In July, a young man named Yashasvi Jaiswal made his international cricketing debut for India against the West Indies. 21-year-old Jaiswal made a strong impression, scoring a century and winning the player-of-the-match award in his very first game. Indian cricket is full of prodigies but Jaiswal’s story is all the more appealing because of how it began. Hailing from the small town of Bhadohi in Uttar Pradesh, Jaiswal moved to Mumbai and lived in a tent at the Azad Maidan, where he trained. After practicing through the day, he would sell panipuri to make ends meet, often to his own teammates.
A classic sports underdog story isn’t necessarily about weaker players or hapless teams pulling off massive upsets in front of adoring fans. In fact, the best of them work because of the personal hardships and unfortunate circumstances that the protagonist overcomes (Rocky, Cinderella Man et al). Two novels I read recently are elegant demonstrations of this fact—Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane (recently longlisted for the Booker Prize) and Saskya Jain’s Geeta Rahman at Championship Point. Western Lane sees 11-year-old Gopi train for a squash tournament in London even as her grieving father grows ever more emotionally distant from Gopi and her sisters (Khushi, 13 and Mona, 15). The titular protagonist of Geeta Rahman, meanwhile, is a 12-year-old badminton savant, the child of a Muslim father and a (late) Hindu mother growing up in 90s Delhi, shortly after the Babri Masjid demolition of ’93.
Both novels are about young girls who happen to be sporting prodigies. Both novels begin with the girls losing their mothers to untimely deaths. Both use the ‘training montage’ very well, the repetitions acting as a kind of therapeutic metronome for their protagonists. And while they’re significantly different at the line-by-line level, both books display an impressive grasp of the nuts-and-bolts of an underdog story.
For example, both books offer brilliant commentary on the intersection of parenting and sports training—in fact, this intersection is the narrative backbone of both stories. In Western Lane, Gopi develops a ritual of watching a DVD recording featuring Jamshed Khan, the legendary former Pakistani squash player. The ‘lessons’ therein become a stand-in not only for Gopi’s personal growth, but also as a fatherly voice speaking from the void, even as Gopi’s real father builds a wall of silence between them. As Gopi progresses further with her squash skills, she listens to Jamshed Khan not just for the strategic bits but also for the comfort that childhood rituals tend to bring.
Geeta Rahman, meanwhile, covers similar ground with the help of the character Vicky Bhabri. This middle-aged man, Geeta’s coach and her father’s senior colleague at work, has previously driven away his own badminton-prodigy daughter Sitara with his obsessive ways and tough-as-nails perfectionism. He knows he has to put on a veneer of ‘fatherliness’ for his latest project to succeed, but meanwhile he has never really processed his own relationship with his father, a legendary badminton player of his era. The connection is even spelt out explicitly when Vicky tries to teach Geeta his dad’s signature shot, the notoriously tricky ‘reverse slice drop’, involving no small measure of finesse and deception. Vicky, therefore, is villain and victim, a cautionary tale about sporting and parental obsessions taken to their logical endpoints.
If you’re a sports fan, you’ll surely have come across journalistic writing that draws parallels between sporting action and the trajectories of nation-state politics—look at the writings of Mike Marqusee (War Minus the Shooting) or CLR James (Beyond a Boundary). Western Lane and Geeta Rahman pull off an analogous manoeuvre, only with lessons in parenting. In the former, Gopi’s father is teaching his daughters ‘ghosting’, which in the squash context means making “the movements of the game with the racket but without the ball”; the shadow-fighting of squash excellence, basically. However, this is happening during a phase when one of his daughters is literally communicating with her mother’s ghost, which lends the passage about ‘ghosting’ an extra edge. “We could feel our thoughts slipping into his”, Gopi tells readers even as she receives her Dad’s ghosting instructions and we can visualize the two in rare unison, the only kind of father-daughter intimacy they’re allotted across the story.
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Similarly, when Geeta and Vicky are training under the watchful eye of Geeta’s Dad (he insists on tagging along), Vicky must entertain two contrasting impulses. One is the naked adrenaline he feels at the prospect of coaching a future champion; he wants to push her physical and mental limits. But at the same time, this impulse is tempered by the caution he feels he has to exercise. After all, if Geeta’s Dad feels that Vicky is too much of a taskmaster, the lessons will cease forthwith. This dilemma is highlighted wonderfully by the manner in which Vicky teaches Geeta, urging her to “find exactly the right balance between a gentle stroke and sufficient power”. Vicky himself, of course, is struggling to strike that very balance, and that’s what makes this passage resonate.
Are these novels coming-of-age stories? In the traditional sense, yes. But both Western Lane and Geeta Rahman go well beyond the traditional genre brief and deliver fascinating insights into humanity’s perennial sense of wonder at sporting excellence. In Western Lane there’s an excellent passage that describes a family ritual that Gopi would enjoy with her mother in the past—watching John McEnroe, the ultimate ‘bad boy’ of tennis, in action.
“When Ma was alive, we used to watch Wimbledon on TV and eat strawberries covered in sugar, all of us together, and then my sisters and I would come out to the fort and pretend to be John McEnroe. Khush did him best. She got the speech and the walk perfectly. Though we loved and admired him, we were bewildered that both Ma and Pa did too. We were only children, but even we could see that he was acting spoiled.”
There’s so much happening in this passage: personal upheavals being channelled into sporting excellence, the inherent liminality of the middle child Khushi, the difference between the way Indian parents bring up girls and boys (one reason why McEnroe’s tantrums are enjoyed by Gopi’s parents, but their own children’s tantrums would certainly be punished). Even the fact that live sports is the metaphor of choice — in the ongoing streaming era, live sports is one of the last surviving examples of ‘appointment viewing’, something which a large number of us watch together at the same time.
Western Lane and Geeta Rahman at Championship Point are potent reminders of how appealing sports underdog stories can be in skilled hands. These narratives speak to us all, really, even if we cannot catch a ball or sprint across a track to save our lives.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.