adiga is the best known of a new wave of In­dian writ­ers – a list that of­ten in­cludes Rana Das­gupta, Manu Joseph and Tarun Te­j­pal – who have set out to de­scribe the vi­o­lent re­al­ity of In­dia’s lib­er­al­ized econ­omy. That “A Note About Money” pref­aces both Se­lec­tion Day and Adiga’s pre­vi­ous novel, Last Man in

Tower, sug­gests the pri­macy of fi­nan­cial re­al­i­ties to his writ­ing.

So dis­jointed is this re­al­ity from that which came be­fore that this new so­cial re­al­ism also feels in­com­men­su­rate with so much prior In­dian writ­ing. The world these books de­scribe is amoral, but the writ­ing it­self is eth­i­cal. To ap­pre­ci­ate this fact is to learn to read the novel anew.

Read­ers might de­scribe these works as “dark” or “cyn­i­cal,” but what marks this new wave is not lack of sen­ti­ment but a change in the role sen­ti­ment plays. There’s room for warmth, eroti­cism, in­ti­macy, love even, in an ul­ti­mately anti-ro­man­tic book such as Se­lec­tion Day, but sen­ti­ment can’t re­deem cir­cum­stance: “Re­pres­sion may be a red-hot dis­tor­tion of the truth, but what fol­lows it, ac­cep­tance, when a man fi­nally examines his heart and says, ‘This is what I must have been, partly or in whole,’ is hardly lib­er­a­tion.”

Se­lec­tion Day is not a novel you read to find con­so­la­tion from the melan­choly re­al­i­ties of the world’s in­jus­tices, but to know them, and feel Manju’s scorn.

“This was enough,” Adiga writes, “this anger was enough. A man could feed on it for the rest of his life.”

Jade Col­bert cov­ers Cana­dian in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ers and de­but au­thors for The Globe and Mail.


Aravind Adiga ex­plores the role of cricket as a way to es­cape Mum­bai’s slums – while rep­re­sent­ing an ideal of In­dian mas­culin­ity.

Se­lec­tion Day By Aravind Adiga Scrib­ner, 289 pages, $32

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