Saturday, March 24, 2007

On Amitava Kumar's Home Products

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

In a scene late in Amitava Kumar's novel Home Products, the protagonist Binod is returning home with his family from Bombay's Prithvi Theatre after watching a Hindi adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie. "Binod felt the tragedy they had witnessed on stage had also made their own small sufferings pleasant and lyrical," writes Kumar. His novel might be thought of as exploring the question of how art, which is a representation of life, also impacts life, triggering memories, provoking connections, and being assimilated till it virtually becomes a home product.

Binod himself wanted to be a writer - we learn at different stages that he likes reading Orwell, Chekhov, Manto, Bhalchandra Nemade - but he now works in Bombay as a film journalist. When he writes an editorial about the murder by a politician of a small-town female poet in his home state Bihar, a film director asks him if he would like to write a script around the story. Binod travels to Patna to understand the story better, but finds the dead woman's family stubborn and unhelpful.

His cousin, the cool, ambitious, amoral Rabinder, is in jail, not for the first time. On hearing Binod's story, Rabinder suggests there is no need for Binod to track reality so doggedly. If he really does want a model for "a woman's lonely ambitions" in a small town, then his own mother - Binod's aunt - whom everyone calls Bua, is good enough. Bua herself, after losing the support of her husband early in her married life, got herself an education, took up welfare work, and is now a minister in Lalu Yadav's cabinet. Rabinder's question "Shouldn't you be writing Bua's story instead?" resonates in Binod's mind - another instance in the novel of a story from the wider world merging with something close to home. Binod thinks later of "how stories begin in one place and end in another place that is often altogether unexpected".

Kumar's narrative, shuttling continuously between present and past, is faithful to Binod's realisation, adding layer upon layer in a very even, composed style. In the linking up of personal ambition, crime, politics and Bollywood, his book is slightly reminiscent of Vikram Chandra's magnum opus Sacred Games.

Like Chandra, Kumar really knows how to write a rich, satisfying scene. The first two sections of his book - "The Car with the Red Light" and "Ulan Bator at Night" - string together episodes of startling power. Among these is the boy Binod's memory of the night after Bua's wedding. A male relative is expected to accompany a bride to her new home, and so Binod makes the long journey by car with Bua and her husband Lalji. Tired out, he falls asleep early and wakes up to hear voices in the dark:

Bua was talking to someone in a very low voice. When he heard Lalji's voice, he knew he should be sleeping. It was wrong to be awake. But sleep didn't come to him and he was afraid to move or change sides.
Lalji spoke to Bua in a loud whisper. "I looked at your matriculation marksheet. No one scores so high in History and Geography. You got more than I did in both Hindi and English.
Bua was saying,"Let me go."
Lalji shifted his weight and when he spoke again his voice seemed to come from a closer place. Bua was lying between Binod and Lalji's voice that sounded as if he was laughing. "But tell me your secret. How can anyone be so brilliant?"
The low laughter in his throat made Binod think of marbles being scrubbed in the palm of his hand in the schoolyard.
There was silence. Binod had shut his eyes. The bed creaked again, and once more Bua said "Let me go." Her bangles jingled in the dark. Perhaps she was sleeping closer to him than to Lalji. Binod knew that she was wearing thin gold and new red and green ones.
He heard Lalji saying "Okay, okay" in a reasonable voice. There was a pause and he spoke again. "People like me know that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu or that the capital of Burma is Rangoon. But please tell me - what is the capital of Mongolia?"
He laughed but a note of pleading had come into his voice.
Bua rose to the bait. She said quietly,"Ulan Bator."
"Ulan Bator," Lalji said with great relish and laughed.
Binod was glad that Bua knew the answer because he certainly didn't. He heard Lalji murmur happily in the dark "Ulan Bator…Ulan Bator" but it seemed that he had begun to run in bed. He was trying to catch his breath. Bua said,"You are breaking my bangles". But Lalji didn't say anything in response. He continued to run in the dark. And then it seemed that Bua was running too. They were panting with the effort and then Binod felt that they were tiring and he shared their tiredness and sometime later when the voices had stopped in the dark he began to dream of leopards in the forest and small birds with painted breasts.

