With the news of England’s women winning the Ashes, it’s a good time for the women’s game. The teams will play a return series in the winter, where, with a bit of effort on behalf of the cricket boards, their games could draw bigger audiences and increased reporting.
But what about women’s cricket in the rest of the world? While browsing for literature, I came across a paperback with the slightly sensationalist title The Taliban Cricket Club. The blurb promised the fictional story of an oppressed Afghan woman under Taliban rule trying to escape a forced marriage by winning a cricket tournament. I’m a sucker for cricket-inspired literature, and there’s not much written from a woman’s perspective, and with all that space in my bookshelf, I bought it.
The author, Timeri N. Murari, is an Indian man. Bummer. I guess the Afghans are working on a literary scene, but quite early on it becomes clear that this is a story that has every right to be told, and by whomever. In interviews, Murari comes across as a person genuinely interested in the plight of the Afghan people, so you would do the setting of the book a great injustice if you regarded it as merely a pretext to talk about cricket. For a long time, in fact, there is no mention of the great leveler, cricket being a sport built on fairness and equality, reaching out across the world to unite nations. Instead, we find ourselves in a terrifying world where everything from music to card games and paintings of animals are banned, and women are not allowed to be seen outside their parents’ or husbands’ houses. A world where the religious police beat women for talking to taxi drivers and men for having posters on their bedroom walls. It’s the year 2000, and the Taliban rule Afghanistan. Rukhsana, a young journalist from an educated family, has been banned from working for a Kabul newspaper and now submits articles about the treatment of the Afghan people to a Delhi newspaper, living with the constant fear of being discovered and shot. Once she studied in India and fell in love, now she’s forced to wear a burka, not leave the house without her younger brother, and wait for her mother to die of cancer before submitting to an arranged marriage. She refuses to stop submitting clandestine articles because she knows that to give up would mean a slow descent into despair and hopelessness, a fate she shares with virtually all Afghan women. The descriptions of female life in Afghanistan are at times too depressing to make reading the novel any fun, even if sometimes we get a glimpse of dissent — there’s the ex-beautician who insists on putting on make-up under the burka, for instance. And, of course, there is the constant stream of people risking their lives trying to leave the country. For Rukhsana, life in Afghanistan becomes unbearable when a high Taliban official wants to marry her; refusal would mean certain death for her family and herself. Rukhsana’s only chance is a cricket tournament, hastily arranged by the government in order to find international approval, which will send the winning team to Pakistan for specialist training. Rukhsana fell in love with cricket in India, and decides to teach her cousins’ team to give them a chance to escape.
The tension that develops when Rukhsana has to masquerade as a man in order to train with the team drives the novel forward. The plot itself is not particularly believable, but the setting is eery and menacing. A book like this can only have a happy ending, but I still found myself expecting things to go wrong until the very end. That makes it a successful novel, I guess. There is not much cricket though, a fact owed to the author’s decision to publish in the U.S., where very few people understand the game. But it’s a win-win-situation: cricket-obsessives will learn about life in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, while everyone else will at least get a glimpse of the game and its appeal.
It’s hard to decide how much to trust the book. For me, the descriptions of an oppressive system worked; I found it uncomfortable in places and even after having put the book aside, I still get angry at such abuse of power. On a literary level, a real Afghan woman’s view would be immensely more valuable. While I trust Murari to have put time and effort into research and conversations with expat Afghans, his imagined view can never describe all levels of the female psyche under such pressure. Descriptions of romance and love are very superficial, while sex isn’t mentioned at all, and I’d love to hear more about those aspects. Owing to a plot that develops quickly over a few days, anything not directly connected to it is only mentioned in passing, and many characters remain underdeveloped. As a first encounter with both subjects together, cricket and women under the Taliban, this is an enjoyable book. Other books will hopefully be able to fill the voids it leaves.