“I’ve got news for you, Tommy Sir.”
“And I’ve got news for you, Pramod. You see, when I was twenty-one years old, which is to say before you were even born, I began working on a history of the Maratha campaign at the third battle of Panipat. It had a title: ‘1761: the soul breaks out of its encirclement.’ Because I felt that no truthful account of this battle had ever been written. All the histories say we Marathas lost to the Afghans at Panipat on 14 January 1761. Not true. I mean, it may be true, we lost, but it’s not the true story.”
“Tommy Sir, there is a younger brother, too. He also plays cricket. That’s my news.”
“Pramod. I am sick of cricket. Talk to me about battles, onions, Narendra Modi, anything else. Don’t you understand?”
“Tommy Sir. You should have seen the younger brother bat today at the Oval Maidan. You should have. He’s nearly as good as his big brother.”
Darkness, Mumbai. The bargaining goes on and on.
“And you know just how good the elder brother is, Tommy Sir. You said Radha Krishna Kumar was the best young batsman you’ve seen in fifty years.”
“Fifty? Pramod, there hasn’t been a best young batsman in fifty years in the past fifty years. I said best in fifteen years. Don’t just stand there, help me clean up. Bend a bit, Pramod. You’re growing fat.”
Behind glass and steel, behind banks and towers, behind the blue monstrosity of the Bharat Diamond Bourse is a patch of living green: the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) Club in the heart of the Bandra Kurla financial center. Floodlights expose the club’s lawns, on which two men scavenge.
“I ask you, Pramod, since you insist on talking about cricket, what is the chance of elder and younger brother from the same family becoming great cricketers? It is against Nature.”
“You distrust sporting brothers, Tommy Sir. Why?”
“Mistrust, Pramod. Pick up that plastic for me, please.”
“A master of English cricket and grammar alike, Tommy Sir. You should be writing for the Times of Great Britain.”
“Sorry, Tommy Sir.”
Sucking in his paunch, Pramod Sawant bent down and lifted a plastic wrapper by its torn edge.
“The younger brother is called Manjunath Kumar. He’s the biggest secret in Mumbai cricket today, I tell you. The boy is the real thing.”
Chubby, mustached Pramod Sawant, now in his early forties, was a man of some importance in Bombay cricket—head coach at the Ali Weinberg International School, runner-up in last year’s Harris Shield. Head Coach Sawant was, in other words, a fat pipe in the filtration system that sucks in strong wrists, quick reflexes, and supple limbs from every part of the city, channels them through school teams, club championships, and friendly matches for years and years, and then one sudden morning pours them out into an open field where two or maybe three new players will be picked for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team.
But he is nothing if he can’t get Tommy Sir’s attention tonight.
“No one knows what the real thing looks like, Pramod. I’ve never seen it. How can you tell?”
“This Manju is a real son of a bitch, I tell you. He’s got this way of deflecting everything off his pads: lots of runs on the leg side. Bit of Sandeep Patil, bit of Sachin, bit of Sobers, but mostly, he’s khadoos. Cricket sponsorship is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant idea: Now you can make it twice as brilliant.”
Gray-haired Tommy Sir, taller and wiser than Coach Sawant, kept his eyes on the lawn.
“After thirty-nine years of service to Bombay cricket, they make me clean up like a servant, Pramod. After thirty-nine years.”
“You don’t have to clean up, Tommy Sir. You know it. The peon will do it in the morning. See, I know Manju, the younger brother, is the real thing, because if he’s not, then what is he? A fake. And this boy is not a fake, I promise you.”
Having completed a round of the cricket ground, Tommy Sir had started on a second trash-hunting circle within the previous one.
“Pramod, the idea that the boy has to be . . .” he bent down, examined a stone, and let it drop, “either real or a fake is a very Western piece of logic.”
He moved on.
“Do you know what the Jains say, Pramod? Seven varieties of truth exist. Seven. One, this younger brother might in fact be the real thing. Two, he might be a fake. Three, the boy might simultaneously be the real thing and a fake. Four, he might exist in some state beyond reality and fraudulence that we humans cannot hope to comprehend. Five, he might in fact be the real thing and yet exist in a state beyond our poor human capacity to comprehend. Six—”
“Tommy Sir. Please. I know what I felt in my heart when that boy was batting. I know.”
“My dear Pramod. Hockey is India’s national game, chess best suits our body type, and football is the future.”
Two old stumps lay in their path. Tommy Sir picked up one and Sawant pretended to pick up the other.
“Football has been the future for fifty years, Tommy Sir. Nothing will replace cricket.”
The two men walked the rest of the circle in silence, and then Tommy Sir, holding the stump against his chest, started a third tour of the ground.
He spoke at last.
“Pramod, the great George Bernard Shaw said: They haven’t spoken English in America in decades. And I say about Indians: We haven’t played cricket in decades. At least since 1978. Go home now. I am very tired, I want to hike near Mahabaleshwar this weekend. I dream of mountains, Pramod.”
Sawant, fighting for breath, could see only one piece of uncollected rubbish: a white glove lying in the very center of the ground. Clenching his fists, he raced Tommy Sir to the glove and picked it up first.
“A bit of Sandeep Patil meets a bit of Ricky Ponting. You should have seen the boy today.”
“Are you deaf?” Tense muscles extended Tommy Sir’s high forehead. “In 1978, Sunny Gavaskar lost the ability to leave the ball outside the off stump, and since then we’ve been playing baseball and calling it cricket. Go home.”
He snatched the glove from Sawant.
Walking to a corner of the ground, he let the rubbish spill from his hands; in the morning, the peon would move all of it into the storeroom.
As Sawant watched, Tommy Sir got into an autorickshaw, which began to move. Then, as if in a silent movie, the auto stopped, and a man’s palm shot out and beckoned.
Loaded now with both men, the auto left the Bandra Kurla Complex for the highway, and then turned into Kalanagar, where it stopped outside a mildew-stained housing society.
Suffering Sawant to pay the driver, Tommy Sir got out of the autorickshaw; he looked up at the fourth floor of the building to see if his daughter, Lata, had left the lights on in the kitchen despite his telling her, for twenty-two years, that this was against every principle of Home Science, a wonderful subject which they once used to teach young women in every college in this country.
Tommy Sir pointed at the sky over his housing society: The full moon was balanced on a water tank.
“Pramod. On a night like this, you know the young people in Bandra just go crazy. Out in the Bandstand, those boys and girls walk all the way out onto the rocks, sit down, start kissing. They forget that the ocean exists. Slowly the tide comes in. Higher and higher.” The old man raised his fingers to his collarbones. “All at once, the young people stop kissing, because they find themselves sitting in the middle of the ocean, and they start screaming for their lives.”
“Pramod, what is the younger one’s name? Manju?”
“I knew you’d agree, Tommy Sir. You believe in the future of this country. I’ll tell the visionary. I mean the other visionary.”
“Pramod Sawant: Now listen to me. One, this visionary of yours is probably just a bootlegger. Second, I like Radha Kumar, but I don’t like his father. The Chutney Raja is mad. I met him six months ago, remember? Now I have to deal with him twice over?”
“That’s the only negative point, I agree. The father is mad.”
Tommy Sir blamed the full moon over the water tank for what he said next.
“How much Sandeep Patil?”
For nearly forty years now, a tall, gray-haired man with small eyes had been seen at maidans, school compounds, gymkhanas, members-only clubs, and any other place where boys in white uniforms had gathered. All through the cricket season, either at the Bombay Gymkhana, or at Shivaji Park, or at the Oval Maidan, Tommy Sir would be watching (hands on hips, brows corrugated) and yelling: “Greatshot!” “Bow-ling!” “Duffer!” When he was angry, his jaw shifted. A boy scores a century in the sun, comes back to the school tent expecting an attaboy from the great Tommy Sir, but instead a thick hand smacks the back of his head: “What’s wrong with a double century?” He had broken many a young cricketer’s heart with a sentence or two: “Not good enough for this game, son. Try hockey instead.” Blunt. Tommy Sir was given to the truth as some men are to drink. Once or twice in the season he would take a batsman, after a long and productive innings, to the sugarcane stand; on such occasions, the boys stood together and watched with open mouths: Mogambo Khush Hua. Tommy Sir is pleased.
Not his real name, obviously. Because Narayanrao Sadashivrao Kulkarni was too long, his friends called him Tommy; and because that was too short, his protégés called him Tommy Sir. Like a Labrador that had been knighted by Her Majesty Queen of England. Ridiculous.
He hated the name.
Naturally, it stuck.
On the day before his marriage in July 1974, he told his wife-to-be, who had arrived by overnight train from a village near Nashik, six salient points about himself. One, this is my salary statement. Read it and understand I am not a man meant to be rich in life. Two, I don’t believe in God. Three, I don’t watch movies, whether Hindi, Hollywood, or Marathi. Four, likewise for live theatrical productions. Five, every Sunday when Ranji, Harris, Giles, Vijay Merchant, Kanga, or any type of cricket is being played in the city of Bombay, I will not be at home from breakfast to dinner. Six, one weekend a year I go to the Western Ghats near Pune and I have to be absolutely alone that weekend, and six point two, because seven points are too many for any woman to remember, before I die, I want to discover a new Vivian Richards, Hanif Mohammad, or Don Bradman. Think about these six points and marry me tomorrow if you want. Afterward don’t regret: I won’t give divorce.