"but it seemed that he had begun to run in bed" - that is a striking example of what the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky called "defamiliarization", or the use of some rhetorical or linguistic device to make the familiar newly strange. In novels this effect is often achieved through the accurate depiction of the experience of characters who, like Binod, cannot quite understand what is going on. We understand more about what they are seeing than they themselves do, but paradoxically it is we who are indebted to them, for their way of seeing makes alive for us something that had become all too familiar - it removes things, to use Shklovsky's words, "from the sphere of automatized perception".

When we hear lovemaking being described as people running in bed, we feel the intensity of it far more than if the experience had been correctly named. As Shklovsky understood it, defamiliarisation in art, and indeed art itself, exists "in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony".

As evinced by that line about Lalji's laughter resembling marbles being rubbed together, Kumar's eye for the telling detail is very sharp. Early in the novel, when Binod visits Patna, Bua comes to see him, accompanied by another minister, Parshuram. Bua has never remarried, but midway through the conversation, "Parshuram reached over to where Bua sat, took the corner of her sari in his right hand and began to rub it on the lens of his spectacles." This is enough to suggest their relationship, and also their indifference to gossip. In the same way Rabinder, we know, has indulged in several acts of violence, but feels no regret or remorse. And even in a sentence like "Rabinder had finished his meal quickly and was sucking on the lime pickle on his plate" we are invited to see a trace of the sinister beneath the everyday.

If Home Products does not quite redeem the promise of its first half, it is because Kumar's narration, having carefully opened out a world, continues to expand outwards, and as a result becomes somewhat unfocused. Kumar has written three nonfiction books previously, including the splendid Husband of a Fanatic, and even in this book he constantly has an eye on the news, which we are perhaps meant to understand as an expression of Binod's curiosity as a journalist.

In one stretch of the book, we are told in quick succession of Virender Sehwag batting against South Africa, the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the tsunami in south India. But novels are always more interesting when exploring the local than gathering up the global - in a novel, a man rubbing his spectacles on a woman's sari may be of greater import than the news of bombs falling on Iraq. "Give me the home product every time," Mark Twain is quoted as saying in the epigraph to this novel, and that might have been his criticism of Home Products as well.

Amitava Kumar had a good essay called "How To Write A Novel" on his years of work on Home Products here. Here are some of his other essays and reviews: "A Shrine At The Border", "The Enigma of Return" (on Suketu Mehta's Maximum City), "A Civilizing Mission" (on the Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed), and "Passages to India". And on the subject of Partition: "What If We Were Together?"

Victor Shklovsky's seminal essay "Art as Device" is here, and here is an old post on another instance of defamiliarisation in fiction, in Monica Ali's Brick Lane.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

On Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker

Of all the structures of life that go towards making us unfree, none is more heartbreaking than that of caste, which did and still does reduce one human being to a nullity in the eyes of another merely because of the accident of his or her birth.

Caste issues in the realm of human action rarely figure as prominently in the Indian novel in English as they do in Vinod George Joseph's debut novel Hitchhiker, a thoroughgoing exploration of the way of life of what the French sociologist Louis Dumont called homo hierarchus. An old-fashioned realist novel conceived on a grand scale - there are more than thirty characters in it with significant roles - it provides, through the splendid portrait of its protagonist, Ebenezer, and his milieu, a panoramic and throughly engrossing depiction of a semi-urbanized world where caste hierarchies, religious conversion, and affirmative action bring both hope and havoc into the lives of people.

Ebenezer is the teenaged son of Peterraj, the watchman of the Global Evangelical School in the small town of Aaroor in south India. Ebenezer has a complex, fractured identity. His father, a low-caste labourer, came into contact with missionaries and was persuaded to convert to Christianity in return for a secure livelihood. So Ebenezer is putatively a Christian: in the novel's opening chapter we see him attending Sunday Mass at the school, and singing the song "Walking With Jesus".

Yet he has not really left his low-caste status behind: in his native village the high-caste Edayars treat him and his family as the low-caste Verumars of old. Ebenezer himself is not too comfortable being a Christian, yet he receives funding for his education from a donor overseas because he is one, and cannot afford to reject the consequences of his father's decision. His dream though is to become an engineer, get a good job, and escape the tangled web of religious and caste allegiances altogether by moving to a big city.

