ONLY BE SEEN
IN THE HOME AND IN
Thus reads a giant notice on a wall in the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, at Kabul, circa 2003 which is still under the thumb of the Taliban. For Timeri N. Murari's novel The Taliban Cricket Club, this is the kind of device which spells out the novel's strengths and its weaknesses — clever, engaging and smartly executed, yet ultimately falling back upon yawn-inducing clichés to hammer home its point — in capital letters, as it were.
Murari's protagonist Rukhsana is an educated, opinionated young woman who was a journalist in the pre-Taliban days, but is now forced to send her articles off to the international media on the sly. That she's also the novel's narrator is one of the strong points of the book — for it is getting increasingly difficult to find an interesting female first person narrative these days. Rukhsana is engaged to be married to an Afghan man living in the States, and in the meanwhile spends her days looking after her terminally ill mother and 16-year-old brother Jahan.
Rukhsana writes anonymously for the Hindustan Times in Delhi, where she went to college. Her cover is threatened by Zorak Wahidi, a senior Taliban man who heads the aforementioned Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Just as it seems that the family is destined to languish under the draconian regime of Wahidi and others of his ilk, a sliver of hope comes in the form of the announcement that the Taliban has decided to form a cricket team, to improve its image in the eyes of the outside world. Clearly, cricket, with its non-contact nature and its genteel, unhurried rhythms seems like a safe bet. (This bit is not without factual basis: the Taliban did try to put together a cricket team in 2000) Rukhsana and her brother Jahan mastermind a plot to get themselves out of Afghanistan — by forming a cricket team to represent the nation in Pakistan, where they'd receive training for an international match. This naturally involves a sleight-of-hand disguise for Rukhsana, lest she be discovered by Zorak Wahidi's goons- notably his brother Droon, who is your standard sadistic torture aficionado.
Murari does succeed in engaging the reader with his plot machinations; you will be flipping the pages to find out if this Afghani "Lagaan" team manages to beat the odds and make it to Pakistan. It's just that like many other feel-good books about fighting oppressive authority figures, the plot twists start getting a tad too convenient for one's comfort. Rukhsana not only learns how to play cricket while in Delhi, she also manages to make a hunky Hindu boy named Veer fall hook, line and sinker for her. Oh, and said Hindu hunk is also an expert cricketer and an intrepid documentary maker — all of which make his role in the novel excruciatingly predictable.
Where the novel works brilliantly is how it uses the game of cricket in the narrative; the combative nature of team sports which is both inherently similar to — and a far cry from — a war zone like the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The lowest blow is perhaps the fact that Rukhsana, who otherwise makes for an interesting and intelligent narrative voice; slips into a painfully Bollywood mode whenever she talks to, or about Veer.
"When we drew apart, I felt as if I had been submerged in water all my life, looking up at the opaque sunlight, and the kiss had shot me to the surface to release my pent-up breath. I had been awakened from the dreamy sleep of adolescence and innocence."
Where the novel works brilliantly is how it uses the game of cricket in the narrative; the combative nature of team sports which is both inherently similar to — and a far cry from — a war zone like the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan described in the novel. When you see Rukhsana and her team of cousins and brothers preparing for a cricket match, even one which is potentially their ticket to freedom; you begin to reconsider the adequacy of phrases like "That's not cricket!" to describe an unfair situation. Or the dangerously ambiguous "It's like war out there" to describe a fiercely competitive contest.
"You must understand the rules first, and the codes of behavior. For example, you can't disobey an umpire's decision — right or wrong — which is another way the sport encourages individualism over team spirit. When you play the game, the two most important individuals are the two 'warriors' battling it out on the pitch."
"It sounds like a war g-game." Qubad said warily."
Comparisons with Khaled Hoseaini's bestselling The Kite Runner are, of course, inevitable. In fact, the Amazons and the Flipkarts of the world will use their user suggestion algorithms to nudge you towards Hosseini's novel, should you open their pages for The Taliban Cricket Club. While Murari's book is a lot less clichéd than The Kite Runner, it does suffer from some of the same shortcomings. Chances are that if you made your peace with the tearjerker hi-jinks of Khaled Hosseini, you'll finish The Taliban Cricket Club with a big smile on your face.