Educated man, literary man, man of many allusions: His column on the traditions of Mumbai cricket was syndicated in sixteen newspapers around India. Artistic man, cultured man, self-taught painter: His watercolor interpretations of black-and-white photos of classic test matches had been exhibited to universal acclaim at the Jehangir Art Gallery a few years ago. Said to be working in secret on a history of the Maratha army in the eighteenth century. Possibly the best talent scout ever seen in India? Thirteen of his discoveries had made the city’s Ranji Trophy team, including “Speed Demon” T. O. Shenoy, bowler of the fastest ball in the city’s history; plus, during a six-month stint in Chennai in the 1990s, he had uncovered two genuine rubies in the South Indian mud who went on to scintillate for Tamil Nadu cricket. On his desktop computer were testimonials from nine current, six retired, and two semi-retired Ranji Trophy players; also signed letters of appreciation from the cricket boards of seventeen nations.
And all these people, whether in Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, or anywhere else, know the same thing Head Coach Pramod Sawant knows: Somewhere out there is the new Sachin Tendulkar, the new Don Bradman, the one boy he has still not found in thirty-nine years—and Tommy Sir wants that boy more than he wants a glass of water on a hot day.
There—opposite Victoria Terminus. Disappearing.
Manjunath Kumar ran down the steps toward a tunnel, the black handle of a cricket bat jutting like an abbreviated kendo stick from the kitbag on his left shoulder. Three more steps before he reached the tunnel. Fact Stranger than Fiction: Place a glass of boiling water in your freezer next to a glass of lukewarm water. The glass of boiling water turns into ice before the lukewarm water. How does one explain this paradox? The eyes bulged in his dark face, suggesting independence and defiance, but the chin was small and pointy, as if made to please the viewer; a first pimple had erupted on his cheek; and the prominent stitching on the side of his red cricket kitbag stated: “Property M.K.—s/o Mr. Mohan Kumar, Dahisar.” In his pocket he had fifteen rupees, the exact amount required to buy peanuts and bottled water after the cricket, and a folded page of newspaper. Fact Stranger than Fiction: Place a glass of boiling water in your freezer . . . The smelly, cacophonic tunnel was filled, even on a Sunday morning, with humanity, hunting in the raw fluorescent light for sports shoes, colorful shirts, and things that could entertain children. Fact Stranger than . . . Manju worked his way through the crowd. Mechanical toys attempted somersaults over his shoes. To catch his attention, two men stood side by side and slapped green tennis rackets against tinfoil, setting off sparks. Electronic mosquito killers. Only fifty rupees for you, son. How does one explain this paradox . . . Only forty rupees for you, son. In the distance, Manju saw the flight of steps leading up to Victoria Terminus. One half of the steps lay in twilight. There must be a lunette over the entrance of the tunnel, clouded over with one hundred years of Bombay grime. Thirty rupees is as low as I’ll go, even for you, son.
But the upper half of the steps glittered like Christmas tinsel.
Emerging from the tunnel, and about to cross the road to Azad Maidan, he stopped. Manju had spotted him—the boy whom he saw every Sunday, but who wore a different face each time.
The average cricketer.
Today, it was that fellow staring at the footpath as he dragged his bag behind him. Wearing a green cap and stained white clothes. Fourteen years old or so. Talking to himself.
“. . . missed. Missed by this much. But the umpire . . . blind. And mad, too . . .”
From his side of the road, Manjunath grinned.
Hello, average cricketer.
This was the wreckage of the first match at Azad Maidan—this fellow who was half a foot shorter than he had been at 7 a.m., who was blinking and arguing with the air, cursing the umpire and the bowler and his captain and their captain, and growing shorter every minute, because he knew in his heart that he had never been meant for greatness in cricket.
Hauling his kitbag off his shoulders and lowering it to the pavement, Manju unzipped the bag and extracted his new bat: He held the black handle in both hands, and gripped tight.
The average cricketer removed his green cap and raised his head, and the eyes of the two boys met.
Manjunath Kumar showed him how to drive through the covers. He showed him how to attack, defend, and master the red cricket ball.
After which, like W. G. Grace, he stood with his weight on the bat handle. And then stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyeballs.
Across the road, the green cap fell onto the pavement.
Good-bye to you, Prince Manju waved to the average cricketer, and good-bye—Prince Manju turned to his left, then to his right—to all average things.
I am the second-best batsman in the whole world.
“Stop right there. We were talking about you last night. I said, stop.”
The silhouettes of the Municipal Building and the spiked dome of the Victoria Terminus struggled against the morning smog, and the air in between them was scored by cable wires. Blue smoke rose from the garbage burning in a corner.
Between the buildings and the burning garbage stood a fat man, trying to catch Manjunath like a football goalie.
“Come back, boy. Come back at once.”
With a grin, Manjunath surrendered, and walked back to where Head Coach Sawant stood.
“Did you hear what I was saying? I said, we were talking about you last night. ‘We’ means two people. So, who was the other man talking about your future? Ask me.”
Instead of which, Manju, drawing a hand from his cricket bag, showed the coach something.
“What is this?” Sawant asked, as the boy handed him a disturbingly large page of the Sunday newspaper.
“Please, sir. What is the answer?”
Sawant took the paradox in both hands. His brain struggled with high school physics and his lips with Newspaper English.
. . . place a glass of boiling water in . . .
“I have no idea, Manju. No idea at all. Take it back. Manju,” the coach said, “why have you brought this to cricket? Is there no one at home you can show this to? What about your—”
“My mother is away on a long holiday, sir.”
As Manju folded his precious piece of newspaper and tucked it into his cricket kitbag, Sawant studied him from head to toe, like a man wondering if he has made a bad decision.
“Tommy Sir was the other man talking about you. You know what it means if he takes an interest in a boy.”
But Manju had flown.
“Hey, Manjuboy! Come over here!”
Twenty other young cricketers stood around a red stone-roller with “Tiger” written twice on it. They had been waiting for him.
“Chutneyboy! Look at the chutneyboy come running.”
“Chutneyboy who wants to be a Young Lion. Come here!”
It was a court-martial: A boy was holding up one of those new phones that were also tiny television sets, and Manju was told to stand on the stone-roller, while the circle tightened around him.
As Manju rose above the circle of white, Sawant, hands on his hips, walked around the stone-roller for a better view.
The boys were making Manju watch as a woman reporter aimed a mike at a tall teenager, handsome enough in every other way, too, but whose eyes, cool gray clouds, were like a snow leopard’s.
“Chutney Raja! That’s what they call your father, Manju. Chutney Raja!”
“You heard them on TV. My big brother is a Young Lion.”
“Chutney Raja SubJunior! All you’re good for is your science textbooks. What do you know about batting?”
“Thomas, today I’ll hit you for three fours one after the other. Then I’ll hit you for three sixes. What did you say about my father?”
“He’s a Chutney Raja.”
“And what is your father, then?”
“Your brother is Chutney Raja Junior. That makes you—”
“Join us in the quest to find the next generation of sporting legends!”
You can see from these images that Radha Krishna Kumar has grown up in what some would consider less than ideal conditions, at the very edge of Mumbai. His father is a variety-chutney salesman, whose main business is his sons. In his own words:
“We have a family secret which makes us superior to every other cricketing family in the city of Mumbai. There is a secret blessing given to my son Radha by the Lord Subramanya, who is our family deity . . .”
(Secret from God? Shit. Your father really is mad.)
(Ashwin. I heard that. Two fours!)
“Mr. Mohan: Is it really true that your son got Sachin Tendulkar out in a practice match or is that just a story?”
“There is a saying in our language: he who steals a peanut is a thief. He who steals an elephant is also a thief. This means we do not lie in matters big or small. Radha Krishna clean bowled Sachin Tendulkar with his fourth ball.”
(This is true! This really happened!)
(Shut up, Chutney Raja SubJunior! And why is your brother called Radha? Isn’t that a girl’s name?)
Radha Kumar has the status of a superstar in his neighborhood. We spoke to his neighbor, Mr. Ramnath, seen here in front of his ironing stand.
“Dahisar was famous, they used to shoot films here before the river became dirty. The moment I saw Radha, when his father brought him here over ten years ago, I told my wife, this boy will make Dahisar famous again.”
MONDAY 6:30 PM REPEATED ON WEDNESDAY
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Enough! Flailing his arms, Manju scattered his tormentors from the stone-roller: time for real cricket, at last.
“. . . SubJunior! Get ready to bat!”
“O Champion of Champions!”
A drumbeat had begun at the far end of the maidan. Padded up, helmeted, and swinging his bat in circles over his head, Manju walked up to the crease.
At noon, he was still batting. Manju Kumar had kept his word to the bowlers, punishing each one of them in a different way for what they had said about his father (and about his brother having a girl’s name), lofting Thomas over mid-wicket, driving Ashwin twice through the covers, and cutting, pulling, and flicking the others.
