Manju has the body of a boy, the forearms of a cricketer, and a superstitious, arbitrary tyrant of a father who wants only one thing: To raise the first-best and second-best batsmen in the world.
In Aravind Adiga's exuberant and incisive novel Selection Day, Manju and his brother Radha enter "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 onto an open field where two or maybe three new players will be picked for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team."
Next to the "three principal dangers on their path to glory: premature shaving, pornography, and car driving," Manju's father names another: a talented Muslim batsman named Javed, who will compete against them on Selection Day. It's not his quick wrists, though, but his nose — "hooked and swooped, which looked as if it had been made to order" — his pantherlike limbs, and the love poems he writes about Manju that threaten to undo the future second-best-batsman-in-the-world.
Selection Day seems, initially, like it might fall into an expected pattern. Dreams of athletic glory, brotherly rivalry, years of dust and sweat on the garbage-strewn cricket maidens of Mumbai, all leading up to the day of judgment — Selection Day, when judges choose Mumbai's next cricket stars.
But Adiga's story is not about the path to glory in cricket as much as it is about the paths closed off by it. When the true Selection Day arrives for Manju, he must decide between what others want for him and what he wants for himself. His other selves — in college studying science, a forensic scientist like his heroes on CSI Las Vegas, riding a motorcycle across India with a beautiful Muslim boy with a hooked nose — must submit to his father, his coach, his cricket sponsor (to whom he is deeply in debt) and to the labyrinthine financial and psychological entrapments of both youth-league cricket and society at large.
"Don't be such a slave," Javed tells Manju. Javed sees behind cricket to a "circle of fat rich men, like the ring of glossy black birds that sit in the middle of the Bandra Talao." Manju sees it too — but Javed, rich, can afford not to be a slave. Selection Day is about cages: ones built for us, and the ones we build ourselves. Manju's own fear makes him a slave, but the bars to his cage came ready made.
Each sentence flickers like a match with life. Adiga swoops in and out of his characters' inner voices with frightening precision and speed, laying out the paranoia, obsessions, tokens, idols, and self-made prisons of each man in a few bright, laserlike sentences. But he resists caricature. Even the violent, mad father has his inner life — even he has a moment as a kid in the forest, when he "looked up at all the stars, and felt himself a boy apart from all the other boys in the world, an uncrowned Adam."
"What we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written in English," they boys' cricket sponsor declares (the men in this novel like to opine), "is not literature at all but flattery. We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff." As it happens, Adiga's characters are each of these things, but they are also cruel and petty and corrupt and splattered colorfully across the whole exuberant spectrum of human absurdity. Richness and rot, decadence and decay, cricket and corruption: These make up Adiga's Mumbai. Selection Day asks: Amidst all this, is there any such thing as freedom?
"I was looking for the key for years / But the door was always open," repeats the garrulous, murderous narrator of Adiga's Booker Prize-winning novel The White Tiger. Selection Day, a slower, sadder, and ultimately more moving novel, is a tragedy of never testing the door.