Book: The Taliban Cricket Club
Author: Timeri N. Murari
Price: Rs 595
For journalists who covered Afghanistan through all its recent bloody upheavals — the Soviet invasion to the tyrannical Taliban reign and the birth of the Hamid Karzai government — the most visible impact was on Afghan society, particularly its women. The transformation from independent individuals to shadowy, subservient non-persons invisible under their burqas, thanks to the Taliban’s repressive Sharia rule between 1996 and 2001, was one of the most tragic episodes in the country’s tumultuous history.
The Taliban also banned all outdoor sports as unIslamic. But in 2000, they allowed men to play cricket, seen as a means to gain some international acceptance. Cricket was selected because its dress code involves outfits that cover the entire body. That decision, quirky and anachronistic, has inspired author and filmmaker Timeri Murari to weave a web of fiction around it.
The Taliban Cricket Club uses the game as a metaphor for courage and determination in the face of daunting odds. It is a reminder of the tyranny that extremist interpretations of religion can unleash and what it does to the people exposed to it. Under all brutal regimes, there are shadowy rebellions, and this book revolves around one which, with a clever twist, happens to be spearheaded by a woman. There are scenes reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. It also has shades of the movie Lagaan, in which villagers learn an alien sport, cricket, to defeat a colonial team during the British Raj. Murari does much the same but adds a love affair to embellish his tale — one between Rukhsana and Veer, a Hindu from Delhi. It adds the required suspense — exposure would be punishable by death — and leads to a surprise twist to the ending.
Murari is an accomplished writer with 12 works of fiction behind him, but in this one, he seems to have raised the bar. Rukhsana’s grit and defiance in the face of brutality and repression are offset by insights into Kabul life and Afghan society, and her complicated love story is set against an arranged marriage and cricket as a means of escape. The escape is also from the Taliban leader who wants to marry her and a chance to find happiness in the arms of her long-distance lover in Delhi, the young man who taught her to play cricket when her diplomat father was posted there.
It is a many-layered story that is well-crafted, using family, romance, cultural norms, religious extremism and a daring plan based on a ludicrous cricket tourney to keep the reader engrossed. Murari’s cricketing metaphor underlines the plot, with Rukhsana disguising herself as a male, complete with false beard, to coach a team of her cousins, none of whom knows anything about the game, so that they win the tournament and the prize — a sponsored trip to Pakistan for training; in reality, a means of escape to the West and,in her case, India.
Murari has been a journalist in the UK and the US before he switched to writing historical fiction, and he uses that to great effect. He visited Kabul to gather research and interview families and victims and it reflects in the style and plot, which, like any good investigative story, builds characters, identifies villains and victims as well as reveals a larger truth. What brings it all together is cricket, as theatre and drama, where individual skill and leadership is measured against the team’s profile and unified image. Murari builds the suspense and denouement with considerable skill and also uses his background as a writer of historical novels — Taj being his best known — to remind us of a society’s struggle against an oppressive reign.
This is clearly written for a wider audience since the main handicap in the book are the minute details it gives about cricket, how it is played and the rules and regulations, which are irksome to an Indian reader. The danger is that an audience that has little knowledge of cricket may miss the subtle symbolism and metaphorical references, all to do with cricket, its status as a gentleman’s game, one which demands fair play and is conducted in a democratic format — everything that is counter to the Taliban’s distorted world view.
Ironically, the result of the Taliban decision was positive: Afghanistan’s cricket team took part in the 2010 World Cup, the first Afghan team to play a world cup in any sport.
The Indian Express, 3 July 2012
Reviewer: Dilip Bobb