Pramod Sawant stood, arms folded across his chest, and watched Manju: passing over the boy’s dark, eye-heavy face, pointy chin, and solitary pimple, and then over his shoulders and biceps, to settle on the crucial part of a batsman’s body. In Australia they bat with their footwork. In India we do it with our wrists. Manjunath Kumar’s forearms in action made his coach’s mouth water. Dark and defined cunning, those forearms were broader than the biceps; they were a twenty-five-year-old man’s forearms grafted onto the body of a four-foot ten-inch child; they were forearms which, as they petted, coaxed, and occasionally bludgeoned the hard red ball to the boundary, made Head Coach Sawant remember, with a shiver, the muscular man in black shorts who had come to his village with the traveling circus three decades ago.
There—shirtless, on the floor of a 320-square-foot box of brick. Home. Manjunath was back in the one-room brick shed, divided by a green curtain, where he had lived since his father brought him and his brother to Mumbai, nine years ago. Pressing his palms against his cheeks, the boy went over the newspaper once again:
One theory relies on the “Lake Effect,” which is seen in the cold countries of northern America . . .
His cricket gear lay around him, and he was stripped to his waist.
Manju saw shadows moving in the blade of light beneath the closed metal door of his home. His father was outside, answering the neighbors’ questions. When is Radha Krishna coming back? Does he think he is too big now to talk to his own neighbors?
On the table there was dinner made by his aunt (or possibly great-aunt) Sharadha. The world was in order, except for one scientific paradox.
A quick crust of ice forms over the lake, keeping the water underneath it liquid all through winter. Similarly, when lukewarm water freezes, a thin crust forms on top. In a glass of boiling water, in contrast, evaporating steam stops the . . .
A clattering noise made him look up: A vermin cavalry went galloping over the corrugated tin roof. Rats, rushing toward the flour mill in the center of the slum. Manju turned on the television, and increased the volume.
Reaching far behind the television set, he picked up an instant-noodle cup filled with dark mud in which two horse gram beans, planted forty-eight hours ago, had sprouted. New life, fathered by Master Manjunath. He looked at the tender shoots paternally, spilled big drops of water from a glass into the pot, and then returned the life-bearing cup to its hiding place behind the TV.
The final image of the day’s episode flashed on television: the cadaver of an American man lying naked on a green dissecting table under a cone of hard white light, before the screen went black and the credits rolled.
Manju looked down at his own body: That thing had started again—he was hard. It was happening all the time now, sometimes even when his father or brother were in the same room. He lay down and pressed himself against the floor.
He wondered what color his cock had become under the pressure of his own body: and then he felt that it was liquefying under the weight, and spreading, an icy liquid, all around him.
Now he found himself on a frozen lake. He was not alone here. Beamed from the CSI inspection table, the foreigner’s cadaver now lay in the middle of the lake.
Promoted to the elite squad of CSI Las Vegas, Agent Manjunath Kumar-Grissom crawls, scraping the surface of the ice with his right toenail, inching nearer and nearer to the naked dead body that he must retrieve; but when he is almost there, click, crack, the surface of the lake starts to break under him.
Whistles and cheers explode all around—Ra-dha! Ra-dha!—for a Young Lion has just returned to the slum, but Manju, who must now go out and smile for the neighbors, is still on the floor, trying to crush his hard-on.
An egret flew in from the river and watched the boy, who lay above a well, watching a turtle.
It was an open well, the kind that still exists in a suburb like Dahisar, raised three inches from the ground and covered by a rusty iron grille: and as he lay facedown on it Manju watched something beneath the water’s skin.
His legs made a V on the checkerwork of the grid, which creaked as he shifted his weight. Through its interstices, he shone a pen-torch down on the black water.
He lanced his beam of light around the well. There! Splashing out of the black water, it came curiously to the light, a dark and domed creature, its limbs paddling fast.
Manju turned his pen-torch off, and put his face to the cold grille. His heart beat hard against his rib cage, which beat in turn against the metal of the grid. In a few hours he would have his chemistry class. He knew a surprise test was coming.
Which of the following is used to make bleach?
B. Hydrochloric Acid
C. Sodium Phosphate
Please, please, help me: O God of Cricket and also of Chemistry.
From the depths of the well, a cool draft tickled his cheek; the boy’s imagination transformed it into a breath from a range of blue mountains. He felt his hair blowing in the breeze: the mountain air of the Western Ghats.
Each summer, the family went back to their village. Taking the train from Mumbai to Mangalore, they then got on a bus that carried them over the hills and toward the shrine of the God of Cricket, their family deity, Kukke Subramanya; past trees with red leaves, and little streams that skipped a heartbeat when a schoolboy leaped into them, past waterfalls shrouded in waterfalls, until they reached a temple hidden deep inside the Western Ghats, where, leaving the bus and standing in line for hours, moving past burning camphor and sharp temple bells, past a nine-headed painted snake, the protector Vasuki, they finally came to the silver door frames, beyond which, lit by oil lamps, waited the thousand-year-old God of Cricket, Subramanya.
“Remind Him, my sons. We can’t offer Him much money. So remind Him, monkeys.”
“One of us should become the best batsman in the world, and the other the second best.”
Mohan Kumar had his own way of reminding God. As he did each year, he rolled bare chested over the hard granite floor of the temple, rolled from one side of the wall to the other, and then back again, until his torso was lacerated, and the secret contract was renewed in his blood.
“Are you licking yourself again?”
“No,” Manju said. “Just watching.”
And now Radha lowered himself beside Manju, and there were two bodies lying on the old metal grid over the well.
“Let’s go. He must have woken by now,” Radha said.
Manju pointed the pen-torch to a spot below them.
“It’s that turtle again. She’s the mother.”
“Maybe. Let’s go home. He may hit you again if he’s in a bad mood, Manju.”
“It is the mother. I’m not going till you agree that it is the mother.”
“I can’t see it from here, Manju.”
“I’m showing you, I’m showing you.”
Radha, the Young Lion, was square-jawed, tall, and muscular, and was sometimes mistaken for Manju’s uncle, though there was just a year and a month between them. He strained to see through the grating to where his younger brother was directing the pen-torch beam.
“See. The mother. Do you agree? Then we can go.”
“Wait, Manju. Point the light over there. I think there’s one more.”
The pen-torch moved: A second turtle was discovered. It raised its head toward its two human observers. How fascinating, it seemed to be saying, to see the turtles that live in that bigger darkness up there. Done, it lost interest in the boys and sank back into the water.
“Do you agree? That’s the mother. Then we can go.”
Manjunath Kumar pressed against his brother’s body; the warmth sharpened his senses.
Suddenly a new turtle came into view: its body angled toward the light, jaw wide open, a rim of gold glistening around its shell.
“Manju, you’re wrong. That’s the mother. It’s bigger.”
“I’ve hidden it behind the TV,” Manju whispered.
“My biology experiment. I want full marks in class this time.”
Two months ago, his model fighter jet plane, a project for his physics class, left on the dining table, had mysteriously vanished after he had put four days of work into it.
“He’s going to find it anyway, and then he’ll throw it out, Manju. Come. We have to go. He’s woken up by now.”
“I want to watch the turtle.”
“Manju, it’s not that morning.”
“I want to watch the turtle.”
“Manju, it’s not a checkup morning,” his brother said. “Don’t be afraid.” Radha poked his brother in the ribs. “And if you don’t come now, I’ll show him where you’ve hidden your science experiment.”
The brothers looked at each other for a moment: then both bodies sprang from the well and ran.
Their father had already folded up their cots and propped them against the wall, forming two isosceles triangles; his own cot was on the other side of the green curtain. Next to the dining table stood a metal almirah, which complained of its years of ill treatment in a rash of rusty patches and livid scars; leaning on three of its sides were seven cricket bats.
Old Sharadha, relative of some kind, aunt or great-aunt, polyglot remonstrator in Kannada, Hindi, and English, the only woman to have entered their home for a decade, perhaps longer (neither boy can remember exactly when She left), was cleaning the stove and last night’s dishes.
Standing before the mirror on his side of the green curtain, Mohan Kumar was painting his mustache, a grooming procedure that could take a quarter of an hour. He turned around with his dye brush and looked at his sons.
“Were you looking at girls again? Naked girls bathing in the morning?”
“No, Appa. We were looking at turtles.”
“Boys,” Mohan Kumar said, closing his eyes and restraining his anger. “If you are looking at naked girls, half-naked bathing girls, tell me. I will not punish. But don’t lie. What were you two looking at?”
Emerging with a pitch-black mustache, Mohan called his second son to him, held his chin, and turned his face from side to side.
“There’s blood in your cheeks, Manju. That comes from hormones. You were looking at girls, weren’t you?”
When Mohan Kumar raised his hand, his palm rotated ninety degrees to the left and vibrated, like a man having a fit just as he was saluting; Manju cringed and readied himself; the blow fell on the right side of his face.
In ten minutes, the boys were in school uniform and had packed their cricket bags: They stood at attention while Mohan slid his fingers into the bags to check their contents.
And then, closing the door of their home behind them, the family Kumar left for cricket practice.
When they passed the tire-repair place with the sign saying PUNCHER SHOP, Manju stopped, and shouted, “Wrong, that’s wrong!”
“Quiet,” Radha said.
But when he looked at his father, Manju knew that he wanted him to continue: He was proud of his son, smarter than everyone else his age in the slum.
“Do You Want Pan Card!” Manju raised his voice. “Pumpkin Carrot Banana Shapes Fruit and Vegetable Salad Decorators! Pandal, Marriage, Birthday Experts! Everything in English is written the wrong way and I alone know!”
