In the middle of the novel Tommy Sir, the talent scout scouring the maidans of Bombay "who was given to the truth as some men are to drink" ruefully says this about the game he loves:
"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?"
Tommy Sir is the puritan fan who believes in old-world virtues of principles and righteousness hence does not fit into the modern world and is definitely setup to fail. The above lines capture the wretched transformation in a game "invented by medieval shepherds" which has been corrupted beyond recognition from the gentleman’s game it used to be.
Having said that this is not just a cricket book but the story of modern India told through its most popular game. Since the game now cuts across classes and reaches new audiences and participants alike it is a great lens through which to look at the country as a whole. Hence the corruption in the game is a mirror to the corruption that infects the body-politic of the nation at large.
Aravind Adiga as in his master piece 'The White Tiger' manages to capture the voice of the aspirational underclass of the country who have migrated to the big city and demand their share of the prosperity pie. This time though this happens through the agency of two brothers who have migrated from a village in the Karnataka coast along with their father who amidst selling chutney in Bombay spots the natural talent of his boys for Cricket and then pushes them into the game. So unlike ‘The White Tiger’ the aspiration here of the two boys is forced by the obsessive father.
The father Mohan Kumar wants to develop his elder son Radha into the 'best batsman in the world' and the younger and more complex son Manju the 'second best batsman in the world' using his home-grown eccentric techniques (“No shaving until Twenty-one”). In steps Tommy Sir who has a lifelong dream to uncover one real talent who will make it to the Indian national team before he dies. Tommy Sir also introduces the family to the visionary entrepreneur Anand Mehta whose vision is to support young cricketers with a monthly stipend in return for a portion of their marketing revenue when they make it to the big stage. Anand Mehta is himself the son of a wealthy stock broker who has rebelled against his father and gone to the US and on his return spends his time squandering the family wealth by investing in flop schemes. But with this new vision of sponsoring budding cricketers he thinks he can fulfil his lifelong ambition of gaining entry into the exclusive business club of Bombay. He is also given to spouting insightful social commentary on modern India. Sample this:
“Indians, my dear are basically a sentimental race with high cholesterol levels. Now that the hunger for social realist melodrama is no longer satisfied by the Hindi cinema, the Indian public is turning to cricket.”
At one point Mehta says that Cricket is essentially 'state-sponsored lobotomy' and its chivalrous ways are ideally suited for male social control especially in a country where the sex ratio is so skewed. So the only way to maintain the sanity of the nation wrecked by this crisis of masculinity and to keep the "rogue Hindu testosterone" in check is "Bread and Tendulkar" and hence a steady dose of live cricket. Such observations make you realize the social impact of the game on the country which might be bigger than even Football’s impact on Brazil.
The elder boy Radha is indeed the protégé but soon Manju overtakes him much to the displeasure of the elder brother. But what everyone fails to notice is to ask whether Manju himself wants to play the game. Manju himself is much more interested in Science and forensic science at that in the mould of TV series CSI. So he halfheartedly takes to the game and perhaps for this reason does not feel any stress and this ironically makes him excel in the game.
Manju also has his growth pangs as he is ambivalent about his sexuality and this reaches a head when he meets an equally talented but disinterested in the game cricketer, Javed Ansari. J.A. as he is fondly called makes Manju question whether he loves the game at all or he plays it in fear of his maniacal father. He tethers between the poles while answering this question and in the end his indecision leads to his tragic fall to mediocrity. Radha on the other hand feels fate has been unkind to him and blames Manju for usurping his space. The father in the end feels if the God of cricket Subramanya he trusts "gave one boy the talent and the other the desire". This adds up to a tragic climax for each of the protagonists and the boys themselves realize all too late that they have "martyred ourselves to mediocrity'.
If anger marked ‘The White Tiger’ then fear marks this novel. As Manju’s father is driven not just by the desire of the riches but also from fear of what will happen if his sons do not succeed and as the end shows this can lead to nothing but tragedy.
Adiga also revels in biting satire as in when he says:
'Nothing is illegal in India. Because, technically, everything is illegal in India... See how it works?'
'Revenge is the capitalism of the poor: conserve the original wound, defer immediate gratification, fatten the first insult with new insults, invest and reinvest spite, and keep waiting for the perfect moment to strike back'
Or when he describes the boys' father :
“Because Kumar’s eyes had in them what Anand Mehta called a ‘pre-liberalization stare’, an intensity of gaze common in people of the lower class before 1991, when the old socialist economy was in place”
This is genius in one line!
There is also a rejoinder from the man to his critics who panned his first novel for bashing the dreamy eyed Indian middle class:
'What we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written in English, is not literature at all, but flattery. 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 that kind. What are we, then? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor's children in five minutes, and our own in ten. Keep this in mind before you do any business in the country'
Personally for me this novel is also a depiction of millions of Indian kids who lose their childhood in pursuit of the goals set by their over-ambitious parents who do not care about their real ambitions and in the process manage to push them into a life they do not want but who still labor on courageously knowing well that they might end up as tragedies.
So in the end this is the work of a genius, our own Flaubert who dissects the hypocrisies and ironies of modern Indian life like no other!