The Great Game

Sometimes you come across a book by chance and you fall completely in love with it. This is what happened to me with Timeri N. Murari's The Taliban Cricket Club. It's a wonderful life-affirming read; and I dare you to try and put it down once you've started it. It's also (very belatedly) my review for #Diversiverse.

Timeri N. Murari is an Indian author and playwright, he's also an author who has a lot in common with one of my very favourite male authors, Daniel Defoe - he writes women brilliantly; this is especially important in Taliban Cricket Club, which unusually has a female Afghan heroine, the lovable Rukhsana. Rukhsana is a journalist, whose life has been blighted by the rise of the Taliban. Brought up by liberal parents, and educated in Delhi, Rukhsana returns to Kabul on the eve of the overthrow of Najibullah, leaving the love of her life behind. Now trapped in Kabul her future seems bleak, especially when a leading member of the Taliban starts to take an interest in her. But something extraordinary is about to happen, the Taliban have applied for Afghanistan to join the International Cricket Council, this could be the extended family's ticket out of Afghanistan.

Bizarrely the Taliban did indeed apply to join the ICC in 2000, although the application was ignored until the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. The story is told with a great deal of style and often humour; but it also deals with very dark subjects - the subjugation of women under the Taliban's medieval worldview, rape, torture and execution, the lack of respect for human rights and lives, most of all the joylessness of the regime - no kites or parakeets, music, dancing, or books. It's also a plea for the importance of culture. Cricket both unites the characters and frees them. While they're playing, they're outside of the regime, and nothing can touch them.

The novel is a great celebration of the human spirit, and its potential to overcome even the darkest times. It's at its best when dealing with everyday life in Afghanistan, and the transcendent effects of "the great game". There's an irony here in Murari's use of the term - cricket may indeed be the great game, but "the great game" was also a widely used term for the spy wars raged between Russia and Great Britain in nineteenth century Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. Britain had indeed bequeathed both "great games" with cricket being perhaps the most enduring and positive icon of the Raj in the Indian sub-continent. The end of the other great game though, culminating in the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan casts a long shadow over the novel, with a war-torn country and city still struggling to rise from the ashes of its past. It's a brutal society that contrasts strikingly with the methodical, peaceful game of cricket.

Where the novel struggles more is in the love story particularly that between Rukhsana and her true love, Veer. It doesn't altogether ring true, unlike the rest of the novel which hurtles along at a stunning pace, only to bring the reader up short against some mind-boggling brutality that ordinary people had to deal with. I'm not surprised that Murari has also worked as a script-writer, for much of the novel had a filmic quality to it. If ever a book is worthy of being filmed, this, I would think is it. It's a wonderful, happy read; a great triumphant paean to the good things in life even in its darkest moments. Please read The Taliban Cricket Club.


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