But Manjunath Kumar, world’s second-best batsman, knew something much more important than how to spell English correctly: Manju knew how to read other people’s minds. It had come to him like one of those special things that some children can do; like being able to move your ears without touching them or curling your tongue up as if it were a dried leaf or flexing your thumb all the way back. If he let himself be still, Manju could tell what other people wanted from him. And he could complete their sentences for them.
He knew that this secret gift, this mind-reading power, had come to him from his mother. Her long, elegant nose; her ravishing smile; her way of looking at him sideways—he remembered all this about his mother. This, too: her sitting on a sofa, fixing her beautiful smile on her visitors, all the time rubbing the silver coin embossed with the image of Lord Subramanya that hung from her marriage necklace as if it were an amulet that read minds for her. She could always say what her guests wanted to hear, and she pampered them with flattery after flattery, till they left her with their egos refreshed and glowing, as if they had just stepped out of a hammam; and then one day, she read his father’s mind and vanished. That is what saved her from being killed by Mohan Kumar. Manju was sure of it. That is why their mother had never come back to see Radha or him, even though she must have heard they were famous. She was so scared of her husband, she had forgotten her sons.
Right now, reading his father’s mind, knowing what he had to do to give him satisfaction and pleasure, Manjunath kept shouting in English, while Radha (who did not have his brother’s secret gift) protested:
“Didn’t you hear him? Shut up, Manju.”
Manju did shut up: but only because of the grinding noise and a cloud of particulated flour produced by the wheat mill. It was a tyrant of blue pipes and funnels, the most famous object in the slum, which brought even people from good buildings to Shastri Nagar every morning. The noise and choking white dust temporarily pacified the youngest Kumar, but then he began again:
“Internet Gaming Cyber Mahesh Cafe!”
“Manju, shut up, I told you. I know English too, but I’m not showing off.”
Following their father, the boys had passed the shuttered shops of their slum, and through a cardboard WELCOME TO OUR HOME arch. The gift of a political party was painted blue and covered by the beaming, disembodied faces of city, statewide, and national leaders, at least two of whom were serving jail sentences, a fact which only heightened the impression that they were so many medieval criminals whose grinning heads had been hoisted up above a city gate. An observer from a distance, however, might well judge that the faces on the blue arch were so many genies gathered there to perform friendly magic: for the family Kumar now appeared to be walking on water.
The slum had grown at the very edge of Mumbai’s municipal limits. For most of the year, the Dahisar River was a rock-filled sewer, lit up by egrets and the flutter of a paddy bird returning to its nest of twigs. A series of bricks, spaced two feet apart in the water, formed a makeshift bridge: Their father had hoisted his cycle over his head, and the boys followed him step by step, as they crossed over the river and into the rest of Mumbai.
At the station—get in, get in—Mohan pushed the slow cricketers and their bags into the fast train. Hurry, hurry. Miss this train and there won’t be space on the next one. It’ll be rush hour. Yes, I know there’s an empty seat, but you can’t sit down, Manju. All three of us will stand. I don’t want anyone sleeping in the train and yawning during practice.
A thin, tall, gap-toothed child went about the first-class carriage, offering or threatening to polish shoes for five rupees each. Mohan Kumar’s shoes were polished for free. As he worked, the gap-toothed child looked up at the father of cricketers.
“Young Lions? Young Lions. Young Lions? Young Lions. Young Lions?”
“I sell unique chutneys,” Mohan told one passenger after the other. “Twenty-four chutneys, for each hour of the day. You like mint? We have mint. Garlic? We have extra garlic. Chilli, hot chilli, green chilli, sweet chilli, mango, rainbow, one hundred percent vegetarian.”
Manju leaned his face to his brother’s shirt and dozed against his body.
At Bandra, the family Kumar got off and walked along the pedestrian bridge, a grid of inverted Vs that zigged and zagged, yellow and metallic, over the swamps and green vacant fields of east Bandra. The sun burned, the wet earth reflected, and the two brothers knew they had to run. Down the yellow bridge, in the direction of the Kalanagar traffic signal. Radha surged. Yee-haah. Manju wanted to touch his brother—I’ve caught you, I’ve . . . But to his right (he surrendered a yard to his brother) he saw fields of water lilies, and right beside them newly rutted mud roads on which men fought to move their motorbikes. He caught up with Radha and they ran past security guards playing with their lathis, and a cluster of Muslim youth with their feet dangling down the bridge. Because their father was now invisible behind them, Radha turned to his brother and—
At once both of them skidded to a halt.
“Spotty Neck Sofia.”
Putting his hands on his hips, Manju turned his lower lip inside out; while Radha, just a year older but so much wiser, smiled.
“Everyone saw Young Lions on TV.” He touched his brother on the shoulder. “You’re the brother of a Young Lion. Which girl in school do you like?”
By way of reply, Manju said, “Shut up,” because their father was coming up behind them.
The three walked down from the bridge and went into the suburb of Kalanagar.
An armored car painted in camouflage drove past them; they had reached the Matoshree compound, home to the most important man in Mumbai. Surrounded by sandbags, a machine-gun unit guarded the home of Bal Thackeray, permanent boss of the city. They passed the guns, and roadside canteens serving hot breakfast, and then the Kumars stood before the Middle Income Group (MIG) Cricket Club.
Making his sons wait by the gate, Mohan Kumar negotiated with the security guard:
“We were on the TV. Young Lions. We’re here to see . . .”
“Tommy Sir doesn’t come until ten o’clock.”
“He told us nine o’clock. We came all the way for him. My boys shouldn’t miss a day’s cricket practice.”
“Can’t practice here,” the guard said. “Down the road.”
Where they found a rubbish dump, and a patch of ragged green beyond it.
Radha and his father took the ragged green. Manju strapped on his pads near the rubbish, one eye on the big holes in the ground. Rat holes. Tightening his calf muscle, Manju raised his right foot on a low brick wall to double check that his pads were fastened. Going down on his haunches, Manju now launched himself over the rat holes. Master Kumar, Rat Tamer, jumped up and down; underground, rodents shivered. While doing his jumps, Manju turned himself 180 degrees, to see his father lecturing Radha.
“The bat is touching your toes, Radha. You won’t be able to drive cleanly.”
Manju saw the irritation on his brother’s face.
But the Man had to be obeyed, and Radha readjusted his stance. From a distance, Manju gripped his bat and waited. Radha Kumar attacked; Manjunath Kumar imitated.
The ball had flown from Radha’s bat to a distant corner of the wasteland, and Manju took off, until his father announced: “He who hit it will retrieve it. That is the rule.”
So Radha raised his bat, sucked his teeth, and ran after the ball.
Radha Krishna Kumar meant to honor his end of his father’s contract with God. Two years ago, God sent his living viceroy, Sachin Tendulkar, to meet Radha at a practice match at the MCA grounds: Sachin stood at the wicket, and Radha was tossed the ball by Tommy Sir. The boy, who had let his hair grow long, like Sachin’s, and had watched Sachin’s videos, especially Perth 1992 and Sydney 2004, at least 120 times each, spun the ball right past Sachin’s forward defensive stroke and into his stumps. “Well done, sir,” God’s viceroy said, and, as everyone clapped, made Radha the gift of his own batting gloves.
At the age of fourteen and a half, Radha was now conscious that his father’s rules, which had framed the world around him since he could remember, were prison bars. He saw the red cricket ball inside a thicket of wild grass and thorns. Getting down on his knees, he put his hand into the thorns.
Why must a boy not shave till he’s twenty-one?
Because the cut of a razor makes hormones run faster in his blood.
And why must a boy not drive a car till his father allows him to?
Because indiscipline will destroy anything, even a secret contract with God.
Drenched in sweat and his father’s mad theories, Radha seized the ball and threw it back at Mohan, who had already started stepping back to catch it. Radha admired the method, the textbook correctness of his father’s pose. Before teaching his boys, Mohan Kumar had taught himself the science of cricket. But when the ball landed in his palms, it hit the flesh and bounced out, and Radha smiled, and became a year older.
“I told you not to come! He hates fathers!”
Radha and Manju saw Pramod Sawant, their head school coach, half walking and half running toward them, pumping his arms.
Mohan Kumar summoned his boys to his side and put his arms on their shoulders, as if posing for a group photo.
“They’re my children, I made them,” he shouted back, “and neither you nor your Tommy Sir is going to steal them from me.”
Coach Sawant clacked his tongue.
“Steal them? This boy loves you, Mohan. If anyone says a bad word about his father, Manju will murder them. But for their sake, you must leave now. Tommy Sir’s plan is visionary.”
Mohan Kumar pulled both his restless sons into his body.
“Why must I leave? My sons always play better when I am watching them. I’ve never heard of a cricket scout who doesn’t like fathers.”
But Coach Sawant reached over and squeezed Mohan Kumar’s right shoulder.
“Do it for your sons, Mohan . . .”
After a moment, Kumar let go of Radha. Part of any Bombay school coach’s job is to declaw the parent and gently prise from his grip the boys who will contribute to the greater glory of Bombay cricket. Sawant smiled, pointed at Manju, and made ingratiating contractions with his eyes.
“. . . both your sons, Mohan. And you must go now.”