Joseph's standout achievement in Hitchhiker is his depiction of the relationship between Ebenezer's material reality and his interior life. Ebenezer feels his family's privation keenly: what others take for granted are for him luxuries. In one of the novel's best scenes, he visits his grandparents and cousins in his village, and a chicken is specially prepared in honour of the family gathering. The chicken is so precious, and there is so little of it to go around, that "it was understood that there would be no second helpings, though everyone could have an unlimited amount of rice and maybe a couple of spoons of gravy".

The meal, we are told, "got over very soon" - not because it is any shorter in real terms than other meals, we realise, but because the people are eating unusually well. Ebenezer and his father share one pair of shoes between them; Ebenezer is waiting for the day "when someone would gift them another pair of shoes so that both he and his father could wear shoes to Church". In Joseph's reading, there is nothing particularly virtuous or noble about poverty. Rather, man is humanised by the fulfilment of his basic material needs. When Ebenezer dreams of being so successful that his children "will have their own TV sets in their rooms", we know exactly where he is coming from.

Even what little material security Ebenezer's family has is as a result of Peterraj's conversion to Christianity; were Peterraj still a labourer in the fields, reflects Ebenezer, he himself might today "be toiling away at a construction site or at a tannery" instead of being at school and nurturing dreams of a better future. Indeed, the thought that "the world was going to be a better place" is a kind of motif in the novel; it is the sentiment that unites the disparate wants of the many characters amongst whose thoughts Joseph roves.

But even Peterraj's conversion cannot insulate his family from the workings of the old caste order. While in his native village, Ebenezer and his family are caught up in a violent clash between the Edayars and the Verumars; Ebenezer's mother and sister lose their lives. Recovering in hospital, Ebenezer is consumed with loathing for the world and for himself. "He hated everyone. He hated the Edayars. He hated himself for being a Verumar and an untouchable. He hated the GE Church for not being able to take away his untouchable status."

Hitchhiker is also unusual in being keenly interested in the realities of the Indian educational system, of which it provides a critique by nothing more than reporting accurately its facts. Indian readers will find that it refreshes their memory of what it is like to go to school and college in India, and the kind of peculiar tensions and calculations involved.

Joseph notes, on the one hand, the almost obsessive competitiveness of school students. Of the two best students in Ebenezer's class he writes, "The competition between Chithra and Aravind was legendary" - an exaggeration which nevertheless expresses the truth of Indian school wars. Ebenezer is in his all-important schooleaving year, and everyone in his class goes to private tuitions not just for the school exams but also the entrance exams to various institutes.

So on the one hand there is the sense of a stampede towards a prized goal, but on the other hand we see unmistakably the shallowness and the sterility of what is taught and how it is absorbed. Knowledge is understood only as memorising and problem-solving, and there is only one method of studying. "Like all his classmates," we are told, "Ebenezer never studied from his textbooks, but depended solely on guidebooks, which covered the syllabus in an exam-friendly way".

Government schools are in a wretched condition and rife with corruption; private educational institutions often demand huge donations from both prospective students and teachers. Students are shown assessing each other's chances of success not just in terms of their capabilities, but also by considering whether they are from the general category, backward castes, or scheduled castes.

In one revelatory piece of dialogue Ebenezer, who has given up his Scheduled Caste status because he is a Christian, says bitterly of a friend eligible for a reserved quota seat: "He is a Verumar just like me. But he is an SC and I am not." In another instance Satish, the son of a district collector who is an SC, is shown feeling guilty because he is not a part of the creamy layer "preventing the really needy SCs from benefiting from reservations"; he fears also that all through his life "he would be accused of having achieved success of account of being an SC". In this way Joseph conveys a sense of the very real doubts, fears and resentments attached to reservations - his book is as good an intervention on our current debate on reservations in education as any.

Small-town and rural Indian life as portrayed in Hitchhiker appears teeming with sects and schisms, with little or no dialogue or exchange. People always have a group identity which, though it sometimes provides them with strength, often limits their free expression as individuals. To survive in this world a number of characters are seen compromising their allegiances for the sake of relationships or material advancement - they are, in the author's potent though not necessarily pejorative metaphor, hitchhikers, and the protagonist is one such person.

