‘Rukhsana, daughter of Gulab, is to appear in person at 11:00 AM at the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice… at the command of Zorak Wahidi, Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
No further explanation. I was to appear in only a few hours’ time on this Sunday of May 7, 2000. … The slip of paper – what it said, and what it left unsaid – was a threat. Why should he summon me? What crime had I committed? Had I revealed my face, accidentally, to a stranger? Had I, accidentally, spoken out loud in the bazaar? Had I, accidentally, revealed an ankle or a wrist? Who knew what rules were encircling us like serpents in a pit? …’
This is how the Chennai-based veteran author of 17 books, Timeri N. Murari, begins his newest book, ‘The Taliban Cricket Club’.
The sporty title of Murari’s tale almost seems a misnomer, given the strong sexist subtext of its narrative; cricket, in fact, is merely the prism through which gender-hostile patriarchal psyches are showcased. Rukhsana, the feisty female protagonist, could be just another victim of a gender-insensitive social order. Hers could be just another irrepressible voice refusing to be gagged by an intolerant authority.
But Rukhsana’s social milieu is not a progressive one with stray sexist aberrations; hers is a primitive and prejudiced political order that perpetuates gender violence as much as it does social subjugation. Hers is not a common collision with patriarchal psyches, but a clash with medieval mindsets, rooted in male superiority and reinforced by might. Hers is not a voice lulled by the logic of secular social discourse, but a voice sought to be silenced by an authoritarian regime antagonistic to dialogue and intolerant of dissent.
Here’s how the young journalist vents her true feelings in the text:
‘WOMEN SHOULD ONLY BE SEEN IN THE HOME AND IN THE GRAVE
We were only reproductive beasts to them, like goats, or chickens, or cows, fed and watered to await our slaughter should we break free. Our role was defined only by our womb and not by our thoughts and feelings. All in the name of God. How does a woman believe in God when the conduits of his messages are only men?
I straightened my back in mute defiance. I was determined not to be afraid.’
(From the chapter, The Announcement)
The alien locale of an Afghanistan under Taliban rule lifts this tale out of the realm of the ordinary, into the extraordinary, even exotic. The setting places Murari’s tale in the league of other prose that have painted portraits of life in this landscape of political instability, be it Khaled Hosseini’s ‘Kite Runner’ or Deborah Rodriguez’s post-Taliban tale, ‘Kabul Beauty School’. Describing Taliban’s Kabul, he writes: ‘The city, as fragile as any human, was gaunt with sickness; its blackened ribs jutted out at odd angles, craters of sores pitted in its skin, and girders lay twisted like broken bones in the streets. Its gangrenous breath smelled of explosives, smoke and despair. …’
How did Murari manage to get all the facts pertaining to Afghan culture and politics, accurate? Besides first-hand encounters – he had visited the country several times during the regime – the author revealed that stories shared by Afghans helped shape the narrative.
The gender inequalities that his protagonist encounters may be rooted in a regressive regime but they have a universal appeal, finding a resonance in the feudal attitudes even in the Indian context, as manifested in India’s skewed sex ratio, rising incidents of honour killings and other gender-centric malpractices. Besides, the virtual house arrest and political hounding that Rukhsana faces also carries the echo of real-life portraits of political figures, like Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Fatima Bhutto and others who have lived under the shadow of violence and vendetta.
Incidentally, India plays the part of the socio-cultural context that shapes the feminist and the journalist in Rukhsana and forms the fulcrum from where the narrative travels back and forth on the continuum of time. Having studied journalism at Delhi University’s Kalindi College, where her father had been posted as deputy ambassador at the Afghan embassy, Rukhsana returns to Kabul to be a voice for its citizens.
But her first major confrontation with the Taliban back home makes it clear to her that fair and fearless journalism cannot be practised under the dictatorial dispensation. When she breaks the news of the execution of ex-President Najibullah for the ‘Kabul Daily’, she has the authorities, led by Wahidi, swooping down on her. The much-married Wahidi later even tries to coerce her into wedlock in a further flexing of political muscle.
Even though Rukhsana has to leave her job, Murari finds a way for his rebel heroine to pen stories of women’s repression. He borrows from the real-life experiences of brave female Afghan journalists who wrote for publications run by organisations such as RAWA – the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan – and like them Rukhsana smuggles her articles out of the country written under a pseudonym.
In this suppression-scarred socialscape, the ‘burka’ (veil) becomes the metaphor, described by Rukhsana thus: “A few metres of fabric, soft, fragile and pliable, became our cell.” And the ‘mahram’, or male escort, without who a woman cannot leave her house, becomes another symbol of this sexist social milieu.”
‘The Taliban Cricket Club’ thus aptly reflects Rukhsana the rebel’s desire to break free from the shackles of an inhuman existence and an oppressive regime under which women make news only when they are tortured or given the death sentence. As in the case of Zarmina and others, who are hanged for the ‘sin’ of being born a woman.
Her urge to escape this cage becomes all the more compelling, consuming, for she has breathed the air of freedom beyond her own feudal frontiers, in the classrooms and the cricket grounds of her college campus and in the unmasked romantic encounter with Delhi boy, Veer.
So, when Wahidi & Co decide to hold a cricket match “to show all those against us that we too can be sportsmen” and settle on sending the winning team to Pakistan for training, as part of a plan to get membership of the International Cricket Council, Rukhsana and her kin look upon it as an escape route. Having played cricket during her college days, Rukhsana, disguised as a male player, Babur, trains her brother Jahan and other male cousins so that they can win this passport to freedom.
Many twists and turns later, when the D-day dawns, Rukhsana’s team, christened The Taliban Cricket Club, plays as if there is no tomorrow.
In a recent media interview, Murari talked about his interesting choice of team name. He says, “It really is a counter to the Taliban. They [Rukhsana’s team] are deliberately using it. It is really a kind of irony. It is making fun of them really, while also cleverly flattering them.”
The team does win and they’re all set to cross the frontier into a freer world but, wait, the cunning Wahidi has other plans. Ultimately, though, are they able to outsmart him? Does Rukhsana, the rebel and feminist, succeed in breaking free from her shackles? Does Rukhsana, the romantic, reunite with her true love? And does Rukhsana, the writer, script her own success story?
In the words of Deborah Rodriguez, an author of fiction herself, ‘The Taliban Cricket Club’ is “a beautifully written novel that takes the reader through the shrouded world of one woman whose only crime is being a woman…”
(The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari; Published by Aleph; Pp: 325; Price: Rs 595.)