More of Mohan Kumar’s rules for his sons
Same as Life Rules. Keep your head absolutely still. Play straight. Do not loft or hit across the line before the time is right. Hoard. Hoard runs on top of hoarded runs.
No Chinese, noodles, potatoes, fried or otherwise, or junk food. No oil, no ghee, no sugar. Green, bright vegetables, rich in antioxidants. If I ever catch you, Radha, eating dosa at that dirty stall near your school, I’ll wake-your-skin-up.
Learn your proverbs, boys. For instance: “A thousand maggots in the cow-dung patty, but they’re all dead by sunset.” Interpretation? Whatever your worries, they’re gone by six o’clock. That’s not a very true proverb, by the way. Here’s one more: “On its way into town, the king’s white horse turned into a donkey.” Think about the meaning of that, my boys. If both of you fail in cricket, boys, the three of us will have to sit outside Dahisar station and beg for our food. But if you really want to understand the life that waits for you as adults, this is the only proverb you need: “Big thief walks free. Small thief gets caught.”
How to Talk about Your Father with Strangers
There is a chutney mafia in this city, run by men called Shetty: and they are determined to crush your father’s life. Do not discuss any aspect of his past, or what happened to your mother, with anyone.
Twilight was her favorite hour.
Manju remembered coming home screaming Amma! Amma! only to find their hut empty because his mother was outside, in the strange light, walking in circles by herself. Thinking by herself. Planning something by herself. Perhaps planning to leave him and his brother and run away. Manju breathed slowly. Brilliant sunlight all around—but he was sitting next to his brother, and shaded and protected by Radha Krishna’s bulk, he was free to dream. He kept his eyelids half closed, until Radha said: “Manju, this is all bullshit. Total bullshit.”
Manju opened his eyes wide, looked around, and nodded, before he knew what his brother was talking about.
“That man is never going to give us any money, Manju. It’s a waste of time. Let’s go. What do you say, scientist?”
Forty minutes had passed since Head Coach Pramod Sawant had brought them over to the club, so that they could be shown to the “visionary.” Who was apparently the man in the red T-shirt, with the logo that said, Manchester United Gold Key Challenge Supporter.
A dozen boys from Ali Weinberg’s cricket team had been summoned to the MIG club, and were sitting in a circle on the lawn; and they watched Tommy Sir and the man in the red T-shirt describe languid circles around them. That was all the two men had done for three-quarters of an hour.
Leaning back to eavesdrop on the two men as they passed, Manju instead heard his brother’s voice say, “Scientist. You know what I’m thinking of right now? She’s got a spotty neck.”
Manju elbowed him away, but his brother kept whispering, “Spotty Neck, Spotty Neck.”
All at once, in both boredom and desire, Radha stood up and began dancing as he sang, Spotty Neck, Spotty Neck. Radha was the leader of this group of boys; one day he would be captain of their cricket team. The other cricketers joined him: “Spotty Neck, Spotty Neck, she’s got a spotty neck.” Tommy Sir and the rich man in the red T-shirt took no notice. The boys became louder and louder, as Radha swished his hands like a bandmaster before the swaying, singing cricketers.
Only one boy, Manju observed, was not obeying Radha.
While the other cricketers wore regulation school caps, this fellow had his own cap, monogrammed in gold thread with the initials “J.A.” He had small alert eyes, and a beautiful nose, hooked and swooped, which looked as if it had been made to order. Full black sleeves worn under his cricketer’s white T-shirt rendered his arms sleek, pantherlike; and he was rubbing them in alternation, as if getting ready.
The moment he smiled, sickle-shaped dimples would cut into his cheeks. Manju was sure he would see the dimples today, because the last time he and this Mister “J.A.” had been close together, the rich Muslim boy had not smiled. That was after their match with Anjuman-i-Islam. Dusty and sweaty, the cricketers had waited in a queue by the sugarcane stand, a reward from Coach Sawant for winning the match. Manju had stood right behind Javed. The Muslim boy’s neck, glossy with sweat, was shaved bright below the hairline. When seen from behind, his thick neck conveyed an impression of hidden strength as it expanded into his shoulders. The queue had moved in starts, and the sugarcane machine had made a tinkling noise as it crushed cane. Before drinking his juice, Javed had lifted his ice-cold glass to the sunlight in an exaggerated flourish that Manju thought might have been meant for his benefit; then, as Manju observed, the powerful throat pulsed and swallowed the juice in one continuous motion.
Now, from opposite points of the circle of white, their eyes met.
“Enough of this shit.”
Manju started, and then realized he had not said it. Javed Ansari, the Muslim with the majestic nose, had risen up to his feet, making his black-panther limbs even longer.
“Enough of this shit,” he repeated.
Radha Kumar stopped singing, took a step back, and sat down.
Now the fellow with the commanding nose was, in a very deep voice, chuckling.
U-ha. U-ha. U-ha.
Manju drew closer to his big brother. Radha was not doing much better. With an open mouth he saw the black-panther limbs come closer and closer to him and his brother.
Choosing a route between the Kumars on his way out, “J.A.” put a hand on Radha’s shoulder and nearly kicked Manju in the face as he raised one huge shoe after the other, and left the circle of passive white.
“Ansari!” Tommy Sir shouted. “Come back. You sit and wait with the others.”
But the boy had left the circle, and was not returning: He kept walking to a car, its door already opened for him by the driver. Slam. Engine on, car gone. He didn’t need any rich man’s sponsorship.
A magician came thirty years ago to a village in the Western Ghats with an elephant. Not an elephant that did normal work like moving logs with its trunk or pulling down trees, no. It had a secret power, the magician said. He left the creature in the village square and walked a hundred feet away from it—too far for it to hear him. People gathered around the magician. Young Mohan Kumar was one of them. “Whisper a command for the animal into my ear,” the sorcerer said, “any command.” Mohan Kumar went up to his ear and whispered: “Roll on the ground like a baby.” And then—without a word—the sorcerer just looked at his elephant, which got down on its knees and thrashed about the ground, kicking up dust everywhere. “Raise your trunk and roar three times.” Again, without a word, the magician forced his elephant to roar. Three times. Mohan watched with his mouth open. 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. Only recently, Ramnath, his neighbor in the slum, observing that poor Muslims were becoming revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria and kicking out their governments and presidents, had whispered: “Maybe the same thing will happen in India, eh?” Mohan Kumar had smirked. “Here, we can’t even see our chains.”
After being forced by Coach Sawant to leave his sons at the MIG Cricket Club, Mohan had returned to Dahisar, mounted his bicycle, tied two stainless-steel containers of chutneys to its side, and visited a Mysore Sweets, an Anand Bhuvan and a National Hindu Restaurant, before cycling down to Deepa, the restaurant-bar near the Dahisar train station. No one bought a thing from him. Heaving his bicycle over his head, he walked over the Dahisar River on the all-but-submerged bridge of bricks, then slammed the bike down and cycled through the cardboard WELCOME TO OUR HOME arch (shielding his eyes from the gaze of the grinning politicians), past the broken homes and little shops, until he got to his own, where the sight of his neighbor Ramnath pressing white shirts with a stupid industriousness was so unbearable that he went to a tea shop for relief.
He squatted by his bicycle and blew on the hot tea. He seethed. Tommy Sir thinks he can cut me out of my own sons’ future. I know what he is telling that visionary investor about me. He is calling me a chutney salesman. A thug. A peasant. An idiot.
When he got angry, Mohan Kumar’s right eyebrow rose up rakishly, which highlighted the comic element in his small and mustached face.
Looking at his glass of tea, he delivered the speech he wanted to give Tommy Sir (but had had to desist for the sake of his sons):
“Other parents pay tens of thousands of rupees for cricket coaches, but I, a penniless migrant to Mumbai, am the pro-gen-i-tor of pro-di-gies. Mr. Tommy Sir, I say these words slowly, why? So that even a man of your mental capacities may understand them. Here are two more words pronounced slowly for you. Amoxicillin. Azithromycin. Do you know what they are? Do you know how to prescribe them? I do. I have taught myself medicine and pharmacology. Mr. Tommy allegedly Sir: Where were you when my sons fell ill? Where were you when they needed someone to sit by their side and record their temperature every half hour? Mr. Tommy: When my Radha becomes famous and glorious, I’ll call the reporters to the MIG Cricket Club. To the very place where you humiliated me. And I’ll have my press conference right there.”
Even in tea, there is no peace today. The moment Mohan Kumar began sipping, the legless man had to make noise on his flute in a corner of the shop. This legless fellow performed every morning in the train station, and came here afterward. Holding up his glass of tea, Mohan Kumar looked at the flautist.
Brother. Have pity on me. Think how much I have suffered in life. Please stop.
The flour mill began its rumbling, giving off pungent fumes—it ground red chillies in the second shift, adding burning eyes to its customary noise pollution.
Mohan Kumar kept looking. The legless flautist kept playing.
Until the father of champions put his glass down, walked over, slapped the flute out of the man’s hand, and returned to his spot to pick up his glass, only to find that his phone was ringing.
It was the boys’ cricket coach, and he said: “It’s payday, Mohan. Congratulations.”
“But where is Coach Sawant?”
