About the Author
Aravind Adiga was born in India in 1974 and attended Columbia and Oxford universities. He is the author of Selection Day, the Booker Prize-winning novel The White Tiger, and the story collection Between the Assassinations. He lives in Mumbai, India.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Selection Day THREE YEARS BEFORE SELECTION DAY
“I’ve got news for you, Tommy Sir.”
“And I’ve got news for you, Pramod. You see, when I was twenty-one years old, which is to say before you were even born, I began working on a history of the Maratha campaign at the third battle of Panipat. It had a title: ‘1761: the soul breaks out of its encirclement.’ Because I felt that no truthful account of this battle had ever been written. All the histories say we Marathas lost to the Afghans at Panipat on 14 January 1761. Not true. I mean, it may be true, we lost, but it’s not the true story.”
“Tommy Sir, there is a younger brother, too. He also plays cricket. That’s my news.”
“Pramod. I am sick of cricket. Talk to me about battles, onions, Narendra Modi, anything else. Don’t you understand?”
“Tommy Sir. You should have seen the younger brother bat today at the Oval Maidan. You should have. He’s nearly as good as his big brother.”
Darkness, Mumbai. The bargaining goes on and on.
“And you know just how good the elder brother is, Tommy Sir. You said Radha Krishna Kumar was the best young batsman you’ve seen in fifty years.”
“Fifty? Pramod, there hasn’t been a best young batsman in fifty years in the past fifty years. I said best in fifteen years. Don’t just stand there, help me clean up. Bend a bit, Pramod. You’re growing fat.”
Behind glass and steel, behind banks and towers, behind the blue monstrosity of the Bharat Diamond Bourse is a patch of living green: the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) Club in the heart of the Bandra Kurla financial center. Floodlights expose the club’s lawns, on which two men scavenge.
“I ask you, Pramod, since you insist on talking about cricket, what is the chance of elder and younger brother from the same family becoming great cricketers? It is against Nature.”
“You distrust sporting brothers, Tommy Sir. Why?”
“Mistrust, Pramod. Pick up that plastic for me, please.”
“A master of English cricket and grammar alike, Tommy Sir. You should be writing for the Times of Great Britain.”
“Sorry, Tommy Sir.”
Sucking in his paunch, Pramod Sawant bent down and lifted a plastic wrapper by its torn edge.
“The younger brother is called Manjunath Kumar. He’s the biggest secret in Mumbai cricket today, I tell you. The boy is the real thing.”
Chubby, mustached Pramod Sawant, now in his early forties, was a man of some importance in Bombay cricket—head coach at the Ali Weinberg International School, runner-up in last year’s Harris Shield. Head Coach Sawant was, in other words, a fat pipe in the filtration system that sucks in strong wrists, quick reflexes, and supple limbs from every part of the city, channels them through school teams, club championships, and friendly matches for years and years, and then one sudden morning pours them out into an open field where two or maybe three new players will be picked for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team.
But he is nothing if he can’t get Tommy Sir’s attention tonight.
“No one knows what the real thing looks like, Pramod. I’ve never seen it. How can you tell?”
“This Manju is a real son of a bitch, I tell you. He’s got this way of deflecting everything off his pads: lots of runs on the leg side. Bit of Sandeep Patil, bit of Sachin, bit of Sobers, but mostly, he’s khadoos. Cricket sponsorship is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant idea: Now you can make it twice as brilliant.”
Gray-haired Tommy Sir, taller and wiser than Coach Sawant, kept his eyes on the lawn.
“After thirty-nine years of service to Bombay cricket, they make me clean up like a servant, Pramod. After thirty-nine years.”
“You don’t have to clean up, Tommy Sir. You know it. The peon will do it in the morning. See, I know Manju, the younger brother, is the real thing, because if he’s not, then what is he? A fake. And this boy is not a fake, I promise you.”
Having completed a round of the cricket ground, Tommy Sir had started on a second trash-hunting circle within the previous one.
“Pramod, the idea that the boy has to be . . .” he bent down, examined a stone, and let it drop, “either real or a fake is a very Western piece of logic.”
He moved on.
“Do you know what the Jains say, Pramod? Seven varieties of truth exist. Seven. One, this younger brother might in fact be the real thing. Two, he might be a fake. Three, the boy might simultaneously be the real thing and a fake. Four, he might exist in some state beyond reality and fraudulence that we humans cannot hope to comprehend. Five, he might in fact be the real thing and yet exist in a state beyond our poor human capacity to comprehend. Six—”
“Tommy Sir. Please. I know what I felt in my heart when that boy was batting. I know.”
