REVIEWS and INTERVIEWS
Murari’s imagined tale of how a desperate group of Afghans seizes this opportunity to seek their freedom offers insights into the dangers, deprivations, passions, and aspirations of everyday Afghan life. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
I cannot rate The Taliban Cricket Club, an intriguing and heart warming story of one woman’s fight against oppression in modern day Kabul, highly enough. It should be a word-of-mouth bestseller for both independents and chain stores. BOOKSELLER UK.
…there’s something admirably bold about daring to mix gentle comedy with violent human rights abuse…CURIOUS BOOKS UK
A lovely, diverting and moving tale of contemporary Kabul, about love, courage, passion, tyranny and cricket. Murari has an uncommon tale to tell, and does so with imagination and empathy.- Shashi Tharoor,
… a thrilling climax and atypical story line (one that has roots in real life--the Taliban really did try to put together a cricket team in 2000) make this well worth a read. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY US
So what happens when the Taliban form a propagandist cricket club? It is an intriguing question, which the author explores in this vivid novel set in a war-torn Kabul. THE OBSERVER UK.
A thrilling blend of adventure, romance, and danger, Murari’s novel will have
readers rooting for Rukhsana and the brave team of boys she hopes to guide to victory and freedom. BOOKLIST, US.
Murari finds flashes of humor in unexpected places, such as a scene in which Rukhsana and her grandmother learn to walk in a burka. Murari has crafted a tense, compelling story. LIBRARY JOURNAL US.
One's attention is held throughout, with a cross-border love story involving an Indian adding to the drama, and the possibility of the triumph of true love impelling one to turn the pages. THE HINDU.
The Taliban Cricket Club is a thrilling tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat to the last. INDIA TODAY.
A compelling novel about cricket in war-torn Kabul, narrated by a young woman who refuses to be silenced by the Taliban. SHELF AWARENESS US
Rukhsana is a female character that refuses to be forgotten, and "The Taliban Cricket Club" is a book that refuses to be ignored. SPENSER REPORT
An Opening in Afghanistan
One country that has long fascinated me is Afghanistan. While I’ve never been able to travel there—the closest I’ve gotten was a view of rugged ranges from the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass—an engaging new novel, The Taliban Cricket Club has just whisked me inside. Written by Indian author, filmmaker, and playwright Timeri N. Murari, the book is set in 2000, a year when the then-ruling Taliban actually did support the creation of a national cricket team. Murari’s imagined tale of how a desperate group of Afghans seizes this opportunity to seek their freedom offers insights into the dangers, deprivations, passions, and aspirations of everyday Afghan life.
I cannot rate The Taliban Cricket Club, an intriguing and heart warming story of one woman’s fight against oppression in modern day Kabul, highly enough. Rukhsana, a courageous young journalist secretly writing anti-government articles, is horrified to discover that she has been selected by the terrifying minister, Wahidi, to be his new wife. Her only way to escape this fate is to get out of the country and such an opportunity arises out of a cricket tournement (which has to be won) and for her to coach a group of boys who have never played before. It should be a word-of-mouth bestseller for both independents and chain stores.
If you lived in a country which was controlled by a brutal regime which restricted the freedom and choices of their citizens, you’d understandably dream of finding a way out. If that regime then decided to try to improve their international image by hosting a cricket tournament to show the world what jolly good chaps they were, promising that the winners would go abroad for coaching, then it might well seem like the answer to your prayers – especially if by good fortune you just happened to be one of the few people in the country who had ever played the game; in fact, you’d played for a university team in India and you really do know your stuff. It would be tempting to see your sporting skills as a great way to escape oppression. You would teach your brother and cousins and a few of their friends how to play and do your best to win. It all sounds very easy. The trouble is that there is of course a twist. This is Afghanistan, the regime is the murderous and humourless Taliban and you – yes you – the cricketing genius who holds the family destiny in your hands are a woman. Welcome to Timeri N. Murari’s novel The Taliban Cricket Club.