Working for a dotcom company in Bombay, Ebenezer falls in love with a high-caste girl he knew from Aaroor. In Aaroor there would be a scandal if they were seen together, but in the city nobody cares - it is possible for them to dream of a future together in Bombay. Yet her family will not allow her to marry someone who is not only low-caste but, even worse, a Christian, and they persuade her to return to Aaroor and reconsider her decision. Afraid that he will lose the person he loves because of his faith, Ebenezer decides to participate in a reconversion ceremony and become a Hindu again. But his efforts are in vain. Finally he is trumped by the very world he wished always to escape.

Although narrated in unadorned, functional prose that can sometimes seem clumsy and artless, Hitchhiker portrays convincingly the life situations and dilemmas of men and women, high-castes and low-castes, city and village dwellers. Whatever Joseph's deficiencies as a writer, his novelistic instincts are very good. Immensely creditworthy are the care with which he has presented the points of view proper to different characters with minimal narratorial intervention, and the skill with which he has controlled a very complex plotline shifting from place to place and character to character. This absorbing story of a man's struggle to make his way up in and break free of a world of caste prejudice deserves the widest possible readership.

And some links to further reading on the issue of reservations in higher education in India: "Classy cast of mind" by Ramachandra Guha, "The A to Z of OBC" by Yogendra Yadav, "Re-caste the problem", an Indian Express editorial on the subject (the tendency of Indian newspapers to always find some kind of bad pun for the titles of the pieces they publish is evident even from this small sample size), "Indian Reservations" by Atanu Dey, and, more generally, "Merit and Justice" by Amartya Sen. And on a similar problem of unequal access to higher education in America, Andrew Delbanco's "Scandals of Higher Education" in the latest New York Review of Books.

And on the state of Indian education and Indian schools: "The Unknown Education Revolution in India" by Naveen Mandava, "A tale of two numbers", a recent piece by Gurcharan Das on the government's provisions for education in the 2007 budget, and "A Class Apart" by Ramachandra Guha ("That education in India is in such a shocking state is made more depressing by the fact that among this country’s founders were Gandhi and Tagore, both of whom thought deeply of how to make learning meaningful as well as enjoyable"). And on a slightly different tack, "What Is Liberal Education?", the text of a lecture given in 1959 by Leo Strauss.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

In 2003, Dutch voters voted in as a Member of Parliament a woman of Somalian origin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The remarkable thing about this was that it had been only a decade since Hirsi Ali had been a young refugee seeking asylum in Holland - a complete outsider.

At that point she had never held a job in her life, and knew nothing about European history or of the Dutch language. A Muslim girl brought up in the conservative milieu of Somalia and Saudi Arabia, she was unused to, even shocked by, the values of the West. But in this new world she "saw for the first time that human relations could be different". Her new life gave her a vantage from which to examine the ways of the old, as also a sense of the sovereignty of the individual she had never known before.

The wonder and empowerment of this intellectual journey, more than her physical or the political one, animate the pages of Infidel, Hirsi Ali's plainspeaking and revelatory autobiography. Infidel is about nothing less than a kind of rebirth of the self. In the world Hirsi Ali came from, "because I was born a woman, I could never become an adult", but in the West she was able to become "a person, an individual". Her autobiography - the story of the self's journey through time, contemplating the meanings of what it has gone through, and believing in the value of such a quest - is itself the most powerful symbol of that break.

Ali was born in Somalia, and spent her childhood living in a number of either failed or repressive states while her father, a prominent Somalian opposition leader, cobbled together a resistance against the country's corrupt dictator. The values she grew up with were, on the one hand, those of the clan, and on the other those of Islam. While still a child she had to undergo the female genital mutilation commonly found in, though by no means exclusive to, the Islamic world.

Women had little or no independence: before marriage they were the property of their fathers, and after that of their husbands. In public life there was very little respect for the rule of law, government was hopelessly ineffective and mired in corruption, and the warring clans made a travesty of the idea of a civil society. It is Hirsi Ali's argument in Infidel that all these things were related.

Infidel takes unusual positions on many issues, from religious fundamentalism and feminism to multiculturalism and immigrant assimilation. As someone who has seen and lived through both sides of the story on all these questions, Hirsi Ali's views are arguably more important than those who might approach them in a more theoretical way.

