SELECTION DAY, by Aravind Adiga. Scribner, 344 pp., $26.
The most obnoxious soccer parent is no match for Mohan Kumar, bullying father of two cricket-playing prodigies in “Selection Day,” Aravind Adiga’s scathingly satirical novel of modern Indian life.
Adiga’s title refers to the pivotal day when teens like Mohan’s sons are evaluated and potentially chosen for one of India’s select cricket teams; imagine the NFL’s Scouting Combine and draft, rolled into one. The novel opens three years before selection day for 14-year-old Radha and his brother, 13-year-old Manju.
When we meet them, they’re living with Mohan in a rat-infested Mumbai slum. Mohan ekes out a living selling chutney, while dreaming that Radha and Manju will make it big in cricket, thereby erasing a lifetime of humiliation that includes poverty, a wife who left him and the sense that his boys hate him.
Can one blame them? Mohan beats them, as he’d once beaten his wife. He sabotages their school projects, lest they become encouraged to focus on education rather than cricket. And he demands adherence to numerous wacky rules, including one banning them from shaving before age 21, for fear it will detract from their athletic prowess.
Mohan isn’t the only one willfully stifling the boys’ intellectual and emotional growth. So do two piquant characters — a cricket coach and an entrepreneur — interested in the boys for their own selfish ends. Each also serves as a mouthpiece for Adiga’s bitterly trenchant observations on India.
Tommy Senior, coach and mentor, looks back nostalgically toward an imagined, pre-British past in which India stood tall; tellingly, he spends much of his spare time chronicling and glorifying Indian bravery during an 18th century battle against foreign invaders that the Indians actually lost.
Anand Mehta is a failing businessman who invests in the Kumar boys as if they’re stock market futures. He also continually laments the decision to come home from New York to Mumbai, which he describes as a “citadel of brain-dead wealth, fortress of the world’s least educated elite.”
During the formative three years that take up most of this novel — which concludes with a 15-page supplement looking back from eleven years later — Radha and Manju struggle to forge an identity in a culture corroded by cynicism and punishing originality. Here’s one character, bitterly descanting on a country where everyone imitates someone else, from somewhere else:
“What is an Indian, after all? Picture today’s young man from Mumbai or Delhi as a vulture above the nations, scavenging for his identity. He sees a pretty thing in Dubai, and he brings it home; he sees a pretty thing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and he brings it home. One day he looks at his life, finds that it makes no sense at all, and then he turns to religion.”
It wouldn’t be cricket to tell you whether this India destroys Adiga’s two teen protagonists, but I will confess to a suspicion that Adiga focuses on cricket because it’s an apt embodiment of the debased India his characters describe.
A vestige of British colonialism that the narrator describes as a “quarter sport” for “quarter men” and which one character describes as a “mediocrity,” Indian cricket also has been mired in cheating and gambling scandals, discussed here.
Adiga’s account of the brothers’ efforts to grow up and fly free of the nets holding them back is itself held back by Adiga’s broad and satirical focus, which stunts his characters’ growth and results in a disjointed narrative. While much more ambitious, “Selection Day” is ultimately less effective than Adiga’s tighter, Booker Prize-winning “The White Tiger” (2008).
But “Selection Day” is also filled with smart, spot-on observations about the perils of growing up in a country where both sports and politics have become increasingly degraded forms of mass entertainment, in which games are rigged and in which “big thief walks free. Small thief gets caught.” Americans may not know cricket. But much of this novel will feel all too familiar.