Rukhsana is the heroine of our story. After attending university in New Delhi where her father was ‘posted’ she returned to Kabul to work as a journalist until the Taliban made it impossible for women to work. For some unclear reason, she was still on the list of journalists which was used by the ‘Ministry to Promote Virtue and Punish Vice’ when they called the press to the Ministry building to announce their sporting initiative.
Rukhsana is excited about the idea of teaching the men of her family to play the game she loves. She dusts off her old pads, finds her old copy of the rule book and prepares to start training. But how can you demonstrate the finer points of spin bowling whilst draped head to toe in a burkha with only a small mesh panel to look through? She has another problem too. The Minister who’s running the tournament – the violent Zorak Wahidi – wants Rukhsana for his wife and sends his brother and his sister-in-law to demand her hand in marriage. With a terminally ill mother at home, she can’t go into hiding so Rukhsana has two big problems and one classically Shakespearian solution. What would the bard do? Well of course he’d find a false beard and disguise his heroine as a young man. Rukhsana becomes Babur, the cousin from the country.
Can she mould her relatives who’ve never seen a cricket ball or watched a cricket match into a winning team? Will her cousin Shaheen to whom she’s long been engaged but whom she doesn’t love send the money so that she can flee the country, or will the man she really loves rescue her from an arranged marriage? Or in the worst of all possible outcomes, will she have to become one of the Minister’s wives?
“…there’s something admirably bold about daring to mix gentle comedy with violent human rights abuse…”
Sometimes a book comes along that makes you think it’s going to cause quite a stir and could well be set to be one that everyone’s talking about in a few months time. That was my impression when I read The Taliban Cricket Club. It is ‘popular’ fiction rather than ‘literary’ fiction – if you are looking for the next ‘Kite Runner’ then look elsewhere because this isn’t it. If this were set anywhere other than Afghanistan under the Taliban I would classify it as ‘chick lit’ but you just can’t easily imagine cricket or the summary assassinations of innocent people quite slipping into your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. And that – more or less – is what this book is. It has been described as ‘Bend it Like Beckham in a Burkha’ but I think that does disservice to both the film and the book. This reminds me more of films like ‘Escape to Victory’, the football classic in which prisoners of war in a German camp take on the guards whilst attempting to escape from the prison. As readers we the odds will be stacked against the little men (and woman), we know that fair play will be the last thing on the minds of the authorities, and yet we’ll also get that warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing that this has to all work out right in the end but we just don’t know how it’s going to do so.
I’ve read a lot of books set in Afghanistan and they are almost without exception tales of oppression, torture and abuse. This really is something very different. Whilst the plot has plenty of shades of Shakespearean cross-dressing and whilst the whole thing is deliciously predictable, there’s something admirably bold about daring to mix gentle comedy with violent human rights abuse, to combine cricket with killing, and beards with bats. This book will undoubtedly attract readers who wouldn’t read the more typical misery-lit which characterises books about Afghanistan and many of those readers will learn something about life for Afghanis, especially women, under the Taliban. And for me, that’s got to be a good result in a match of any kind.
Few things can be more exciting than finding a great new writer and then realising that he’s not new at all and there are nearly a score of other books for you to track down and read. Timeri N. Murari is an Indian-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada, USA and UK as a journalist, novelist, film producer, playwright and stage director. He’s written for children, young adults, and adults tapping into genres across the spectrum of fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. So how come most of us have never heard of him? Read our Q&A to find out more about Murari and his latest book – The Taliban Cricket Club – then head over to the forum to find out how you can win a copy.
Murari's newest (after Taj) is set in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2000, and tells the harrowing tale of an educated young newspaperwoman during the Taliban's rule, when "Women must be seen only in the home and in the grave." Rukhsana supports her dying widowed mother and teenaged brother by writing stories secreted outside the country and published pseudonymously. But Rukhsana fears her journalistic cover is blown when summoned by Zorak Wahidi, head of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He wants journalists to promote a cricket tournament in a misguided bid to win diplomatic accolades for the Taliban. Though woman are not allowed to compete, Rukhsana played cricket at college in India, and so disguises herself as a man to coach her brother and cousins in order to get them out of Afghanistan. But when Wahidi asks for Rukhsana's hand in marriage, she must navigate dangerous social territory in an effort to remain free, and stay alive. Murari's storytelling works best when exploring the daily horrors of Taliban rule, a thrilling climax and atypical story line (one that has roots in real life--the Taliban really did try to put together a cricket team in 2000) make this well worth a read. Fans of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns will be especially pleased .