Three-quarters of an hour had passed, and Mohan Kumar, an aureole of sweat on his back, had pushed through the crowds around Bandra train station, and returned to Kalanagar, walking past Matoshree for the second time that day, to find a tall gray-haired man, whom he recognized from his one previous meeting nearly six months earlier as the man who hated all sporting fathers, Tommy Sir, waiting at the entrance of the MIG club, along with a stocky middle-aged man wearing a wonderful red T-shirt.
“Gone with the other boys to school,” said Tommy Sir, without smiling at Mohan Kumar.
“I’m Anand Mehta.” The man in the T-shirt, who smelled of cologne, stuck his hand out. “Just seen your boy bat. Very impressed.”
When he smelled the rich man’s hand, Mohan Kumar was overcome by shame. He almost cried.
“Forgive me,” he said, refusing to touch the perfumed flesh. “For my wet state, forgive me. For my lateness, forgive me.”
“No problem, mate,” the rich man said, slapping Mohan on his wet back. “My wife, Asha, says, if people sweat it means they’re honest. Can you read my T-shirt? Manchester United Gold Key Supporter. I have a cricket academy near Azad Maidan, did Tommy Sir tell you? Last year, I was happy to escort, at my own expense, seventy-six of the brightest young cricketing bodies in this country under the age of fifteen to Bowral, New South Wales, home of the one, the only, the eternal, the infinite, Sir Donald Bradman, where, in addition to a master class conducted in the Don’s own town, the boys also enjoyed a sumptuous meal of Aussie lamb wrapped in brown pita bread. Australia is the reality principle in cricket, Tommy Sir: otherwise we Indians would think we were good at this game. Am I right, or am I right? Come in, come in, let’s eat and do business.”
They sat in the cafeteria of the MIG club, and a waiter came for their order.
“Nothing for me,” Tommy Sir said.
“Order,” Anand Mehta retaliated. “Order samosas.”
Like many others of his class in Mumbai, Mehta gave an impression of dogged and uncerebral strength. A small square forehead, held tight by close-cropped hair, expanded into a powerful black brush mustache over a stone-crusher jaw; a white fold of fat at the back of his skull broadened down a thick neck into a wide chest and wider paunch whose width he exaggerated by letting his shirt hang loose. His fleshy palms had clearly done no hard work, and yet he seemed to sweat a lot. His English was international; he drew his phrases equally from the American, British, and Indian dialects, and had acquired the democratic Australian habit of calling everyone around him “mate.” Halfway through each sentence came a pause in which he stared at a corner of the ceiling with an open mouth, as if just then realizing what he had begun to say; and he had the child’s habit of raising his voice when he repeated himself.
“This man,” Tommy Sir, pointing a finger at the investor, “is a visionary. He wants to start the world’s first cricket sponsorship program, and of all the boys in Mumbai he has picked yours as his first candidates. You are a lucky man, Mohan Kumar.”
“No, sir,” the chutney salesman replied. “No, sir.”
“He is a lucky man.” He took a breath, and turned to the investor: “Mr. Anand, sir, I was not allowed to be present when my own sons were exhibited to you like goods at the market”—an angry glance at Tommy Sir—“so I could not present a full picture of their talents. Let me share with you the whole A–Z of Future Champion-Making. Now, sir—”
Everyone stopped talking. Like a gangster introducing a gun into the discussions, Mohan Kumar suddenly placed a white cotton handkerchief on the table. Within the handkerchief was something black and heavy; he unwrapped the white layers to reveal a very large cell phone, which he proceeded to squint at.
“Just checking if any customer has asked for a new batch of chutneys,” he said, rewrapping his phone in the handkerchief. “To keep germs away,” he explained.
“Excellent idea.” Anand Mehta grinned. “Does look a bit odd—but then who cares what they think? There is a wonderful European philosopher named Mister Nietzsche who said, the man who doesn’t care about what other men think becomes a superman. I congratulate you on shedding all inhibitions. Now, relaaaaaax. Don’t bore me with details. Has Tommy Sir told you the arrangement I am proposing?”
Mohan indicated with his head that, no, the arrangement and its details were not known to him. Since he was not allowed to be present when his sons were exhibited like buffalo at a weekly fair.
“Simple. I’ll give you a certain sum a month. You can pay all your son’s expenses using this certain sum. In return, I negotiate for him in the future with Adidas or Nike or whoever wants him when he joins the Indian Premier League. And I’ll take a certain interest, by which I mean a fair percentage, in his marketing revenues. Fair enough?”
“No, sir,” Mohan said, clearing his throat. “No. It is not fair in the least.” He joined his thumb and index finger in the manner of a maestro. “My sons are not sportsmen. They will grow into the Bhimsen Joshi and Ravi Shankar of cricket. Sir—”
Tommy Sir slapped his hand on the table. “You know where these two boys are from, Mr. Anand? Dahisar. From a slum. Hungry Lions.”
“Sir, let me finish.”
“Angry Lion, I think, was what the television people said,” Anand Mehta suggested. “The boy Radha has these very . . . film-star eyes. And long hair, like Sachin’s. Pepsi, Coke will love those eyes and hair. He will act in films one day, I say.”
Mohan Kumar found himself still sweating from his bicycling, which put him at a disadvantage in the negotiations.
“Sir: I will finish. Returning to the process by which I created two geniuses of willpower, sir, it must be noted that the first principle of my system is diet—”
Tommy Sir turned to Mohan Kumar and indicated, with “down, boy” motions of his palm, that it was time for silence.
The investor proposed terms.
“I am being asked, to invest, in a highly speculative manner, in a young person, whom we shall call Person X.”
Anand Mehta smiled at the cricket scout, and then drew a square with his fingers.
“Is there a guarantee that said Person X will get into the IPL team? Can you give me this”—he drew a smaller square inside the first—“guarantee?”
“Sir, a growing body, scientifically speaking, needs three things, known as the triangle of—”
“Shut up,” Tommy Sir told the father, “right now.” He turned to the investor. “Radha Kumar is the best batsman I’ve seen in ten, maybe fifteen years. And he has the right background. Because a middle-class boy can no longer make the Bombay team. You saw for yourself what that Javed Ansari did today. He has everything, money, background, pedigree, but he will never make the team. He comes to practice in an air-conditioned car, with nurse and driver. Can’t sit in the sun for five minutes. This boy, on the other hand, this Radha—”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me, Mr. Tommy.”
The investor drew that magic square again.
It was one of those moments when Tommy Sir realized his age: A decade ago, he would have got up and walked out at this point.
Having taken up painting many years ago as a way to calm himself when cricket-related tension grew unbearable, Tommy Sir now thought about his own watercolor copy of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, a reproduction which in some ways improved on the original, and which he had framed and hung in his living room so that its stimulation, direct or recollected, would regulate his heartbeat and lower his blood pressure at moments precisely like this one.
“If you want guarantees, play Carrom. And if you don’t want the boys,” Tommy Sir looked the investor in the eye, “we will go to Reliance and Nike and the big boys. Directly.”
“Relaaaaaaaax.” Anand Mehta smiled at the old scout. “I make an offer of . . . four thousand rupees a month. Four thousand. Done? Are we done?”
“Eight thousand,” Mohan Kumar said. “For one boy. And fifteen thousand for both.”
“Two?” The investor broke into an incredulous smile. “Two? I’ve done plenty of charity in my time, mate, but I did not come here to make a donation.”
“Two. Two is the opportunity.” Tommy Sir bunched his fingers together. “Two is the visionary aspect. Listen. Sport alone isn’t enough today. People want sport and a story. I know, because I am also a writer. Two brothers from the slums making it big. One of them looks like a film star. It’s a story.”
Anand Mehta rubbed his mustache.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “As I often ask my wife, Asha: What are Indians? To which I give the answer: Indians, my dear, are basically a sentimental race with high cholesterol levels. Now that its hunger for social realist melodrama is no longer satisfied by the Hindi cinema, the Indian public is turning to cricket. Brothers X and Y from the slums. Playing cricket for Bombay. I can see the potential. I once donated a lakh of rupees to a school in the slum near Cuffe Parade, back when I had just returned from New York. You know what the Mumbai Sun did? Called me a hero, and printed my photo. Page four. But Brother Y is too young. Voice hasn’t broken yet.”
“Manju is almost fourteen,” Tommy Sir said. “In this city we throw boys out of the women’s compartment of the train when they are seven, and tell them, go to the men’s compartment. Push and survive. In sport there is not always a difference between a boy and a man. What is cricket, anyway, Mr. Mehta? Game of chance. Take two, one may win.”
Anand Mehta looked at the ceiling so sadly.
“What is cricket?”
Meaning, no. He was not taking two boys.
He pointed at one man, and then at the other, and asked:
So the scout put his large palms on the table and got to the point.
“Doing well in Mumbai is nothing: being noticed while you do well is everything. There are competitions, shields, trophies, prizes I have to get these boys into. There’s a fine art to getting a boy selected in this city. No guarantee, but . . . if I support a boy, he is well supported.”
Anand Mehta did not smile.
“For all this work that I will do for the boys, I don’t want any money, Mr. Mehta. Not one rupee. But I have a simple question, Mr. Mehta: Tell me, what makes a great batsman great? Hard work? Sacrifice? Mother’s prayers? Each is necessary, yet all together are still insufficient. Even I don’t know. It is a shroud before my eyes. Believe me when I say I could be running a very profitable coaching academy for fat and rich mummy’s boys, instead of which I am out here day after day, in the field, in the sun, trying to solve this mystery of mysteries and find a great, I mean great batsman. The shroud must part, and that is the only reason I—”
Anand Mehta had other things to do with his life.
