Saturday, 26 May 2012

Book Review: The Taliban Cricket Club, by Timeri N. Murari

For a few weeks after I read Kite Runner, I was a Khaled Hosseini fan. Later, as I reflected on the story, I had a nagging feeling that it had demarcated good and evil into boxes that did not offer the possibility of any overlap. Grey did not exist. That was 2003. Over the years, one got a better idea of the Afghan conundrum, in particular of the Taliban. Hosseini had made them all out to be illiterate paedophiles who, when they weren’t sodomising young boys, went around beating up women and killing people for no reason at all. Soon one realised that some of the Afghan warlords on the side of the West had a worse record than the Taliban. Also, the Taliban, for all their faults, do not permit abuse of young boys. In fact, the Taliban have a better record in putting down Bacha Bazi than some of Karzai’s allies, though when it comes to women’s rights, the Taliban are peerless. These days, the Taliban even write poetry.

Now in 2012 along comes a novel written by a reputed journalist who takes us back to 2003. The Taliban are pure evil and without them, Kabul would have been a wonderful city. Rukhsana is a young journalist, in her twenties I presume, the daughter of an Afghan diplomat, who has spent some time in Delhi. After the Taliban come to power, Rukhsana is unable to work as a journalist or file reports in her own name. To make things worse, Rukhsana catches the eye of a Taliban Minister, the nasty Zorak Wahidi who heads the worst of all ministries, the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The only individual who seems to be even more evil than Wahidi is his brother Droon. Wahidi wants to marry Rukhsana, so that he can reform her, and the only excuse Rukhsana and her family can come up is that Rukhsana is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Shaheen, who has already escaped to the United States and is expected to send for Rukhsana. Wahidi is in no mood to accept such an excuse.

Like many others in Kabul, Rukhsana and her cousins dream of escaping from Afghanistan. Paying money to a human smuggler seems to be the only way out and everyone is trying to scrape together the money for that. ‘Of course when the time came, I would be very earth bound, with a smuggler, in the company of others fleeing our native land. I could be the lone woman and that made me afraid. I had heard that, apart from the bribe, the border guards would also demand a woman’s body for their quick use, and to refuse them, was to be denied passage.’ How true is this statement, I wonder. There are hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Did all or even most of the women among them offer their bodies to border guards to be allowed to escape from Afghanistan? I couldn’t help remember that spectacular scene in the Kite Runner where the young protagonist Amir’s father puts his foot down, at the risk of his own life, to save the honour of a young woman travelling with them, from the predation of a border guard.

As luck would have it, the Taliban decide to promote cricket and announce a cricket tournament. Though they frown upon sports in general, non-contact cricket has gained favour in the eyes of the guardians of Islam. The winning team is to be sent to Pakistan for better training so that they can come back to further promote cricket in Afghanistan. It doesn’t take Rukhsana, who attended college in Delhi and played cricket there, much time to decide to form a team composed of her cousins and teach them cricket. The idea is to win the tournament, travel to Pakistan and to never return to Afghanistan. As she turns into a cricket coach, Rukhsana goes into male disguise and as Babur, gains freedom of movement.

While in Delhi, Rukhsana had made various friends, one of whom, Veer, is a very special friend, one she longs for, even as she is engaged to Shaheen. Rukhsana’s memories of Delhi are happy ones, and Delhi is made to appear to be a clean and modern city, where happiness reigns everywhere. Murari’s description of Kabul is not very different from that of Hosseni. Rukhsana, her cousins and friends defy the Taliban in innumerable silent ways. The Taliban beat women and carry out executions at the drop of a hat.

Can Rukhsana successfully train her cricket team to win the tournament and escape to Pakistan, from where they hope to escape to the West and seek asylum? Written in simple English with an Enid Blytonesque feel to it at times, you could enjoy The Taliban Cricket Club if are able to shut out the black and white background and ignore the various clichés and stereotypes that Murari has resorted to.


Rukhsana’s fiancĂ© Shaheen breaks off the engagement. Rukhsana doesn’t mind, though her family is upset. As I had expected, though Rukhsana isn’t meant to actually play in the tournament, she finally does, in male disguise. Just before the tournament starts, Veer turns up in Kabul to take Rukhsana away. Veer is made part of the team, without disguising the fact that he is an Indian. There are only four teams in the tournament which is officiated by an MCC official. The players turn up for the final match with their passports. Rukhsana’s team win the tournament, but Wahidi refuses to honour his promise to let them leave. Instead, the Afghan State Cricket team which lost the final is allowed to leave for Pakistan. Rukhsana’s team members lock up the state team in their washroom (a large communal one for all the players, which is very convenient), and escape with their official jackets, which has their passports. The story ends at Karachi airport where they get rid of their official jackets and stolen passports. They have their genuine passports with them and they go their merry ways. Veer and Rukhsana are to fly to Delhi from where they will travel to New York.

I didn’t like the fact that the final tournament is described rather briefly in this 320-odd pages book. There is very little excitement as Murari takes us through the three games that comprise the entire tournament, except towards the end of the final, when Rukhsana takes a scintillating catch behind the wickets that practically wins the game for them. I also found it difficult to digest that Veer, Rukhsana and the cousins escape to Karachi on stolen passports and consider themselves safe once they are outside Karachi airport.

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