There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play," states preamble No 6 in the Laws of Cricket – an epigraph to this topical novel. So what happens when the Taliban form a propagandist cricket club? It is an intriguing question, which the author explores in this vivid novel set in a war-torn Kabul, where citizens are brutally assassinated and a woman has her finger chopped off for wearing nail varnish. The reader is less bowled over by comedy-drama than stumped by harrowing tragedy.
There is, though, a feisty female protagonist who finds a sense of freedom in sport. in journalist Rukshana, who has written about Taliban abuses and so fears the worst when she is summoned to the "Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice". But the minister in charge has other plans – a cricket tournament, and his intention to marry her. Through her knowledge of cricket, learnt in Delhi, Rukshana sees a means of escape, for the winner will travel internationally. The plot is far-fetched, but the cinematic descriptions of war, and the joy of cricket, score highly.
Set in 2000 in Taliban-controlled Kabul, the latest novel by acclaimed writer and filmmaker Murari (Taj, 2005) follows a group of Afghan boys determined to win a cricket championship and change their lives. The boys have an unusual coach in their cousin, Rukhsana, who studied abroad in Delhi and played on a cricket team. A former journalist now confined to her house by the Taliban, Rukhsana sees the Talibansponsored cricket tournament as a chance for her brother, Jahan, and their cousins to escape Kabul, provided they can win the tournament. Rukhsana herself is waiting for her fiancé, Shaheen, to send money for her to join him in America, even though her heart lies with Veer, a man she met while studying in Delhi. When a sinister Taliban minister decides he wants Rukhsana for his wife, her family puts their lives on the line to protect her. A thrilling blend of adventure, romance, and danger, Murari’s novel will have
readers rooting for Rukhsana and the brave team of boys she hopes to guide to victory and freedom. — Kristine Huntley
When the Taliban's Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice announces that they are sponsoring a cricket tournament, with the winning team receiving training in Pakistan, the brother and cousins of Rukhsana, a female journalist living in Kabul, Afghanistan, see it as their means of escape from the oppressive regime. Disguised as a man, Rukhsana, who learned cricket while at college in India, trains her male relatives. Meanwhile, she plans her own escape via her fiancé in America, a man she doesn't love. VERDICT Fans of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner will here find a similarly uplifting story about good people surviving their horrific circumstances. Murari finds flashes of humor in unexpected places, such as a scene in which Rukhsana and her grandmother learn to walk in a burka. Murari has crafted a tense, compelling story.—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
“The laws of cricket tell of the English love of compromise between a particular freedom and a general orderliness, or legality” wrote Neville Cardus. The Taliban, not known for any great love of freedom nor of legality, decided in a moment of aberration to promote cricket in Afghanistan and this provides the take-off point for Timeri Murari's latest work of fiction,The Taliban Cricket Club.
Feisty, reckless journalist Rukhsana is under a terrible threat. A powerful Talib leader Wahidi intends to marry her; her wishes in the matter do not count. When the Taliban announces that there will be a cricket tournament and the winners sent to Pakistan for further training, Rukhsana, as one of the few Afghans familiar with the game, decides it is perhaps the only way to escape Wahidi, and get out of the country.
Wearing aburqa, she begins coaching her team of cousins. “Through the mesh, I could barely focus on a bowler, let alone the ball… When I tried to bowl, my right hand became entangled in the flapping garment, I lost sight of Parwaaze, the ball flew over his head.” The reader is treated to a description of the rudiments of cricket, played on a makeshift pitch in war-torn Kabul. It is here that Murari's skills as a writer are evident, because he does not yield to the temptation of waxing lyrical about a graceful ballet of sportsmen on emerald fields nor of displaying his intimate knowledge of the game (his grandfather and father were legendary players in the annals of pre-independence cricket).
