I DISCOVERED Timeri N. Murari a couple of decades ago with Taj, a sprawling novel about big emotions and bigger ambitions, suitable in every way to the rich tapestry of the Mughal landscape, imbued with tehzeeb and murderous intentions, with the complex, decadent flamboyance of a court, conscious of its invader status, in startling counterpoint to the often abstemious lifestyle of its emperors. Needless to say, I was smitten.
The Taliban Cricket Club has the potential for similar sweep. Imagine a story set in the country beyond the Durand Line, huddled beneath the razor sharp peaks of the Hindu Kush, lashed and lacerated by a cruel war waged on its soil by people with no sense of patriotism, against other people filled with a suffering and bewildered love for the same soil. What an opportunity for an unforgettable story, sadly lost!
The basic premise is a now familiar one. Life under the Taliban circa 2000 is a nightmare of deprivation, fear and uncertainty for the whole population. For women, add a triple scoop of tribulation. Taliban edicts proclaim that they must not veer from the path of their true placement between home and grave. They must learn to wear the blinding shuttlecock burkha and never raise their heads. They must always be subject to the male and when it comes to punishment, savage beatings, shooting or even beheading are the norm.
Rukshana is the main protagonist of the book, a feisty (under her burkha) young journalist whose liberal (behind compound walls and in foreign postings with her diplomat father) upbringing, leaves her suffocated and desperate to get out. Except that she has a widowed mother dying of cancer and a young brother to think about. And even worse, there is Zorak Wahidi, the minister of the department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice. He covets her quite frankly, making it clear that there are not many choices on offer, either marriage or probably death for her suspected betrayal of the govt through articles sent to magazines and newspapers abroad.
Then one day, she is commanded to go to the Ministry for a press conference, and Wahidi announces, “The ruling council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and I have decided to show the world that we are a fair and just people”. And so the Taliban Cricket Club is born, one that Rukshana inveigles brother and cousin into, for it is a way out of the destroyed country. She is also the only one who knows and plays cricket, so in disguise, she gets in herself.
In between there is a remembered love story that has unfolded earlier in Delhi, but by then it was difficult not to switch off because we found the whole thing a little far-fetched. After all, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas without a qualm. Surely there is one among them who sees the implausibility of finding a way back into the civilized world through cricket! In any case, there are many today who consider cricket itself a fairly uncivilized game, far from the epitome of courage, gentlemanliness and fair play with which it was once associated. And finally, if cricket is to be the benchmark, where does that leave much of Europe and the Americas when it comes to international diplomacy supposedly based upon playing the game?
If you like cricket a lot, have never been to Afghanistan and are unfamiliar with the destruction that 30 years of war has wrought in the country, you might enjoy the book. Otherwise, the story is like a soup warmed up so often that it has lost a lot of texture, and even the addition of a new ingredient – cricket – does little to increase its piquancy.
The Taliban Cricket Club
By Timeri N. Murari