In 2008, Aravind Adiga burst onto the literary scene with his Booker Prize-winning debut, “White Tiger,” only the fourth Indian to win that accolade. Now comes his third novel, “Selection Day,” a spirited if uneven tale that depicts the triumphs and travails of two brothers, athletic prodigies whose competition threatens to tear them apart.
On the cusp of puberty, Manjunath Kumar, or Manju, and his older brother Radha are devoted to the sport of cricket. Their father, Mohan Kumar, a chutney salesman, struggles to keep the family afloat after his wife abandons them. A blowhard quick with his fists, Mohan drives his sons to excel on the field, pushing them to practice at all hours, obsessively inspecting their bodies and warning them away from poor diet and girls.
The gifted Radha captures the interest of Tommy Sir, the local cricket impresario, who enrolls both boys in a training program that culminates with Selection Day, when the most talented players are picked for the elite Mumbai team.
In a surprising reversal of fortune, Manju surpasses his brother’s records, winning a scholarship to England and the heart of a wealthy Muslim teammate, Javed, whose wooing of Manju is one of the novel’s many seductive charms:
“Manju dropped Javed’s hand and covered his mouth with his fingers … [He] had a horrible premonition about intimacy: It could be this simple, this could be how something starts — just because he asks you twice to tell him your story.”
Adiga’s affection for his characters animates his storytelling, from the sweet-tempered Manju, who dreams of working in a CSI-style forensics lab, to the rebellious Radha, to the wily, smitten Javed. Mohan, too, is fully realized, a striver with few options left, as well as the commanding Tommy Sir, whose passion for the sport is outmatched only by his desire to help boys from the slums:
“Tommy Sir had gone silent as Majunath Kumar began to hit the ball. … Standing beside him, the selector, Srinivasan Sir, had watched Manju’s batting with his mouth open, as if he, too, wanted to ask out loud — what is cricket? Because, like Tommy Sir, he could answer the question only in English. But the boy batting before them was answering it in the language of cricket.”
The elements of “Selection Day” are strong throughout: a dramatic, readable arc; satire glinting with hints of tragedy; a witty, vibrant voice. Adiga also deftly teases out the strands of India’s fluid society, whether Manju’s sexuality or the interchangeable use of “Mumbai” and “Bombay.”
He wrestles with transitions in places, though, especially in the first half, unwieldy sentences that escaped the eye of his editor. Fortunately, the novel loses its awkwardness as it gains velocity, illuminating a country in the throes of change as well as one boy’s troubled yet beguiling embrace of himself.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Aravind Adiga.
Publisher: Scribner, 289 pages, $26.