“I’ll compensate you a thousand a month for your time, Tommy Sir. Done deal?”
The scout looked away.
“Two thousand. Final offer.”
“Plus I want a T-shirt,” Tommy Sir said.
“T-shirt?” Anand Mehta frowned.
“Yes. Like the one you’re wearing. Manchester United Gold. For Lata, my daughter.”
Everyone shook hands with everyone else; they bought South Indian paans, rich with clove and pulverized sugar, and placed them on their tongues to close the deal; before the sugar had melted, Tommy Sir had disappeared.
At once, Mohan Kumar caught the rich man by his wrist and said: “Finally, I can open my mouth.”
Revenge is the capitalism of the poor: Conserve the original wound, defer immediate gratification, fatten the first insult with new insults, invest and reinvest spite, and keep waiting for the perfect moment to strike back. Because every mocking remark that Mohan Kumar had heard about his plan to produce champions had been stored away in his keen memory, he knew only one way of telling his sons he had secured their future for them:
“I’ve screwed a rich man, my boys,” he said, even though he had taken a liking to Anand Mehta. He clapped his hands. “A man in a red foreign T-shirt. I flipped him over and screwed him royally. Come and see.”
His boys gathered around; Mohan Kumar showed them a paper napkin from the MIG club, which was covered with writing in a blue ballpoint pen. A contract.
Until mountains fall and rivers dry this contract will be honored by Mohandas Kumar of Alur Taluka and Anand Mehta of Mumbai. One third of all future earnings of my two sons Master Radha Krishna and Master Manjunath will be the legal property of Shri Mehta, in return for his commitment to sponsorship. May God fill our mouths with worms if either breaks this contract.
“Isn’t it beautiful, boys? Words are magic, remember this: Words are magic. There is a man who comes to our village and with a spell and a secret poem he makes an elephant dance for him. Today, I made a rich Gujarati man dance for me. At first he said, No, no, I don’t want Manju, his voice hasn’t broken, but I said, You will take Manju, because I made two champions! Yes, he said, and he’s giving us five thousand rupees each month! But I wasn’t done. Made him sit down and bought him a samosa and told him about this flour mill and how it pollutes the air, until he said, Oh, terrible, how terrible, and then I said, There are rats and stupid neighbors, how can I raise champions here—so he gave us a loan, interest free, of fifty thousand rupees, so we can get out of this hole, boys! To a more ‘hygienic location.’ His words! Screwed him.”
Manju and Radha looked at the contract that guaranteed their future, and the older boy asked: “But where are we moving to? And when?”
Mohan Kumar rubbed his hands, and pointed one of his warmed palms at Radha: “Get ready for a checkup. Manju, stand outside. Stand at attention.”
Radha began removing his shirt. Manju closed the tin door behind him and stood outside with his arms pressed to his sides like a soldier at a drill. It was evening in the Shastri Nagar slum, and men were returning to their homes after work; their faces, dark from fatigue, glowed with the anticipation of seeing their children again. There are times when only a sick man knows how warm and bright the rest of the world is. Manju watched his neighbor, Ramnath, showing his daughter how to stack up a pile of fresh shirts and cover them in newspaper, so that they could be delivered in the morning.
He strained his ears: From inside the hut, his father’s voice rose.
“Are you thinking of shaving? I can see in your eyes that you are thinking of shaving.”
“A boy mustn’t shave until he’s . . .”
“Why must a boy not shave till he’s . . . ?”
“Which are not good for . . .”
Tap, tap, tap. On a coconut tree beside their hut, Manju saw a woodpecker hammering away. He thought at once of Mr. “J.A.” with his beak nose. Working with his beak—tap, tap, tap—the woodpecker raised his enormous profile, which looked like a tribal mask, and disappeared, only to reappear half a foot higher on the coconut stem—tap, tap, tap—before his dark face again vanished, to rematerialize another foot higher: as if he were ascending via masks. In school, Javed had invented a new “look” for himself these days by wearing his blue monogrammed cap backward, like an actor in an American film. Watching the woodpecker, and thinking of Javed, Manju smiled until he heard Radha pull up his trousers and promise to take more scientific care of his cricketer’s body.
The tin door opened; one brother came out, and so the other had to go in.
Now safe, Radha buttoned up his shirt, looking at the dark sky; he whistled. He put his hands on his thighs, spread his legs, and walked like a duck. To build strength on the insides of his thighs. Mohan Kumar, after minutely analyzing his older son’s body, had pronounced the quadriceps as the problematic area of Radha’s athletic anatomy.
The brothers had exchanged their roles; inside the closed tin door, Manju was now the one making noises—outside, Radha eavesdropped.
“Didn’t you take off your shirt and chaddi out there, while I was looking at your brother?”
“Don’t move. Manju. What are you doing? Stay still. You think you’ll insult me now? You think you’ll treat me like Tommy Sir or Coach Sawant?”
“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”
The boy shrieked from inside the closed tin door. Outside, Radha kept walking with his arms on his legs like a duck, as his father had taught him, conscious with every step of the need to build up his weak inner thighs and overcome the flaw in his otherwise perfect body.
Inside, done with the teeth, tongue, forehead, neck, chest, and stomach, Mohan Kumar was checking his second son’s particular area of recalcitrance: his failure, his refusal to take proper care of a sportsman’s penis.
“Pull the foreskin back, each and every time you do number one, each and every time you bathe—pull it all the way back, otherwise it will become filthy, and filth will become septic, and we’ll need to operate on it. Which your father doesn’t have money for.”
Manju stood with arched back: His father had moved his foreskin back scientifically and now touched him with a finger. Manju felt his body splitting in two where his father touched. He said something.
“What did you say?” Mohan stared at his son. “Did you say ‘Enough of this shit?’ Did you?”
Manju shook his head. Certainly he had not said that. So his father zipped him up: weekly inspection done.
Leaning against the wall as his sons did their pre-sleep stretching exercises, Mohan Kumar made a call to his village in Alur, to check on the status of a piece of ancestral land that was tangled in litigation; the boys saw their father use his cell phone as if it were two parts of a walkie-talkie, placing it in front of his mouth when he spoke, and transferring it back to his ear to listen.
Already in bed, waiting for his father to turn the lights out, Manju watched his elder brother dry himself and lie down in the bed next to his. He watched his father stand by Radha’s skull and whisper into it: “Go to sleep with one thought, son. What is that one thought?”
“That I should be the world’s best batsman.”
Manju knew it was coming. He stiffened his body; then his father whispered into his skull:
“And your turn, Manju. Quickly, so I can turn the lights off.”
When the boy said nothing, his father’s voice changed, turning high pitched and whining.
“. . . fighting with his own father. Complex boy. Fighting with his own . . .”
And he tickled Manju in the stomach until the boy gave in and said, “. . . second-best batsman . . .” and “I love you, I love you.”
Manju’s legs were still thrashing and his big powerful eyes were shining. Because his father’s expert fingers were warming his tummy.
“Angry with me?” Mohan said.
“You’re angry with me, Manju. I look into your heart and see the truth. No one has loved your poor old father in his life but you, Manju, and now even you fight with him. Listening? Yes, I know you are. The one thing I never had in life was a friend, Manju. A friend is someone who sees the best in you when everyone else sees the worst. I never had that. I only had you, my second son, to talk to.”
At last the man was gone to his side of the green curtain, and the world was quiet and dark, but beneath their closed eyelids both boys were awake.
“Did he touch your balls this time?” Radha said to the dark, as his brother sniffled in his bed.
“No. That’s all he ever does with me. With you?”
“The same. Just examines my balls and cock. And lets me go. But I hate it.”
“I hate it, too.”
“Manju,” Radha said. “We’re going to be rich soon. You know this, right?”
He reached over and shook his brother. Radha had been, since the start of time, chief consoler and psychiatrist to the world’s second-best, but most intelligent, and most complex, young cricketer.
“Manju, you know the first thing I’m going to do with the money? Buy you a bat. And you know from where? You know from where?”
Radha gave his little brother a good shake.
“You do know from where.”
Every Sunday Radha took his brother to Dhobitalao, the city’s sporting equipment district, full of shops glutted with fresh willow and lipstick-red match-quality balls covered in crackly cellophane. There the two boys went window-shopping from Metro Cinema all the way to a back lane, where, below a balcony with a red paper star from last Christmas and in between a store that sold golden sporting trophies and another that sold hard liquor in 180 ml “quarters,” like the starting and finishing points of the average Indian male’s trajectory in life, was an open door that exhaled fragrant Kashmiri and English willow: Alfredo Athletic Center. Some men are handmade by God, Manju felt, and some are machine made—Mr. Alfredo, for sure, was machine cut. With waxed mustache, black bow tie, and the halogen lights shining off his bald head, Mr. Alfredo would kindly open a glass case to show the brothers a row of his best imported bats; kindly let them gaze at the best imported bats and discuss the best imported bats, and on some days, when in the kindliest of kindly moods, even let them touch the best imported bats. The moment they got that sponsorship cash, Radha Krishna Kumar and the world’s second-best batsman would wrap it in a handkerchief and run to Dhobitalao and—and—?