Central to her argument is her wideranging critique of Islam, a religion of which she was once a faithful adherent. Not only that, she also differs from those who would make a careful distinction between mainstream Islam and militant or fundamentalist Islam. Her problem is with what is taught by the Quran itself, and the message of absolute submission it preaches.

Hirsi Ali regards the Quran less as a transcendent text that communicates the word of God than as "a historical record, written by humans". Its mindset is too is that of a certain time and place, that "of the Arab desert in the seventh century". Further, there is no distinction in Islam between the religious and the secular sphere: the Quran legislates on every aspect of life. Women suffer particularly badly, for they are subjugated in the name of the Quran. Their sexuality is seen as provocative and in need of being controlled, and their men are granted absolute rights over them. Many of the Quran's verses propagate ideas incompatible with modern notions of freedom, equality and individual rights, yet debate on these matters is forbidden because "worship of God means total obedience".

In Europe, though, Hirsi Ali finds that nothing is too sacred to be debated. Registering for a degree in political science instead of one of the standard vocational courses preferred by refugees, Hirsi Ali finds her old worldview buffetted by the shock of unfamiliar and startlingly powerful ideas:

Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim. Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas.
People had contested the whole basis of the idea of God's power on earth, and they had done it with reasoning that was beautiful and compelling. Freud said we had power over ourselves. Darwin said creation stories were a fairy tale. Spinoza said there were no miracles, no angels, no need to pray to anything outside ourselves: God was us, and nature. Emil Durkheim said human beings fantasized religion to give themselves a sense of security.
In every way, to read these books of Western history was sinning. Even the history of how modern states formed confronted me with contradictions of my belief in Allah. The European separation of God's word from the state was itself haram. The Quran says there can be no government without God; the Quran is Allah's book of laws for the conduct of worldly affairs.
Almost everything was secular here. Society worked without reference to God, and it seemed to function perfectly…. This man-made system of government was so much more stable, peaceful, prosperous, and happy than the supposedly God-devised systems I had been taught to respect.

In the past, contends Hirsi Ali, the Christian world too was equally close-minded and suffocating, but the revolution ushered in by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment - Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire, Mill, Locke - brought about a separation between the church and the state, and a new respect for reason and the individual's right to choose his or her own way of life. "The Enlightenment," writes Hirsi Ali, "cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kingship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule - so long as he did not threaten civic peace and the freedom of others."

In her opinion Islam, too, needs a similar Age of Reformation. She is critical of the way in which Western governments and intellectuals have become nervous about this right to freedom of speech, of free debate and criticism, out of respect for the pieties of multiculturalism and a fear of being called racist. She herself defied those pieties by collaborating with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a short film sharply critical of the treatment of women in Islam. She writes:
When I approached Theo to help me make Submission, I had three messages to get across. First, men, and even women, may look up and speak to Allah: it is possible for believers to have a dialogue with God and look closely at Him. Second, the rigid interpretation of the Quran in Islam today causes intolerable misery for women. Through globalization, more and more people who hold these ideas have traveled to Europe with the women they own and brutalize, and it is no longer possible for Europeans and other Westerners to pretend that severe violations of human rights occur only far away. The third message is the film's final phrase: "I may no longer submit." It is possible to free oneself - to adapt one's faith, to examine it critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.
It is a controversial message, liable to further incite the very people it is aimed at. Van Gogh was stabbed to death in 2005 by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin, and Hirsi Ali herself now lives in the United States after facing death threats. But like many of the thinkers she admires, her unorthodox ideas have set off a far-reaching debate. (Time magazine named her one of its "100 Most Influential People of 2005".) This exemplary autobiography provides an unforgettable lens on the most vexing problems of our age.

A crackling discussion of the questions raised by Hirsi Ali's book can be found on the European website Signandsight here, with pieces by Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur and Ulrike Ackermann among others. Another piece, by Christopher Hitchens, is here.

And here is a piece by Hirsi Ali: "The Right to Offend". And in the same vein, a piece by Salman Rushdie, "Defend the Right To Be Offended". And here is a very good essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb: "Three Paths To Modernity: The British, American, and French Enlightenments".