“My dear Pramod. Hockey is India’s national game, chess best suits our body type, and football is the future.”
Two old stumps lay in their path. Tommy Sir picked up one and Sawant pretended to pick up the other.
“Football has been the future for fifty years, Tommy Sir. Nothing will replace cricket.”
The two men walked the rest of the circle in silence, and then Tommy Sir, holding the stump against his chest, started a third tour of the ground.
He spoke at last.
“Pramod, the great George Bernard Shaw said: They haven’t spoken English in America in decades. And I say about Indians: We haven’t played cricket in decades. At least since 1978. Go home now. I am very tired, I want to hike near Mahabaleshwar this weekend. I dream of mountains, Pramod.”
Sawant, fighting for breath, could see only one piece of uncollected rubbish: a white glove lying in the very center of the ground. Clenching his fists, he raced Tommy Sir to the glove and picked it up first.
“A bit of Sandeep Patil meets a bit of Ricky Ponting. You should have seen the boy today.”
“Are you deaf?” Tense muscles extended Tommy Sir’s high forehead. “In 1978, Sunny Gavaskar lost the ability to leave the ball outside the off stump, and since then we’ve been playing baseball and calling it cricket. Go home.”
He snatched the glove from Sawant.
Walking to a corner of the ground, he let the rubbish spill from his hands; in the morning, the peon would move all of it into the storeroom.
As Sawant watched, Tommy Sir got into an autorickshaw, which began to move. Then, as if in a silent movie, the auto stopped, and a man’s palm shot out and beckoned.
Loaded now with both men, the auto left the Bandra Kurla Complex for the highway, and then turned into Kalanagar, where it stopped outside a mildew-stained housing society.
Suffering Sawant to pay the driver, Tommy Sir got out of the autorickshaw; he looked up at the fourth floor of the building to see if his daughter, Lata, had left the lights on in the kitchen despite his telling her, for twenty-two years, that this was against every principle of Home Science, a wonderful subject which they once used to teach young women in every college in this country.
Tommy Sir pointed at the sky over his housing society: The full moon was balanced on a water tank.
“Pramod. On a night like this, you know the young people in Bandra just go crazy. Out in the Bandstand, those boys and girls walk all the way out onto the rocks, sit down, start kissing. They forget that the ocean exists. Slowly the tide comes in. Higher and higher.” The old man raised his fingers to his collarbones. “All at once, the young people stop kissing, because they find themselves sitting in the middle of the ocean, and they start screaming for their lives.”
“Pramod, what is the younger one’s name? Manju?”
“I knew you’d agree, Tommy Sir. You believe in the future of this country. I’ll tell the visionary. I mean the other visionary.”
“Pramod Sawant: Now listen to me. One, this visionary of yours is probably just a bootlegger. Second, I like Radha Kumar, but I don’t like his father. The Chutney Raja is mad. I met him six months ago, remember? Now I have to deal with him twice over?”
“That’s the only negative point, I agree. The father is mad.”
Tommy Sir blamed the full moon over the water tank for what he said next.
“How much Sandeep Patil?”
For nearly forty years now, a tall, gray-haired man with small eyes had been seen at maidans, school compounds, gymkhanas, members-only clubs, and any other place where boys in white uniforms had gathered. All through the cricket season, either at the Bombay Gymkhana, or at Shivaji Park, or at the Oval Maidan, Tommy Sir would be watching (hands on hips, brows corrugated) and yelling: “Greatshot!” “Bow-ling!” “Duffer!” When he was angry, his jaw shifted. A boy scores a century in the sun, comes back to the school tent expecting an attaboy from the great Tommy Sir, but instead a thick hand smacks the back of his head: “What’s wrong with a double century?” He had broken many a young cricketer’s heart with a sentence or two: “Not good enough for this game, son. Try hockey instead.” Blunt. Tommy Sir was given to the truth as some men are to drink. Once or twice in the season he would take a batsman, after a long and productive innings, to the sugarcane stand; on such occasions, the boys stood together and watched with open mouths: Mogambo Khush Hua. Tommy Sir is pleased.
Not his real name, obviously. Because Narayanrao Sadashivrao Kulkarni was too long, his friends called him Tommy; and because that was too short, his protégés called him Tommy Sir. Like a Labrador that had been knighted by Her Majesty Queen of England. Ridiculous.
He hated the name.
Naturally, it stuck.
