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Reads for the road

Suresh Menon
A dozen books that will give you an insight into the subcontinent when you visit for the cricket
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"A famous historian," wrote CLR James in Beyond a Boundary, "can write the history of England in the 19th century and never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in his book a place for WG Grace."

By a happy coincidence India's best known historian, Ramachandra Guha, is also its finest writer on cricket. And Sachin Tendulkar finds a mention in his authoritative India After Gandhi.

But let me start at the beginning. The brief from ESPNcricinfo's editor was: what books would you recommend to cricket fans travelling to the subcontinent that will give them a feel for the region? That's a very specific audience. Not one that's necessarily looking for literary masterpieces - although some of the books in the list are just that - or profound philosophical conclusions. The choices would have to be contemporary rather than historic, concrete rather than abstract, and take in the countries as a whole rather than focus on specific areas.

That would rule out a whole lot of my favourites: The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani, A Corner of a Foreign Field by Guha, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

Then there is the problem of numbers. How many from each country? I chose as guide a combined one-day team from India-Sri Lanka- Bangladesh. It had six players from India, four from Sri Lanka and two from Bangladesh. I decided (purely arbitrarily, of course) that each country would have as many books as they had players in the XII.

The English writer AA Thomson was once asked to recommend 10 books to start a cricket library with, and replied, "Eight Carduses and two others." In similar vein, I was tempted to make it easier for everybody by recommending all of Guha's cricket books, his two volumes of collected essays, his recent Makers of Modern India, and of course India after Gandhi, a fabulous journey of discovery both for Indians and foreigners. His The States of Indian Cricket which is a single volume bringing together his two books (Wickets in the East and Spin and Other Turns) of anecdotal history of the game in the country is the intelligent fan's paean comparable to the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's homage to baseball, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville.

VS Naipaul's A Million Mutinies Now is remarkable for anticipating the new India, self-assured, one foot on the world stage but with the other still in the wings. It is his most compassionate book on the country, written before the economic liberalisation but with a sense of impending boom.

Two of the best travel books on India are William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali, and Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon. Dalrymple's travels and encounters in India are written about with a rare empathy, while Frater travelled from Kerala to Meghalaya following the monsoon and capturing the sounds and smells and sights with a sharp eye and limpid prose.

In recent years three Indian writers have won the Booker Prize, and many have been shortlisted. Yet the contemporary novel that captures India best is Manu Joseph's Serious Men. It brings together the two Indias, the rich and the poor (not just financially, but psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually) and is both non-judgemental and subtly humorous.

The Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunasekera was nominated for the Booker Prize for Reef, but his best Sri Lankan work is the collection of short stories that make up Monkfish Moon. Gunasekera's The Match begins with a cricket match between scratch teams and ends with a one-day international between Sri Lanka and India, possibly the first time an ODI made its way in some detail into a work of fiction.

The recent novel Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka, is the story of an alcoholic sports journalist who seeks out a former player he believes is the island's greatest cricketer.

Sri Lanka have had some erudite cricket captains and officials, but few who have put their experiences down in a book. Roshan Mahanama's Retired Hurt caused a minor controversy when it was released about a decade ago because of a story it contained of a politically incorrect response by Glenn McGrath to Sanath Jayasuriya. Let's leave it at that. Aravinda de Silva's autobiography Aravinda includes the glory year of 1996, when he was the hero in the country's World Cup triumph in the subcontinent.

The most evocative books on Sri Lanka have been written by the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, who was born there. Anil's Ghost is a brilliant story of a beautiful country torn asunder by ethnic divisions; the large story is the background against which the individual stories play out, but you are aware of it all the time. Ondaatje returned to Sri Lanka to understand better his mixed Dutch, Tamil and Sinhalese roots. The result was the autobiographical Running in the Family, written with the sensitivity of a poet and a sense of mischief only the most gifted writers can bring to their works.

Monica Ali is probably the best known writer from Bangladesh, but her Brick Lane is set in England. The books that capture her country best are probably A Blonde Bengali Wife, a travelogue by Anne Hamilton and Expatriate Games: 662 days in Bangladesh by Mark Trenowden. I say "probably" because these are the only books in the list I haven't read. They are recommended by friends. Still, I am intrigued by Trenowden's description as a "full-time village cricketer".

The book that is the most inspiring and explains Bangladesh best is the story of micro-credit, written by the man who changed the lives of millions - the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Banker to the Poor details how what began with a loan of $27 evolved into the Grameen Bank, a six-billion dollar enterprise.

What does micro-credit have to do with cricket, a sport where, as the IPL has shown, players become millionaires in one afternoon's hectic bidding? And why is a history of India important to our understanding of its most popular sport? James, with whom we started, provided the answer decades ago with a question of his own: What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

Suresh Menon is the editor of Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer

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