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Arts & Culture

'Selection Day' Tells Tale Of Cricket Playing Brothers In Mumbai

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In India people worship many gods. Aravind Adiga's new novel is about one of the most powerful ones.

ARAVIND ADIGA: You know, it's often said that Indians have two real religions, the cinema - Bollywood - and cricket. It's the equivalent of sort of baseball, basketball, football and Christmas put together. The question is not why cricket. The question is how you can escape cricket in India. It's just everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Adiga is a journalist and novelist who lives in Mumbai. His writing has never flinched from India's warts. He won the Man Booker Prize for his last novel, "The White Tiger," about a homicidal striver climbing through India's caste system.

His latest novel is called "Selection Day." It tells the story of two brothers from the Mumbai slums. Their father believes that the only way they will achieve anything is if they become champion cricket players, even if that means sacrificing real love and fulfillment.

ADIGA: Some years ago, I was watching a cricket match in Mumbai, at the end of which was a selection match, where you're being picked for the next level. I saw a teenage cricketer walking around with his head slumped that clearly had been defeated. He wasn't going to make the cut.

And that image stayed with me of this young man, you know, at the very prime of his life bent over with failure. And cricket for me is a way of understanding what failure means and whether there's dignity and redemption possible even in accepting that one might not succeed in the way society expects one to succeed.

SHAPIRO: There are so many different levels of success and failure within the context of the book and also within the context of cricket, that you can win or lose a match. You can become a successful cricketer. You can be miserable. You can be wealthy. You could be broke. You could be beaten physically by somebody who claims to love you. It's hard to see where the definition should lie.

ADIGA: I mean ultimately, you know, success has to be something internal. And I'm very struck by the fact that many people who appear to have succeeded in cricket might actually see themselves as failures because you have a society that doesn't yet give full expression in India to the many meanings of success both personal and, you know, professional.

This is how the central character, Manju, while everyone expects him to be a great success, ends up in a sense a double failure not just professionally but also personally in that he doesn't grow into the man he should have become.

SHAPIRO: Manju is the younger of the two brothers, and their father of course is monomaniacal in his pursuit of cricket perfection for his two sons.

ADIGA: Yeah, the father, Mohan Kumar, is a composite of real people I've seen. When you watch a cricket match in India happening at the school level, you'll see invariably a man often with a cycle standing by, you know, on the sidelines and screaming at the top of his voice at one or more of the young men playing the game who are his sons. There are quite a few fathers like him in Mumbai and in every Indian city who...

SHAPIRO: I think in many American cities, too, to be honest.

(LAUGHTER)

ADIGA: Well, what might distinguish the Indian equivalence is the single-mindedness with which they drive their sons to success. A few years ago when I was researching this book and speaking to teenagers in Bombay who are considered the next big thing, I was struck by how similar their fathers were.

The fathers often have sacrificed their lives to make sure their sons succeed. And while that's admirable - the desire to succeed - there's also something disturbing about the fathers' desire to control every aspect of their sons, in some cases extending even to the way the sons comb their hair.

And in a couple of cases where I interviewed boys who were very promising, I noticed that they seemed not to have their mothers around. And as one boy put it to me, his mother had run away. And one look at his father, and I thought I knew exactly why she had run away. This man, the father who is so eager to make his son succeed, is clearly a difficult person to live with. And I could understand the pressures that made these sporting fathers the way they were, but at the same time, they're also disturbing people.

SHAPIRO: There's this moment that is pretty disturbing where your main character who has been striving to become this great cricket player finally delivers the most transcendent performance. And his coach observes that what was missing before was hate, that hate is really what made him triumphant. It's a difficult way to conclude.

ADIGA: Yeah. The phrase for love of cricket is a cliche in India. It's - you know, as I said, people talk of cricket only in this nostalgic, idealistic way. But I was very much struck by the possibility that hate could make you good at something, you know, that the sheer self-loathing could sharpen your instincts, you know, your reflexes, which has been my observation.

SHAPIRO: Has it been your experience?

ADIGA: As a writer, certainly. I mean loathing and self-hatred are always very good for writers, so I'm assuming it's the same for sportsmen as well. A degree of anger at oneself makes you better at something you're doing.

SHAPIRO: Aravind Adiga's latest novel is "Selection Day." Thank you very much for talking with us.

ADIGA: Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWIN SISTER SONG, "LADY DAYDREAMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.