“There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play” rules the MCC and the Spirit of the Game is juxtaposed against the wanton brutality of the Taliban regime. “Cricket is theater, it's dance, it's an opera. It's dramatic. It's about individual conflict that takes place on a huge stage. But the two warriors also represent the ten other players; it's a relationship between the one and the many. The individual and the social, the leader and the follower, the individual and the universal.” Cricket becomes a metaphor for everything the Taliban is not.
Murari introduces a third element in the novel, the Shakespearean motif of cross-dressing, flagged by a reference to Shylock. While in his earlier workThe Square Circle(Daayra) both sexual and gender identities were explored through the means of disguise, Murari uses clothing here in a more ironical way for all women under theburqaare interchangeable and unrecognisable.
Rukhsana, chaste and determinedly feminine, becomes Babur and disguise affords her a greater invisibility than that beneath theburqa. Cross-dressing, by men who played women who then played men in Shakespeare's romantic comedies, becomes a means of personal safety and the expression of great courage by Rukhsana who is certain to be summarily shot if discovered.
I must admit to a great resistance, on first seeing the evocative cover photograph by Mustafa Quraishi, to being taken back to the days of capricious violence inflicted on women by the Taliban. Why return there, I wondered, to distress that was unbearable even when felt the first time, say at the execution of Zarmina. However, Murari deftly portrays a heroine who fights against unbeatable odds, in the midst of a totalitarian regime, and wins. By making Rukhsana the personal target of Wahidi, Murari brings us frighteningly close to the Taliban and allows us to participate in the attempt to outwit him.
One's attention is held throughout, with a cross-border love story involving an Indian adding to the drama, and the possibility of the triumph of true love impelling one to turn the pages. Even if there are some coincidences that seem staged, one goes along quite willingly suspending disbelief. In the end, it is love that is celebrated: Romantic, familial and fraternal. Tulsi Badrinath
When the Afghan national side played its first ever ODI against a Test-playing country this February, the Taliban joined President Hamid Karzai in sending messages of support for the team. The whole nation was said to be glued to the television, and even though Pakistan won by seven wickets, the Afghan Tigers, as they're known, acquitted themselves more than respectably.
The story of the rise of Afghan cricket merits not one but many novels. In five years, with poor facilities, they climbed from the fifth to the first division of the World Cricket League and were ranked ninth in International Twenty20. In a three-day match in April, they defeated the Netherlands with an unbeaten 84 scored by 18-year-old Afsar Zalzal, clinching the match. Later this year, their Under-19s will take on India's in Brisbane.
Historically, the story of Afghan cricket begins in the refugee camps in Pakistan after the Russian invasion of 1979, where boys joined local kids playing the game. Here one young man, Taj Malik, the father of Afghan cricket, was dreaming of an Afghan team.
In The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri N. Murari has taken inspiration not from Malik but from Soviet-period sporting news, and the Taliban's strange decision to give limited approval to cricket. Murari then leaps into pure fiction by making his central character, an Afghan cricket guru, a woman journalist who learned her sport during her college days in Delhi. There is a touch of Elizabeth from Lagaan (woman teaching cricket-ignorant men, with a lot at stake), and Rani Mukherjee from Dil Bole Hadippa! (false beard and male impersonation) about Ruksana.
Still Murari knows how to pace his tale and create credible characters. Ruksana with her courage and liveliness is attractive, and her terror of the Taliban is convincing. Brought up in liberal times before the Taliban conquered Kabul, through her experience the author paints a stark picture of the Taliban takeover with its violence, oppression and toll on human values. The Taliban are portrayed as monsters rather than men, until their unexpected approval of cricket gives the glimmer of hope that forms the core of the suspense and the high drama of this novel.
Murari also leaves space for human warmth, loyalty and romance, but above all, The Taliban Cricket Club is a thrilling tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat to the last. GILLIAN WRIGHT.
Although the Taliban are well known for violence and intimidation, few people are aware of their brief flirtation with cricket. Many Afghans were baffled when the regime lifted its own ban on sports in 2000, promoting cricket in a bid for international political acceptance.
