Life in Kabul has become a sellable literary genre of its own. The success of hauntingly beautiful The Kite Runner opened the flood gates and there is no stopping since then. From fiction to nonfiction to memoirs, if the book mentions Kabul, women abuse and Taliban, chances are that it will get a publisher or two with some decent marketing budget. If a book as shoddily written as Kabul Beauty School can triumph at international best seller lists, then The Taliban Cricket Club should be considered a master piece but boy, is it a bad book or what!
I generally have no love lost for all things Afghanistan and Kabul, probably because I have lived too close to most things described in those books and also because I have been to Afghanistan and I always find the book version of Kabul very unreal and caricature like. I picked up The Taliban Cricket Club at the local library during the T20 World Cup when I was feeling homesick and missing cricket and live tweeting and cursing with my friends and fellow compatriots because that’s always so much fun (and heartache when your team lose). The book, however, turned out to be a major disappointment.
For starters, the introduction of Rukhsana as a spirited young journalist ticked just about every cliché that ever existed about spirited young female journalist. For a person who has been that spirited young female journalist, I found it to be majorly yawn inducing. When we are young and spirited, we do not think everything through like Rukhsana, we do things because we believe in ourselves and the power of written word and the naivety that it can bring about the desired change, but I digress.
The plot is simple. Taliban are ruling Afghanistan and things are awful. One day, they call all journalists, including our brave protagonist Rukhsana, to announce that they are keen on developing an Afghan cricket team. There would be a local tournament with local teams and the best of the best would make up for a national team which will first travel to Pakistan to get trained and would then tour the rest of the world. According to the book, no one in Kabul knew how to play cricket except for Rukhsana, which is the biggest bull shit ever because Pathans from both sides of the border have been mingling each other for long to not know about cricket.
How does our heroine know so much about cricket if she grew up in Afghanistan and living under Taliban? Well, for starters, her childhood friend and betrothed had friends in Lahore who taught him how to play cricket and he in turn taught Rukhsana and then played with her in their compound. Secondly, she went to college in India and played for her college team in Delhi which apparently made her an expert on the game. Rukhsana comes up with the plan to teach her teenage brother and her cousins to play cricket so that they can escape Afghanistan and brutal Taliban regime.
Apart from the rather weak story line, there are things that irritated me to no end about the book. One was this four page long tirade about how cricket is a genteel game that epitomizes fair play and equality. I wonder if the writer is not familiar with competitive sport that is cricket these days. What he wrote about is an afternoon friendly match in a rural England after Sunday lunch where everyone is bit mellow after food and a pint or two of beer. It is not the game where Hansie Cronje lost his life, Mohammed Azharuddin lost his reputation and young Mohammed Amir lost his career but I digress again.
The other thing that got my beef (no pun intended) was Rukhsana’s mother asking her to get vegetables for ‘quorma’. As a person who has cooked ‘quorma’ innumerable times, the only vegetable used in that dish is onion and that too to make gravy. The writer should’ve checked quorma recipe if he really wanted to include that in his book, it would have been better if he had not named the dish or just called it a stew. I know it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot but I do get irritated with lazy writing like that. Is it too much to run a google search when you are writing a book?
If there is a protagonist in the story, there has got to be an antagonist. Zorak Wahidi was that villain – at times so cartoonish that I ended up picturing Teja and Crime Master GoGo instead of this fearsome bearded Taliban minister. When summoned, Rukhsana went to see this minister of vice and virtue with her teenage brother and her cousins. The whole scene where he killed a couple for adultery in front of them and how some other Talib dudes ogled at her brother had me rolling my eyes instead of feeling the terror and muster sympathy for them. As if random killing was not enough, the villain had to seek our heroine’s hand in marriage because that’s what evil villains do, seek hand of fair maidens in marriage when they get a break from killing random people.
Like a true heroine, Rukhsana is not without her share of better suitors. There is Shaheen, her well mannered, well educated, banker childhood betrothed living in USA. He is perfect on paper and Rukhsana kind of knew that she would end up with him but she declined a formal engagement not one but four times because her heart belonged to someone else – an Indian dude – a documentary film maker named Veer. I mean seriously? Have we not all seen Veer Zara already?
The chapters about her learning cricket and them dating in India were meh! Their first kiss was bleh! There was a page long text about Rukhsana’s awakened sexuality and maturity with that one single kiss in the back seat of a cinema in Delhi at the ripe old age of 17 and it was so corny that I wanted to scream like a banshee. I mean Hello! That Veer guy missed an opportunity to bottle and sell the essence of his kiss and becoming the next Ambani.
Among other things, the book tells us that Pakistanis are generally bad people. I know that there is not a lot of love lost between Afghans and Pakistanis but the way it was written, it was clear that it was not written with an Afghan perspective but an obviously Indian one. A good writer needs to find a voice for his or her characters, not force his own voice onto them. Mr Murari – the writer – obviously failed to do that.
In the end, it was the Indian love interest Veer – the man with magical kisses – who came to Kabul to save the day and win Rukhsana’s team the cricket tournament which enabled them to get to Pakistan and then run away to other parts of the world. As he was an NRI, he had a wad of Benjamins to help the poor Afghan cousins of the heroine to get them to their desired parts of the world. The fact that the captain of the opposing cricket team was named Waseem (the bad guy of course) and had played for a club in Rawalpindi was not lost on the readers.
The writer Timeri N. Murari is apparently a big writer in India but this book was absolute shit. I can totally picture how he came about the plot. It must have been one long weekend when he watched both Lagaan and Veer Zara on TV and then some news about Talibaan and had some bad idli and sambar and thought, I too can write a saga comprising of various countries and escape from Afghanistan and become next Khaled Hoseini. I mean it has cricket, inter faith cross border romance, Taliban and a feisty heroine, what else would the public want? Errr how about some originality, research and some heart. Honestly, it was one of those stories where you end up rooting for the villain which in this case was the Taliban minister for vice and virtue. Yes, this book made me root for a Talib and that is quite a feat.
I would give this book half a star for the effort it must have taken the writer to sit down and write all 336 pages. The story is clichéd and predictable with boring uni dimensional characters ad really bad narrative. You want to slap the hell outta the protagonist by the end of it.