And it seems to me that Infidel might be read very fruitfully in comparison with - even the single-word titles of the books seem to point at each other - Minaret, the novel by Leila Aboulela published two years ago. Aboulela also tells the story of an immigrant Muslim woman arriving in the West in mid-life, but her book charts, just as persuasively, a journey in the direction opposite to that taken by Hirsi Ali. Her protagonist Najwa, floundering in the anomie of the highly secularized world of the West, eventually seeks refuge in the order and certitude of religion, and finds comfort in the sense of being "safe with God". "We never get lost because we can see the minaret of the mosque and head home towards it," goes one sentence of Aboulela's novel.

And two old posts on films with a powerful feminist message: Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor, and Tahmineh Milani's Two Women.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Speakin' on Saturday

Turns out I'm speaking once again this Saturday. Since, alongside other high points in a short but indisputably eventful life, I have now attended three literary festivals, and been on one panel, I now qualify as a veteran, and so I've been invited to speak this Saturday, the 10th of March, at a PEN event on "What do literary festivals achieve?"

On being invited most courteously, I thought a bit about whether I had anything of interest to say, but then I saw my boots lying in one corner under the dresser, and realised suddenly that I had in fact a great many things to say, and the allotted eight minutes might not be enough.

So come along if you can, 6.30 pm, Prithvi House (1st floor), opposite Prithvi Theatre, Janki Kutir, Juhu, Bombay. Also speaking will be the novelist Rohit Manchanda, the playwright Ramu Ramanathan, and the journalist Manjula Sen. If nothing else will tempt you, I can reveal that the supply of biscuits is expected to be immense - and I can't possibly finish them all by myself.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The best Indian cricket writing

This weekend's issue of Mint is a cricket special, and I have in it a long piece on the best Indian books about cricket. The main essay is about three writers who followed the game in a non-professional way, and it's accompanied by a box with three more recommendations.

Cricket books, like clouds, can be broadly divided into three classes.

The first is the lot written by cricketers themselves, putting down cherry and willow and taking up the pen, or more likely, the dictaphone. These tend mostly to be autobiographies. Their literary merit is often minimal—rare is the cricketer who, like Navjot Sidhu, prefers a book to a beer, and look what he’s done to the language—but at their best, they successfully evoke the hothouse atmosphere and complex dynamics of a team sport played over five days as only those with personal experience can.

Think of Steve Waugh’s massive, but very readable autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, published last year, or Mike Brearley’s Phoenix from the Ashes, the England captain’s riveting account of the great Ashes series of 1981. Sunil Gavaskar’s Sunny Days—which he wrote himself, painstakingly, in longhand—still remains perhaps the best Indian example of this kind of cricket book. Kapil Dev, on the other hand, is a ghostwriter’s dream, having produced, at judicious intervals and with different publishers, three autobiographies (Cricket My Style, By God's Decree, Straight From The Heart). A new one may be in the shops even as you read this.

The second set is that written by professional cricket writers. These are the widest in range—histories, biographies, tour books—and also the greatest in number: in England, cricket publishing is a small industry. But again, the number of truly good books by Indian cricket writers is depressingly few. The first one I can remember reading is Harsha Bhogle’s biography of Mohammad Azharuddin, now a fallen hero, but a magician in his prime. A recent book which went straight to the top of the class is Pundits From Pakistan, Rahul Bhattacharya’s fizzing account of India’s landmark tour of Pakistan in 2004.

The third set, often distinct in style, tone and emphasis from the second, is that written by men of letters who also happen to love cricket and have kept an eye upon it all their working lives. The West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James’ classic, Beyond The Boundary (1963), mixing politics, history and sociology with cricket, is universally reckoned one of the best cricket books ever written. P.G. Wodehouse wrote some superbly funny cricket (and golf) stories, and Alan Ross, long-time editor of London magazine, wrote a fine biography of Ranji. In this one area, Indian cricket writing, too, has been well-served. Three books stand out.

The poet Dom Moraes (1938-2006) was also a writer of thrilling prose and during his lifetime, he wrote books on subjects as disparate as Indira Gandhi, Madhya Pradesh and, memorably, Sunil Gavaskar. Merely a few words from the preface of Sunil Gavaskar (Macmillan, 1987)—in which Moraes summons up a picture of Gavaskar’s “rolling walk, the floppy white hat, the elephant hair bracelet and the golden necklet” and recalls his drive off the front foot, “body in balance, the long blade drilling the ball to left and right of cover or straight in course as a moonrocket to the boundary”—are evidence enough that Moraes could do for cricketing prose what Gavaskar did for batsmanship.