Timeri N. Murari (Taj, My Temporary Son) spins a compelling fictional narrative around this odd fact, telling the story through the eyes of Rukhsana, an outspoken journalist who fell in love both with cricket and an Indian man in Delhi. Furious at the Taliban's growing oppression of journalists and worried about her mother's declining health, Rukhsana disguises herself as a young man to teach her brother and cousins to play cricket. If they win the national tournament, they can escape to Pakistan, and Rukhsana can avoid a forced marriage to a Taliban official.
Murari endows Rukhsana with his own love of the game, explaining that it represents freedom, individual responsibility, the ability to be creative--all principles the Taliban longs to crush. He tenderly portrays the bonds between an ill mother and her children, and the tightly knit team of cousins who rally around Rukhsana. While most of the book takes place in Rukhsana's home and on the cricket fields, the Taliban and their reign of terror lurk in the background--a constant, menacing shadow.
A love letter to cricket and to Kabul,The Taliban Cricket Club dares to imagine a different Afghanistan, where a simple game could bring about fair play, peace and a measure of freedom for all. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger atCakes,Teaand Dreams
Discover: A compelling novel about cricket in war-torn Kabul, narrated by a young woman who refuses to be silenced by the Taliban.
Spencer Daily Reporter US
In 2000, the Taliban decided to adopt cricket as a national sport. Until this time, athletics of any sort were illegal, as they promoted celebration and rebellion. But appealing to the international cricket community, they hoped, would help them to gain acceptance from the rest of the world.
This story is the basis for Timeri Murari's latest novel, "The Taliban Cricket Club." Rukhsana is a fiery young journalist who has been forced into the shadows because she is a woman. So, she writes under a pseudonym, and faxes them a trusted contact.
And yet, even though she has taken every precaution to keep her identity under wraps, she is still summoned by Zorak Wahidi, the Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, to appear before the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. She is not told why her presence is requested.
Rukhsana lives in Kabul, a once-beautiful city that, like its occupants, has wasted away under the rule of the Taliban:
The city, as fragile as any human, was gaunt with sickness; its blackened ribs jutted out at odd angles, craters of sores pitted its skin, and girders lay twisted like broken bones in the streets. Its gangrenous breath smelled of explosives, smoke, and despair. Even mosques were not spared the savagery, their skulls explosively opened to the sky.
Once she is gathered with the other area journalists, Minister Wahidi makes his proclamation: Afghanistan has applied to the International Cricket Council for membership, to show themselves as a fair and just people:
"Cricket will show all those against us that we too can be sportsmen. As our young men have much time to spare, we wish to occupy them to prevent any vices."
Because cricket, and all sports, have been banned for so long, none of the local men know how to play. A woman certainly would not be allowed to play regardless. But Rukhsana knows how to play and her cousins do not. So she must teach them, and she must do so without being caught.
"The Taliban Cricket Club" takes a few pages to get into, but before long Rukhsana shines through and the story takes over. What's most captivating is to think that, even though the book is a work of fiction, the over-arching plot line did truly exist.
Rukhsana is rebellious and gutsy. She will not be one to cave into submission just because of her sex. Her game of cricket is one of elegance and individuality, a game that she herself embodies.
As the story progresses, we see into her memory and into the experiences that have shaped her. She is her own woman, one who exemplifies the strength in quiet protest.
Rukhsana is a female character that refuses to be forgotten, and "The Taliban Cricket Club" is a book that refuses to be ignored.
THE TELEGRAPH, KOLKOTA
Though I have come home, it is not quite home’
Novelist, filmmaker and journalist Timeri Murari has been writing for four decades. But the Chennai-based author, who returned to India after years abroad, tells Kavita Shanmugam that you need to read to be able to write
Consider this. He’s an acclaimed Indian English author and an illustrious journalist. He has been writing for 40 years and has penned 18 fiction and non-fiction books, including a period bestseller Taj. He has directed a play in England with Bend It Like Beckham actress Parminder Nagra. A documentary filmmaker, he also wrote and produced an internationally hailed film The Square Circle, made in Hindi by Amol Palekar as Daayra.
Yet Timeri Murari — the Chennai-based writer who lived for 30 years in England and the US — is seldom to be seen in India’s literary circles or festivals. In a fast developing publishing world where every pretty young thing or geeky graduate is writing a book, Murari — an R.K. Narayan award winner (given by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India) — is a name that only the cognoscenti seem to be acquainted with.