On the day before his marriage in July 1974, he told his wife-to-be, who had arrived by overnight train from a village near Nashik, six salient points about himself. One, this is my salary statement. Read it and understand I am not a man meant to be rich in life. Two, I don’t believe in God. Three, I don’t watch movies, whether Hindi, Hollywood, or Marathi. Four, likewise for live theatrical productions. Five, every Sunday when Ranji, Harris, Giles, Vijay Merchant, Kanga, or any type of cricket is being played in the city of Bombay, I will not be at home from breakfast to dinner. Six, one weekend a year I go to the Western Ghats near Pune and I have to be absolutely alone that weekend, and six point two, because seven points are too many for any woman to remember, before I die, I want to discover a new Vivian Richards, Hanif Mohammad, or Don Bradman. Think about these six points and marry me tomorrow if you want. Afterward don’t regret: I won’t give divorce.
Educated man, literary man, man of many allusions: His column on the traditions of Mumbai cricket was syndicated in sixteen newspapers around India. Artistic man, cultured man, self-taught painter: His watercolor interpretations of black-and-white photos of classic test matches had been exhibited to universal acclaim at the Jehangir Art Gallery a few years ago. Said to be working in secret on a history of the Maratha army in the eighteenth century. Possibly the best talent scout ever seen in India? Thirteen of his discoveries had made the city’s Ranji Trophy team, including “Speed Demon” T. O. Shenoy, bowler of the fastest ball in the city’s history; plus, during a six-month stint in Chennai in the 1990s, he had uncovered two genuine rubies in the South Indian mud who went on to scintillate for Tamil Nadu cricket. On his desktop computer were testimonials from nine current, six retired, and two semi-retired Ranji Trophy players; also signed letters of appreciation from the cricket boards of seventeen nations.
And all these people, whether in Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, or anywhere else, know the same thing Head Coach Pramod Sawant knows: Somewhere out there is the new Sachin Tendulkar, the new Don Bradman, the one boy he has still not found in thirty-nine years—and Tommy Sir wants that boy more than he wants a glass of water on a hot day.
There—opposite Victoria Terminus. Disappearing.
Manjunath Kumar ran down the steps toward a tunnel, the black handle of a cricket bat jutting like an abbreviated kendo stick from the kitbag on his left shoulder. Three more steps before he reached the tunnel. Fact Stranger than Fiction: Place a glass of boiling water in your freezer next to a glass of lukewarm water. The glass of boiling water turns into ice before the lukewarm water. How does one explain this paradox? The eyes bulged in his dark face, suggesting independence and defiance, but the chin was small and pointy, as if made to please the viewer; a first pimple had erupted on his cheek; and the prominent stitching on the side of his red cricket kitbag stated: “Property M.K.—s/o Mr. Mohan Kumar, Dahisar.” In his pocket he had fifteen rupees, the exact amount required to buy peanuts and bottled water after the cricket, and a folded page of newspaper. Fact Stranger than Fiction: Place a glass of boiling water in your freezer . . . The smelly, cacophonic tunnel was filled, even on a Sunday morning, with humanity, hunting in the raw fluorescent light for sports shoes, colorful shirts, and things that could entertain children. Fact Stranger than . . . Manju worked his way through the crowd. Mechanical toys attempted somersaults over his shoes. To catch his attention, two men stood side by side and slapped green tennis rackets against tinfoil, setting off sparks. Electronic mosquito killers. Only fifty rupees for you, son. How does one explain this paradox . . . Only forty rupees for you, son. In the distance, Manju saw the flight of steps leading up to Victoria Terminus. One half of the steps lay in twilight. There must be a lunette over the entrance of the tunnel, clouded over with one hundred years of Bombay grime. Thirty rupees is as low as I’ll go, even for you, son.
But the upper half of the steps glittered like Christmas tinsel.
Emerging from the tunnel, and about to cross the road to Azad Maidan, he stopped. Manju had spotted him—the boy whom he saw every Sunday, but who wore a different face each time.
The average cricketer.
Today, it was that fellow staring at the footpath as he dragged his bag behind him. Wearing a green cap and stained white clothes. Fourteen years old or so. Talking to himself.
“. . . missed. Missed by this much. But the umpire . . . blind. And mad, too . . .”
From his side of the road, Manjunath grinned.
Hello, average cricketer.
This was the wreckage of the first match at Azad Maidan—this fellow who was half a foot shorter than he had been at 7 a.m., who was blinking and arguing with the air, cursing the umpire and the bowler and his captain and their captain, and growing shorter every minute, because he knew in his heart that he had never been meant for greatness in cricket.
Hauling his kitbag off his shoulders and lowering it to the pavement, Manju unzipped the bag and extracted his new bat: He held the black handle in both hands, and gripped tight.
The average cricketer removed his green cap and raised his head, a...
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