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Book Reviews Review: Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day is a polyphonous novel about contemporary India

Author Aravind Adiga photographed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Rd., while visiting Toronto.

Fernando Morales/Globe and Mail

Title
Selection Day
Author
Aravind Adiga
Publisher
Scribner
Pages
289
Price
$32

When Aravind Adiga lived in Delhi, he would spend every Sunday visiting one of the city's three forts. Near the Purana Qila (the 16th-century "Old Fort") is the National Zoo, where Adiga came across a striking image: a white tiger pacing madly in a cage, and as it paced, the black stripes against the black bars created a strobe effect. The animal appeared to dissolve.

Adiga told this story to literary agent David Godwin in a 2014 interview, where he also revealed the influence of Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar on his work. Much of Kakar's non-fiction precedes the "new" India Adiga chronicles, yet Kakar's fingerprints are all over Adiga's Man Booker Prize-winning debut, The White Tiger, as well as his latest, Selection Day, which refines the queries Adiga raised in that previous novel about the search for freedom in 21st-century India.

It's in his description of the psychic effects of mass internal migration – of the rural poor moving from India's villages to its megalopolises – that Kakar is most apparent. The city, even in its slums, represents opportunity for economic advancement and escape from family control and strict social expectation. But it also means living cheek-by-jowl with those of vastly different backgrounds, where one's traditional status, values and identity have no purchase, may even be source for derision. Where, as Kakar puts it: "Progress often turns out to be a glaring inequality, rationality becomes selfishness and the pursuit of self-interest, and individualism comes to mean unbridled greed."

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Humiliation, loss, grief, a "secret wound" festering into narcissistic rage – these threads run through Kakar's analysis, and in Selection Day find embodiment in Mohan Kumar, migrant from "the poorest end of a poor taluk," failed husband, unsuccessful chutney salesman and father to teenage cricket prodigies Radha and Manju.

Selection Day is a polyphonous novel about contemporary India filtered through the culture of Mumbai cricket. At the novel's outset, Mohan has raised Manju to be second-best batsman in the world after his slightly older brother, Radha. Mohan is the figure of the mad cricket father putting all his energies into his aspirations for his sons' careers as professional cricketers: Cricket will be their ticket out of poverty, and for Mohan, revenge for his wounded pride. Cricket is both the sport of English gentry and a meal ticket for hungry boys from Mumbai's slums. It represents an ideal of Indian masculinity.

In his interview with Godwin, Adiga recalled being struck in Kakar's essays by how urban migrants, in their stories of moving to the city, would fixate on an animal. "Kakar had suggested that this repeated animal motif might be their way of dealing with this beautiful and dangerous thing, their sexuality, which they had gained control of."

In Adiga's debut, it was Delhi driver Balram Halwai's identification with the white tiger. In Selection Day, an elephant has become a locus of personal meaning for Mohan. When Mohan was a child, a magician visited his village in the Western Ghats and performed a trick: He could control an elephant with nothing but his mind.

Writes Adiga: "That massive beast, with all its muscles, was helpless: It obeyed the brain waves of its master, it suffered the enchantments of his black magic. When he went back to work, Mohan, a thinking boy, had looked around at the other farmers toiling in the wheat fields and realized: We are no more unmanacled than that elephant.

"This was a truth about life he had never forgotten, even after he had left the village and come by train to the big city. … 'Here, we can't even see our chains.'"

Mohan's sons have internalized this story of slavery and freedom, such that, in addition to being the second-best batsman, Manju can purportedly read minds.

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The one person whose mind remains a mystery to Manju is another boy, Javed – a good-looking, middle-class, Muslim boy, with a beak nose like the Nawab of Pataudi and limbs like a panther, who also happens to be Radha's main batting rival.

Manju's attraction to Javed is undeniable. As Selection Day for the Mumbai team approaches, Manju's sexuality becomes the source of tension, as Adiga again asks what it means to be free.

Homosexual activities are criminalized under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a holdover from British rule: "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine."

A novel can reveal the depths of a person's interiority, what the most rigorous journalistic or sociological inquiry can only hint at. Throughout Selection Day are examples of virulent homophobia – entrapment by police, "rehabilitation centres," the "justified" murder of a gay husband – but as Adiga jumps from mind to mind he reveals a society silently done with the colonial, Victorian morals of this law, "the mad grandfather everyone knows should be locked up in the attic, but who sits in the living room with a cane in his hands."

Still, quiet acceptance, even middle-class encouragement, is cold, inaccessible comfort to someone in Manju's position.

There are pointedly few women in Selection Day. "We are sitting on a time bomb: We're missing about 10 million women from our population, due to female infanticide," the Kumars' sponsor tells a potential investor. "This extraordinary fact is known to you, I assume? Do not make any business decision in India until you familiarize yourself with our male-to-female sex ratio."

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The most notable absence is Radha and Manju's mother, who has run away to escape Mohan. Mohan turns his wounded masculinity on his sons: He's "in competition with the two penises he had created," a cricket scout says. (That scout hates cricket fathers.)

Adiga is the best known of a new wave of Indian writers – a list that often includes Rana Dasgupta, Manu Joseph and Tarun Tejpal – who have set out to describe the violent reality of India's liberalized economy. That "A Note About Money" prefaces both Selection Day and Adiga's previous novel, Last Man in Tower, suggests the primacy of financial realities to his writing.

So disjointed is this reality from that which came before that this new social realism also feels incommensurate with so much prior Indian writing. The world these books describe is amoral, but the writing itself is ethical. To appreciate this fact is to learn to read the novel anew.

Readers might describe these works as "dark" or "cynical," but what marks this new wave is not lack of sentiment but a change in the role sentiment plays. There's room for warmth, eroticism, intimacy, love even, in an ultimately anti-romantic book such as Selection Day, but sentiment can't redeem circumstance: "Repression may be a red-hot distortion of the truth, but what follows it, acceptance, when a man finally examines his heart and says, 'This is what I must have been, partly or in whole,' is hardly liberation."

Selection Day is not a novel you read to find consolation from the melancholy realities of the world's injustices, but to know them, and feel Manju's scorn.

"This was enough," Adiga writes, "this anger was enough. A man could feed on it for the rest of his life."

Jade Colbert covers Canadian independent publishers and debut authors for The Globe and Mail.

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