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A genre-defying new book brings together sport, philosophy and fiction
January 6, 2013
Cricket fiction, like a team's innings, often depends on the openers. Mike Marqusee's Slow Turn - "In Madras the umpire was murdered and it made us all uneasy" - was Sehwag-like in the boldness of its take-off. Then there's the deliberate Alastair Cook-ness of Joseph O'Neill's deeply introspective Netherland. "The afternoon before I left London for New York - Rachel had flown out six weeks previously…" etc. Shehan Karunatilaka's wonderfully zany Chinaman says, "Begin with a question" and keeps you hooked all the way to suburban New Zealand.
Centurion starts with "Hi." That's as open-ended as can be, and given that author Pramesh Ratnakar chose not have his name on the cover, eccentricity is to be expected.
At its centre, is a fictional imagining of the psychological footprint left by Sachin Tendulkar's father - a professor of Marathi literature, a genteel scholar who belonged to a world of books and words - on his son, a man of action, vast fields and open skies.
Centurion examines worlds from individual to global, and contains a variety of voices and narrative styles. Everyday conversation (hence the "hi" that opens it) turns into an interior monologue (of a character who could be Sachin Tendulkar), followed by a legal trial and a stretch of dialogue that hovers between Biblical and Vedic.
The book ends with a q&a, and in a final flourish "Tendulkar" saves the world. In normal circumstances that would be somewhat of an eye-rolling cop-out. In Centurion, though, the end is not the point of the entire exercise. Subtitled "The Father, The Son and the Spirit of Cricket", the book is a languid, expansive exploration of the tenuous links between sport and study, the educationist and the utopianist, man's inner and outer worlds.
The book centres around a job interview for a maverick professor to head the college where Tendulkar's father taught in real life. It ends up talking about conflict and humanity, and includes the thoughts of 14th century Maharashtrian poet-saints Muktabai and Janabai, Japanese poet-saint Basho, English lawyer-philosopher Sir Thomas More, 19th century American Indian leader Chief Seattle, and the poetry of Professor Ramesh Tendulkar. The characters in Centurion may be fictional but the words of the poet exist. Including a mystical idea of a "string of uncertainty" that turns every game of cricket into a "lyric on the playground".
Centurion is inventive, unusual, and full of fictional insights and in-jokes - some of which sound spookily true. In one instance, the fictional character speaking in what could be Tendulkar's voice says:
"I don't shout and scream like McEnroe but make no mistake about it. The crocodile lives on in me - careful and camouflaged. When people talk about my 'humility', it smiles - and if you were to look deep into my eyes you would see all its teeth."
It is hard to read that and not think, "holy moly".
Centurion: The Father, the Son and The Spirit of Cricket
by Pramesh Ratnakar
Rs 225, 150 pages
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Available now at Cricshop