“Rukhsana, daughter of Gulab, is to appear in person at 11 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 Chennai-based author Timeri N. Murari begins his latest book, The Taliban Cricket Club.
The title of Murari’s tale seems like a misnomer, given the strong 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 voice refusing to be gagged.
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 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 feelings in the chapter The Announcement:
“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.”
The locale of Afghanistan under Taliban rule lifts this tale out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, even exotic. The setting places Murari’s tale in the genre of books that have painted portraits of life in this landscape of political instability, such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Deborah Rodriguez’s post-Taliban tale, Kabul Beauty School. Describing Taliban’s Kabul, Murari 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 Rukhsana encounters may be rooted in a regressive regime, but they resonate with experiences of 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 echoes real-life experiences of political figures like Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Fatima Bhutto and others who have lived in the shadow of violence and vendetta.
Incidentally, India shapes the feminist and the journalist in Rukhsana, and forms the fulcrum from which the narrative travels back and forth in 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 makes it clear that fair and fearless journalism cannot be practisedunder 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. Wahidi, who has several wives, even tries to coerce her into wedlock.
Even though Rukhsana has to leave her job, Murari finds a way for his heroine to pen stories of women’s repression. He borrows from the real-life experiences of female Afghan journalists who wrote for publications run by organisations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) — like them, Rukhsana smuggles her articles, written under a pseudonym, out of the country. In this suppression-scarred society, the burqa or veil becomes a metaphor, described thus by Rukhsana: “A few metres of fabric, soft, fragile and pliable, became our cell.” And the mahram, or male escort, without whom a woman cannot leave her house, becomes another symbol of the sexist social milieu.
The Taliban Cricket Club reflects Rukhsana’s desire to break free from an inhuman existence and an oppressive regime under which women make news only when they are tortured or given the death sentence.
Her urge to escape becomes all the more compelling, consuming, for she has breathed the air of freedom in the classrooms and cricket grounds of her college campus, and in her romantic encounter with a Delhi boy, Veer. So, when Wahidi and company 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 to get membership of the International Cricket Council, Rukhsana and her kin look upon it as an escape route.
Having played cricket in college, Rukhsana, disguised as a male player, Babur, trains her brother Jahan and male cousins so that they can win the passport to freedom. When D-day dawns, Rukhsana’s team — The Taliban Cricket Club — plays as if there is no tomorrow.
In a recent interview, Murari talked about his choice of the team’s name: “It really is a counter to the Taliban. They [Rukhsana’s team] are deliberately using it. 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 the cunning Wahidi has other plans. Ultimately, are they able to outsmart him? Does Rukhsana, the rebel and feminist, break free from her shackles? Does Rukhsana, the romantic, reunite with her love? And does Rukhsana, the writer, script her success story?
In the words of author Deborah Rodriguez, 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...”
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