Cricket vs Taliban

 While you’re reading this copy, the Indian subcontinent’s never-ending love affair with cricket, would have reached another level as the Indian Premier League would have entered its last leg. Cheerleaders, stardust, promotions, and nevermind the brawls — Indian cricket and its masala avatar seems to be making news all right.

Making history Afghanistan’s cricket fans celebrate after Pakistan’s Mohammad Hafeez was dismissed during the first One Day International between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Sharjah on February 10, 2012

Against such a backdrop Timeri N Murari’s new title, The Taliban Cricket Club, will come as a complete anticlimax. Set in 2000, in strife-torn Kabul that is coming to terms with the Taliban takeover, cricket plays saviour to the gutsy Rukhsana and her band of cousins who use the sport to outthink their dreaded rulers, and escape to freedom.

Rise from the rubble Young Afghan men play cricket outside of Darul Aman Palace (back), which was destroyed during the 1992 civil war, in Kabul, on April 28, 2012. Poverty and an ongoing insurgency by the ousted Taliban still pose a threat to the stability of the country. Pics/ AFP

Murari uses cricket to explain the many layers of a once-liberal society where women were allowed to move freely, even without a burka, and where freedom of speech, expression, and of the press was not suppressed. Grit, gumption, love, family bonds and the unbelievable resilience of the human spirit ooze out its pages. In an email interview, the author shares notes about the piecing together of this epic saga set in hostile terrain. Excerpts.

Why did you choose the year 2000 as the base around which this story would revolve and ricochet back and forth?
In 2000, the start of a new century, as if celebrating the new millennium, the Taliban regime in Kabul suddenly announced that they would promote cricket in Afghanistan. As the Taliban had set it that year, for historical accuracy I couldn’t move my story from that period. However, I also needed the reader to have some perspective of the historical events that led to the Taliban winning the civil war, and so I went back to the past for both the regime and for my main character Rukhsana growing up in Kabul. I wouldn’t say I ricocheted but I had to lead the reader to understand a bit of Afghan history.

How did the idea of cricket emerge as the nucleus of the story? Did a similar plan transpire in reality around that time in Afghanistan?
I was inspired by the sheer lunacy of the Taliban announcing the introduction of cricket. In 2000, when I read that the Taliban regime was going to promote cricket, I thought it was totally surreal that a tyranny would introduce cricket into Afghanistan without any knowledge of a game that encourages and nurtures individuality, confidence, courage, defiance, within the democracy of cricket. The Taliban had banned every form of entertainment from music to movies, from clapping to chess. Then, out of the blue, the tyrannical regime announces cricket can be played. It applied to the ICC for associate membership, backed by Pakistan. The ICC didn’t respond until after the regime was driven out of power by the ISAF in 2001. The announcement by the Taliban to promote cricket was a small para in the sports section of a newspaper; I read and re-read to make sure I had it right. Cricket! Taliban. Cricket versus Taliban. I couldn’t let go of that contradictory combination.

Triumph of human spirit taken on January 4, 2011, members of Afghanistan’s first national women’s cricket team pose during a training session in Kabul before a Twenty20 tournament in Kuwait in February

You’ve been able to recreate the terror, pathos and fear of the Taliban regime; have you visited Afghanistan?
Yes, I did go to Afghanistan to research the book. I met many Afghan men and women who told me their stories of living under the Taliban. I’ve woven some of their accounts about the terror and fear of living under such a tyrannical regime. I also read up a great deal about that period and the stories of the refugees who fled to Pakistan and Iran, to escape torture and killing. I wanted to write about tyranny and what it does to people and how people subtly rebel against it. The Taliban, like other religions with extreme right wings, are trying to create a parallel universe to the reality — a parallel religion, a parallel culture, tenuously linked to the real religion and the real culture. The Taliban also instilled fear in their country. The Pol-e-chakhri Prison held thousands of innocent men and women and even children where they were tortured beaten and murdered. Thousands more were executed for minor crimes. Tyranny is a contagious disease. If we look through the 21st century, there are more tyrants than there are democracies.

The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri N Murari, Aleph Book Company, Rs 595. Available at leading bookstores

How did the crux of this engaging plot take shape? Tell us about the research that went into it.
That Taliban announcement was the genesis of the idea, I played around with it, trying to figure the story. I wanted to write about a cricket match between the State-sponsored team and another local one, with the winning team getting a free pass out of the country to train in Pakistan. But who would teach the local team the game when no one played cricket in the country posed the first interesting problem. A man? That wasn’t exactly exciting. I read many books on the history, the social customs and the politics of Afghanistan. I also went online to find out as much as I could about the daily lives of the Afghan people.

Did you meet/interact with somebody like Rukhsana? How did her character take shape? Are there many like her who still live in Kabul and the rest of the country?
I did meet some Afghan women who discussed their lives with me and told me their stories. I used, like any writer does, bits and pieces of the real characters he or she meets in their daily lives. So, Rukhsana did grow slowly out of my experiences there. I think there are Rukhsanas to be found in many countries and places, and though she is unique, I wanted to create a strong, resilient yet a very human character who also had a sense of humour. Many of the urban, and I emphasise urban, educated women are very much like my lead character. But even in the rural areas one reads about many brave women defying the domineering male culture, and, tragically at times, paying with their lives.

The book is fast paced, and is immensely appealing in a cricket-loving India; have any directors from the Hindi film industry approached you so far to script it for cinema?
I had a nibble from the publicity but not from the reading of my novel. From my limited experiences, most Hindi film industry producers glean their ideas from watching DVDs.

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