“It’s simple really why I am not spotted on the national literary scene. I am not invited,” says the spiffily-attired, 70-year-old scribe, clearly not unduly fussed about his isolation. “What can I say? It is all Delhi and Mumbai centric,” he says in his clipped, British accent.
It is the festivals’ loss, for the writer with his inimitable and flawless style has notched up a rich oeuvre. Starting off on a novel set amidst Punjabi immigrants in the UK, he whisked up a mystery novel and then went on to make his mark with his historical fiction, Taj.
From doffing a gentleman’s hat at Emperor Shah Jahan’s deep love for his wife, he portrayed the poignant, slow disintegration of a south Indian joint family in one of his best books, his semi-autobiographical Four Steps to Paradise. Or take his travelogue, Limping to the Centre of the Earth, on an “atheist’s” pilgrimage to Mount Kailash for the sake of an orphan. His latest fiction Taliban Cricket Club, which recently hit the bookstores, traces the daring escape of a spirited Afghan woman journalist from intolerant Talibans.
Murari is happy with the enthusiastic response that the book has evoked in the US. Seated in a visitors’ room surrounded by paintings, artefacts and a long, walled bookshelf in his one-storey ancestral home, he talks about the feedback.
“My editor in New York says this is the first time any of her books has been reviewed by National Geographic,” he says. The irrepressible author, who sticks to his discipline of writing every day from 7.30am to 1pm, has also moved on to his next novel — set in Afghanistan once again.
What is his fascination for Afghanistan? “Afghanistan is our neighbour. Whatever happens there is bound to reverberate on us. In the last few years, the Taliban’s importance is growing. If Afghanistan goes to the Taliban, the al Qaeda will be at our doors,” points out this former journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, London. “The Afghanis are extremely courteous and friendly people. How can one help them? The country is a powder keg,” he says, spreading his hands helplessly.
Murari, who covered the Indian elections during the Rajiv Gandhi era for a prominent political magazine, has always straddled journalism and fiction writing.
It was while writing a piece for the The Sunday Times on union problems among Indian immigrant textile mill workers in Coventry that his first novel was born. “The article got stuck because of legal problems and I had all this research material. So I decided to fictionalise it,” he recounts. This immigrant tale titled The Marriage revolved around an Indian girl falling in love with a British boy.
Murari has had no formal training in writing. He was studying engineering in London when he decided to move to McGill University in Canada to study political science and history. While studying there he wrote a piece for a Canadian newspaper on a summer logging experience. That was the beginning of his career in journalism, though he moved soon to England where he joined The Guardian.
“Writers are born,” says Murari, citing his example of not having gone to creative writing school. However, he emphasises the importance of reading. “You have to read many, many writers before you work out your own style.”
He laughs when I ask him about the “mini-explosion” of Indian English writers on the publishing landscape. “It is like my editor says, every person has a short story inside them, not a novel. What we are seeing today is short stories being stretched into novels.” The constant “churning” in the publishing world with new technological developments such as e-books and Kindle makes it difficult to predict the future of this field, he says.
“Everyone thinks they can write. But it is hard. What most people don’t do is read the great writers. You can only learn from reading the best writers out there,” he says, reeling off names from his list of the best — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and so on.
Murari, who was born in an illustrious Telugu Naidu family in Chennai (his grandfather’s friends included powerful politicians such as K. Kamaraj), was circled by books as a child. Parts of his childhood figure in Four Steps to Paradise — a novel that he is particularly fond of, as is his Australian wife Maureen.
It tells the story from the eyes of a young boy, Krishna, of how an outsider, a European woman, breaks up a family. “It is biographical in parts,” admits Murari, whose father — a civil servant in the Madras Presidency — married a foreigner after his mother’s death. “This novel is full of depth and strength probably since it is set in my own past,” he reflects.
“Did not Hemingway say that writers should stick to writing what they know? It might be good advice but writers also need to write about things they don’t know and should learn from,” he adds.
