A diplomatic pitch
What better than to get to read a book on cricket, especially in the aftermath of this season of cricketainment, even if it’s rooted in the make-believe playfields of prose than in the stadia of reality.
Just as our concluded season of IPL served out some real action on ground, this novel by Timeri N Murari lays the pitch for plenty of cricket action in prose. Cricket diplomacy has long been the cornerstone of the game’s history on this subcontinent. Cricket diplomacy, or rather cricket conspiracy, thus also forms the undercurrent of this tale set against the backdrop of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
The Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Zorak Wahidi, announces a cricket tournament as a ploy to get associate membership of the International Cricket Council. For this, he summons journalist Rukhsana, the protagonist of the novel, to form a cricket club, doling out the bait that the winning team would be sent to Pakistan for training.
A disillusioned Rukhsana, who is sick of the inhuman existence women have under the ruthless regime wherein even she has had to give up her job as a journalist with Kabul Daily after being targeted and threatened by Wahidi and his men, sees this cricket tournament as the only escape route from an authoritarian Afghanistan to a freer world, though she knows full well that it may be just another farce by the Taliban to gain global approval.
As, under Rukhsana’s tutelage is born the Taliban Cricket Club made up of members of her extended family, the tale takes on the flavour of a Bollywood masala flick, a la Dil Bole Hadippa. In this film, this game becomes the bridge of betterment of bilateral ties between these two traditionally hostile neighbours and cricket diplomacy chalks our their charter of cordiality.
The strong India connection adds to the Bollywood-esque sentiment of Timeri’s script. India is a predominant prop for the narrative, the backdrop against which the college collage is conjured. Rukhsana, who studies journalism in a Delhi college when her father is posted there as an envoy in the Afghan embassy, falls in love there with an Indian boy Veer, evoking shades of another Bollywood love story Veer-Zaara, with similar cross-border twists and turns thrown in.
As in the real season of cricketainment, where there was more action off the field with crackdowns on players’ rave parties, spot-fixing charges and what not, the game of cricket in this novel too has its share of off-field drama, in terms of behind-the-scenes team rivalries, players dropping out, injury woes, etc. In fact, the novel sees more action prior to the game than on the actual ground, with Wahidi attempting to brow-beat Rukhsana into betrothal with him, the protagonist thus being confined to near-house arrest, the team carrying on its cricket practice clandestinely and so on.
The way real cricket, particularly the recent season of IPL, has its share of intrigue in the shape of match fixing, this cricket-centric tale also has its dash of deceit and betrayal. The one major act of betrayal comes when Rukhsana’s fiancť, Shaheen, for whom she even splits up with her true love Veer, backtracks on his commitment to wed her and take her away from her caged existence in Kabul and informs her that he has already married another girl abroad.
More betrayal follows after the crucial game of cricket when Wahidi too goes back on his word. But with Rukhsana’s cricket team hitting a “boundary,” so to say, and the tale wrapping up on a winning score, it becomes a narrative of hope in the face of hell, reaffirming the role of resilience in hostile human-scapes.
In that sense, Timeri’s tale has all the ingredients to make it a masala read — courage, cunning, conspiracy and cupid. And his characters are mostly well etched out. Rukhsana, as the embodiment of enterprise and the engineer of the team’s escape, is portrayed as a woman of sense and substance. She presents the personification of two parallel lives, the character in which two contrary worlds — her freedom-filled life in India and the burkha-imprisoned existence of Afghanistan — converge.
Her brother Jahan and their other cousins, who are her allies in this tale of freedom from the tortuous Taliban terrain, play a suitable supporting role. The cunning Wahidi is representative of the ruthlessness of the Taliban regime, but he is more a villain by proxy. Though his villainy forms the undercurrent of the cruelty and conspiracy that are unveiled, much like the folds of the burkha, his brief appearances in the script make his character a trifle sketchy, much like a Bollywood villain whose face is rarely revealed and who remains a distant mysterious figure in white trousers or white shoes.
But as all the main characters race towards a climax on the cricket ground, this tale of political guile and gimmickry in the garb of cricket diplomacy proves that even as far as penning prose goes, it’s all in the game.