Moraes walks along the lanes of Chikalwadi in Dadar, where Gavaskar played in his boyhood, and speaks not only to his subject, but also his family and friends. The result is a rounded portrait of not just Gavaskar the cricketer, a master technician who could also explode in attack, but also Gavaskar the man, “a curious mixture of tolerance and touchiness”.

“No cricket one has watched or read about can ultimately be as memorable as the cricket one has played oneself, no matter at what level.” This is the assertion—which anyone who has ever played competitive cricket of any kind knows to be true—made by Sujit Mukherjee (1930-2003) in his Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer (Ravi Dayal, 1996).

Mukherjee, a professor of English and later a publisher, played intermittently for Bihar in the Ranji Trophy during the 1950s. In his luminous account, told in graceful and understated prose, Patna becomes the unlikely centre of the cricketing universe, and the joys and travails of the school, college and club cricket scene—travelling long distances in third-class train compartments, sharing out precious Gunn & Moore cricket bats—take on a warming significance. Reading it, I was taken back to the 28 not out I once made in Class 7 during a run-chase on a hot afternoon to win the match for my side—but we’ll leave that for another day.

And most enjoyable of all, standing tall in the Playing XI of the best cricket books ever written, is historian Ramachandra Guha’s States of Indian Cricket (Permanent Black, 2005). This brings together in updated form two books Guha wrote in the early 1990s: Wickets in the East, which makes up imaginary all-time elevens of the great Indian state sides, retailing superb anecdotes passed down over the decades, and Spin and Other Turns, a set of dazzling essays about the cricketers—Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Kapil Dev, Bishan Bedi—responsible for Indian cricket’s coming-of-age in the 1970s.

Like the Australian Gideon Haigh, Guha is, in many ways, the ideal cricket writer. In these books, there is an enthusiast’s penchant for reminiscence, generating some dramatic opening lines (“In 1966 I made what turned out to be an incredibly shrewd decision for an eight-year-old”); a historian’s feel for provocative generalization (“Cricket chauvinism runs across two axes, those of nation and generation”); a scholar’s love of ordered argument leavened by trivia (the home of the Maharashtra stalwart D.B. Deodhar “lay on a lane named after himself—surely a unique honour for a cricketer”; the young Bishan Bedi possessed at one time “a collection of 10,000 marbles, won from all the other little boys in Amritsar”); and a great cricket writer’s eye for points of style and technique, as in the masterly discussion of the art of Bedi and Gavaskar. Guha has produced another great cricket book, the magisterial A Corner of a Foreign Field, but States of Indian Cricket is arguably the more entertaining work.

And three other noteworthy Indian cricket books:

Pundits From Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya (Picador, 2005)
That Bhattacharya is the best cricket writer of his generation was confirmed by this, a heady and delightful account of India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004. The reader will find here finely detailed accounts of the games—Virender Sehwag’s triple-hundred at Multan has never been better described—braided in with plenty of colloquial talk with old-time stars and moments of skittering comedy. Not to be missed.

Azhar by Harsha Bhogle (Penguin/Viking, 1994)
“There can be few things more beautiful in life than Mohammad Azharuddin in flight,” wrote Azhar’s fellow Hyderabadi, Harsha Bhogle, at the beginning of this book, written some years before the subject’s fall from grace for match-fixing. No trace of that ignominious story can be found here, but Azhar’s quicksilver feet and wizard touch—no one has ever made a simple dab for a single look so attractive—are memorialized in this excellent biography.

Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan (Hamish Hamilton, 1935)
R.K. Narayan’s first novel remains as fresh as ever. It tells of the capers of a group of schoolboys from sleepy Malgudi (this fictional town was to become his standard setting), seeking to emulate the great MCC with a cricket club of their own. Swami and Friends expresses excitement about cricket tinged with a slight contemporary unease with colonial pastimes—the doubting Swami, we are told, was “familiar with Hobbs, Bradman and Duleep”, but he had “not thought of cricket as something that he himself had to play.”