His more recent book, Limping to the Centre of the Earth, was one such adventure. The book emerged out of a story. Murari’s wife was caring for an abandoned sick baby who needed an operation which was very risky. “People told me that if I went to Mount Kailash and made a wish, it would come true and I wanted to do it for the child,” says Murari, who made the journey despite a weak knee.
Though not superstitious, he adds that the little baby survived. Now adopted, his photograph adorns a table in the room.
Murari loved his journey to Mount Kailash in Tibet. “It is special; it’s not just an unusual looking mountain. You feel awed standing before it because of its history and age. It dates back to mythology, to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I loved the solitude and getting up to 18,000 feet and coming back alive,” he says with a laugh.
If you probe his lack of belief in God, he says, “I prefer to think nature is God.” He scoffs at the Large Hadron Collider’s claim of being closer to locating God’s particle. “The closer they get to it the farther it will move away. The mystery of the universe is such that nobody can solve it.”
Cricket, which plays a huge role in Taliban Cricket club, is a big passion. Having learnt cricket in what was Chennai from his grandfather and father, Murari later played with the likes of British playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard and American writer James Baldwin when he lived in New York.
Baldwin, in fact, once advised him against taking up the onerous task of becoming a full-time writer. But Murari wrote, even while he focused on making documentaries. It was while shooting a documentary on detectives in South Bronx in New York (“cops are wonderful storytellers”) that he got the grist for a mystery novel, Shooters.
New York was also where he married Maureen. You can tell that Murari was a handsome man in his younger days. Even now, tall and distinguished looking with a receding hairline, dark bushy eyebrows and lively black eyes, he is quite a force to reckon with.
But Murari stressed that he got “tired” of the US. Along with Maureen, he returned to India in 1988 to become a part of “changing” India. “I wanted to write about India with authority by living here rather than as a tourist,” Murari says, adding that his father’s failing health also prompted him to return.
Murari admits that it has not been an easy transition to live in “exciting but exacerbating India” after living away for 30 years. “I don’t regret it. Sometimes, I feel restless, dislocated. Though I have come home, it is not quite home,” he says quoting Tom Wolfe: “You can never return, you can never go home.”
CURIOUS BOOKS INTERVIEW
CB. How did you learn about the Taliban’s interest in using cricket for propaganda purpose and could you tell us about how the seed of an idea grew into The Taliban Cricket Club?
TNM. Way back in 2000, I read a very brief report in the newspaper that the Taliban announced they would promote cricket in Afghanistan and the regime, backed by the Pakistan Cricket Board, would apply for associate membership to the International Cricket Council. I thought the item surreal – Taliban? Cricket? They were contradictory, an oxymoron. The regime had banned everything – including chess – and this was a diplomatic way for acceptance in a world that condemned their brutal rule. The idea nagged at me and I made a few notes on how I could use this for a story. I thought I’d throw in a tournament and that the winning team would be sent out of the country – all expenses paid – and never return. Great! But as no one knew how to play cricket back then in Afghanistan who’s going to teach my team of young men? A pro from England/India/Pakistan – it didn’t have any dimensions. I set the idea aside and went back to my other work when the Taliban were driven out by ISAF. When they ‘returned’ to fight ISAF, I pulled out my notes to re-think. I grew up playing cricket with my sisters and female cousins in our garden and even had a niece who played for India. So, why not a young Afghan woman who learned her cricket in India, returns to Kabul when the Taliban announce this and have her teach her cousins how to play this game? Through her I could explore the plight of women under the Taliban rule and have my cricket team as well.
CB. Do you have any personal experience of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and if not, how did you research your characters? Did you have a friend or relative in mind as your mental ‘model’ for Rukhsana?