“SG Sunny Tonny.” Radha tickled his brother. “Genuine English Willow! Wombat Select! World Cup Edition Yuvraj Singh Signature Edition! I’m taking your best imported, Kindly Alfredo—or your mustache!”
Closing the door of his home behind him so his sons could sleep, Mohan Kumar looked around, made sure he was alone, and, by the light of a fluorescent street lamp, slit open an envelope he had brought from the bank. The first installment of the sponsorship money. Five thousand rupees in fresh cash. Rubbing the crisp notes between his fingers, he mentally divided them into three piles. One for the boys’ present (cricket equipment), one for the boys’ future (savings bank), and one pile (for this was a man who honors his contracts) for God, to be dropped into His collection box at the Chheda Nagar temple. He put the cash back in its envelope, leaned against the door of his home, and looked up at the night sky. He dialed on a phantom phone, waited till Lord Subramanya picked up in heaven, then, both imitating and mocking the way in which the Indian elite speak English, told the God of Cricket: “Thank you soooooooo much, thaaaaaaaaank you s’much, Thank you soooo . . .”
Just inside the forest stood an old arch made of red laterite. No one knew who built this arch; but this kind of stone was not found anywhere nearby, and some people remembered that there was once a statue of a king on top of it. After sunset, people avoided this arch, because elephants and wild boar were known to sleep under it; but one boy was brave enough to go near it at night, and he found the spot loud with bullfrogs and louder with the twinkling of the millions of stars against which the arch etched its black shape. Sitting down on the forest floor, he looked up at all the stars, and felt himself a boy apart from all other boys in the world, resplendent, an uncrowned Adam.
Mohan Kumar had grown up in the poorest end of a poor taluk: Ratnagirihalli in Alur, in the foothills of the Western Ghats. As a boy, each morning at four, he stood on the back of an open lorry that took him to a coffee estate. There he signed his name in a long green register. Then he cleared twigs, dropped sunna from his forefingers in white circles around the plants, and watered the bushes, taking more care of the Arabica, and less care of the Robusta. At ten o’clock, the man supervising the estate paid him three and a half rupees, and he climbed back onto the open lorry. There was school for the rest of the day. He learned to read and write. This was something new for his family. His dowry went up. Sex: with a prostitute out in the fields; marriage: to a girl from his own caste; employment: with the landowner who had hired his father; pilgrimage: to Kukke Subramanya, in the mountains of the Western Ghats, as soon as his wife fell pregnant. All this was as it had been for generations in his family.
But one morning a neighbor yelled, “Who is going to pay for the window?”
The window that had been broken by Mohan Kumar’s son in the most recent game of cricket.
Mohan looked at the broken glass and remembered what a boy in Mumbai had done to the windows in his neighborhood. A boy named Sachin Tendulkar.
Now Mohan Kumar stood by passing trains and trucks and saw them in a different light. He observed highways and mighty things in a different light. He saw the sun, high over the peaks of the Western Ghats, charge from cloud to cloud like a soul in transmigration.
Mohan, Mohan—how people laughed. Why Mumbai? Take your son to Bangalore to learn cricket—it’s closer, cheaper!
Bombay it had to be. Mohan Kumar put his wife and Radha and his second son, Manju, into a bus and then into two trains before they descended into VT station in Mumbai to take a third train to his cousin’s small tin-roofed hut in a slum in Dahisar that was famous for its mechanical flour mill, which ground wheat early morning and red chillies late morning. “Anything I touch in Mumbai turns into powder like that flour mill makes,” Mohan wrote to his brother Revanna back in the village. He had tried photocopying books, binding them, and selling them near the station; the police arrested him and kept him in lockup for a night. Ten lakh books are sold in black in Mumbai every day and he has to be put in lockup! Big Thief Walks Free. Small Thief Gets Caught. A year later he discovered his wife was fucking a Christian man near the train station. He waited for her, and bolted the door behind her. Never tell your mother lies, never tell your wife secrets. That was a golden proverb, why had he ever forgotten it? He made up for it with his hands. Nothing more than a man’s natural right, but next morning the social workers—six of them—barged in and told him to stop hitting his wife, or else go to jail again. Can you believe what they do to a man in this city? One night he returned home and found that she had run away with his money and his honor. So he had nothing left; he lay in bed, and stared at the ceiling, and thought, I should just kill myself.
“Get up, Mohan,” a voice said. Though there was no one else in the room, he heard fingers snapping in the dark.
“Why?” he asked.
The invisible fingers snapped a second time: “Because I say so. Don’t you know who I am?”
Destiny, I suppose, he thought, and rose, and breathed in the crisp, energizing air of crisis.
Taking the bus all the way to a spot in Bandra where one could observe the new skyscrapers of Prabhadevi and Lower Parel, Mohan Kumar clenched a fist and held it over the kingdoms of Mumbai; after closing an eye to perfect the illusion, he brought his fist down on the city.
Except to grow a thin black mustache—a “statement,” he declared, of protest against his ill luck with women—he never complained; he never again looked back; he simply transferred all his hopes in life onto young Radha Kumar.
Old Sharadha came in every day to do the cooking. She made chutneys from green mango, lemon, and raw guava, and Mohan Kumar tried to sell them. This meant that every day he cycled around Mumbai swallowing insults more pungent than any chutney he took with him; yet every night when he lay down to bed, he could say: “Today my son has become a stronger and better batsman.” Mohan made Radha hold the cricket bat low down on the handle, exactly as Sachin had done. At the age of five he made Radha grow his hair long and pose with the bat for a black-and-white photo exactly as Sachin, Bacchus-haired, had posed at that age. At the age of seven he took Radha by train to Shivaji Park to listen to Ramakant Achrekar, exactly as seven-year-old Sachin had been taken to sit at the great Achrekar’s feet to learn the science of batsmanship.
Around this time, his second son also began to break windows when he was playing cricket.
“Did you see how much money he had with him?”
“Are you awake? You were snoring.”
“I was pretending to be asleep. Just like you. Did you see the money?”
“No. I didn’t see.”
“Manju, you know what I did find on his cot the other day?”
“Dirty magazines, Manju. You never saw these magazines?”
“Don’t lie. Appa has no dirty magazines.”
“You’re an innocent, Manju.”
Radha sat up in bed; his younger brother was turned away from him.
“Whatever you’re thinking about, Scientist, don’t keep it to yourself. Only girls do that . . .”
When Manju faced him, his eyes were narrowed and a furrow cut into his brow, dark and slanting noticeably to the left. Radha remembered that the same flamelike furrow had appeared on their mother’s forehead when she was thinking: It was like a bookmark left there by the woman.
Manju looked at Radha. “When you become a famous cricketer and I’m your manager, do I have to give him all your money?”
“I’ll kill you if you give him my money. It’s just for you and me.”
Radha kicked the body beside him, which kicked back; and each knew what the other meant to say. Let their father become old: They would make him beg for every rupee they gave him.
Every. Single. Rupee!
Both of Mohan Kumar’s sons, too, were becoming entrepreneurs of revenge.
Manjunath Kumar is fourteen and living in a slum in Mumbai. He knows he is good at cricket—if not as good as his older brother, Radha. He knows that he fears and resents his domineering and cricket-obsessed father, admires his brilliantly talented sibling, and is fascinated by curious scientific facts and the world of CSI. But there are many things, about himself and about the world, that he doesn’t know. Sometimes it even seems as though everyone has a clear idea of who Manju should be, except Manju himself. When Manju meets Radha’s great rival, a mysterious Muslim boy privileged and confident in all the ways Manju is not, everything in Manju’s world begins to change, and he is faced by decisions that will challenge his understanding of it, as well as his own self.
Filled with unforgettable characters from across India’s social strata—the old scout everyone calls Tommy Sir; Anand Mehta, the big-dreaming investor; Sofia, a wealthy, beautiful girl and the boys’ biggest fan—this book combines the best of The Art of Fielding and Slumdog Millionaire for a compulsive, moving story of adolescence and ambition, fathers, sons, and brothers. Selection Day is Adiga’s most absorbing, big-hearted novel to date, and proves why “with his gripping, amusing glimpse into the contradictions and perils of modern India, Aravind Adiga has cemented his reputation as the preeminent chronicler of his country’s messy present” (Newsweek).
Selection Day by Booker Prize-winning Author Aravind Adiga
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Reading Group Guide
From Aravind Adiga, the bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of The White Tiger, comes a dazzling new novel about two brothers in a Mumbai slum who are raised by their obsessive father to become cricket stars, and whose coming of age threatens their relationship, future, and sense of themselves.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Selection Day opens with a young Manju thinking about the darkness of kattale, secrets, and his mother (p. 1). On page 23 Manju describes his “secret gift, this mind-reading power, [that] had come to him from his mother.” How do Manju’s secrets and his and Radha’s mysterious, absent mother set the stage for the novel?
2. Mohan tells his boys that “if you really want to understand the life that waits for you as adults, this is the only proverb you need: ‘Big thief walks free. Small thief gets caught’” (p. 29). What does this mean and why is this a key proverb for Mohan? How does this saying play out in the rest of the story?
3. “ see more