TNM. No, thankfully I didn’t have any personal experience living under the Taliban. I wouldn’t have lasted long as I’m not Muslim and most non-Muslims fled the country back then. First, I read all I could, books and website, on stories of life under the Taliban. In Delhi, I met a few Afghan refugees who told me their stories too. Then I went to Afghanistan and met men and women (working in offices beside men) who had lived under the Taliban and they told me what daily life was like in those years. I incorporated many of their stories and incidents into the novel. Surprisingly, the women had more sympathy for the men as the men had to grow beards and pray five times a day, otherwise they were beaten. The women told me life under the burka was hard, restricting their lives but they learned to survive. What worries them today is the fear that the Taliban will return and send the women back into those dark ages. I had sketched out the inner life of Rukhsana before I went to Afghanistan but didn’t have a complete image of her. Then when I was in Kabul airport going to through immigration I saw my Rukhsana – a woman in her 20s, lively, animated, talking to her friends, laughing easily. Now and then she’d frown and listen before reacting. And she had a ‘C’ curl of hair that fell across her forehead. She was also quite beautiful but unaware of her beauty. I watched her for ten minutes and then she was gone.
CB. Books set in Afghanistan are almost all unremittingly miserable. How does it feel to have perhaps written the first book about the life under the Taliban that doesn’t need to be sold with a large box of Kleenex?
TNM. I am delighted that Kleenex has lost a possible market. I wanted to show that under every tyranny, people did fight against the tyrants in many ways, some violently, others more cleverly. At the same time they have to lead ‘normal’ lives. We try to snatch joy and love under the most cruel circumstances in our need to survive and keep our sanity. The Afghans are, without doubt, the most hospitable, courteous people I’ve met. Despite the tragedies in their lives, they still retain a sense of humour and a joy for life which I’ve tried to capture in my novel.
CB. Your average British woman has a pretty low level of interest in cricket – your average American or Canadian even less so (Cricket? That’s like a grasshopper, right?) Was your book written with the Indian market in mind? Did you make any changes to the text to appeal more to readers who aren’t so cricket-savvy?
TNM. I didn’t write it with anyone in mind. Since, I enjoyed writing it, I thought there’ll be a few people out there who could enjoy reading it too. I was very surprised that my New York agent first loved the book, without saying ‘cricket! No one will read this?’ She sent it out New York publishers and the bigger surprise was that five responded, wanting to buy the novel. Ecco bought it and the editor, Lee, called me and we talked for an hour and she barely mentioned the word ‘cricket’. But yes, I had to cut back on the technical terms – leg slips, silly point, leg breaks - I used in the first draft as she didn’t understand their meanings. As I’ve played cricket nearly all my life, mostly in England for the Guardian newspaper team, the hardest work was simplifying the game for readers who had never seen a cricket match and thought cricket was an insect. India bought the novel only after the French, Dutch and Norwegian publishers, none of whom, I suspect, have ever seen a game of cricket!
CB. I suspect many readers will assume you are a woman, probably 20-30 years younger than you actually are – yes, I checked you out on Facebook! Is that stereotyping a good thing or a bad thing and are you amused or insulted by the inevitable mistakes?
I’m more amused. Writers are slotted into comfortable genres – thriller, crime, romance, historical, literary (whatever that means) and are expected, like prisoners, to remain in their allotted cells. The first question I’ve been asked is ‘how could you write this as a first person woman narrator?’ I had written a previous novel, ‘Lovers Are not People’ with a first person woman narrator and that did extremely well, with no questions asked. On this one, I had a mail from a woman in Texas who saw the book in Barnes & Nobel, was intrigued by the title and the story line but said she hesitated to buy it when she saw it was written by a man. Her letter was very flattering as she completely believed Rukhsana’s voice.
CB. Is there any future for Rukhsana and her friends and family once the book ends? Where do you see them today, a decade after the events are set?
TNM. For Rukhsana, yes, there is a more stable future – a married life, happily I believe – and she returns to spend time in Afghanistan to write about it for a newspaper. By now, she has a couple of kids and is settled in New Delhi. Her brother Jahan, after his degree from Delhi University, is now in America, probably working on his masters or even working for NASA as that was his ambition. The cousins’ future could be darker. They were trying to get to Australia by paying a smuggler to get them there. The journey was hard and dangerous but they make it, are imprisoned by Australian immigration, appeal to the courts and, after a year, are finally allowed to settle in the country. They worked and studied in the evenings for their degrees, remaining close knit and supporting each other and now are happily settled down in their careers. They are the lucky ones – today hundreds of young Afghan men, more boys, walk all the way to Europe looking for work.