FEATURE: Beyond doom and gloom

Kuala Lumpur (The Star/ANN) - Novels about life in Afghanistan tend to fall into two categories: 1) Storylines that tackle life before the Soviet invasion (ie, anything before December 1979).

2) Storylines that examine Afghani lives over the last 30 years, encompassing Soviet invaders, civil war, Taliban rule, the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks in America and the subsequent neverending "war on terror".

Naturally, novels in the second category tend to be about oppression, frustration, hopelessness, despair and all round depression.

Timeri N. Murari's second novel, The Taliban Cricket Club, falls into the second category. However, he offers a clever twist in this novel of life in Kabul under the Taliban regime: cricket. Murari actually based this on an obscure but real event in 2000, when the Taliban, rather surreally, promoted cricket in an attempt to gain acceptance in the international community.

The heroine of the novel is Rukhsana, a spirited young journalist with the Kabul Times who receives a dreaded summons to appear before the infamous Ministry to Promote Virtue and Punish Vice.

Minister Zorak Wahidi wants to threaten the anti-establishment reporter and also have the Kabul Times announce the Taliban's intention to hold a cricket tournament to pick a national representative for the International Cricket Council.

And by the end of his meeting with Rukhsana, the villain also wants the her hand in marriage....

Despite being hounded into hiding and wearing the burqa as well as losing her job and her independence - she is forced to have a male chaperone whenever she steps out of her home - Rukhsana does not despair. Falling back on her love for cricket, a game she played while studying in New Delhi, she and younger brother Jahan set about convincing their cousins and friends to be part of their cricket team.

Dodging the Taliban and Wahidi, they organise bowling, batting and catching practice.

And just to add to the drama, Veer, a former love interest, re-enters Rukhsana's life and offers the possibility of a life together.

It has to be said that Murari is excellent at depicting a war-torn Kabul and the oppression of the Taliban regime that left citizens paralysed with fear.

Still, despite the surroundings and the setting, the novel is far from violent; what violence is depicted seems to be a realistic example of what happened daily in Afghanistan under the Taliban rather than violence for the sake of violence.

While admittedly the long-distance romance between Rukhsana and Veer seems a little hollow and forced, Murari writes with complete conviction when describing cricket practice: the pep talks, the explanation of the game, the batting and the catching comes across as totally believable.

Kudos to Murari for not focusing only on the negatives of Afghanistan.

Without downplaying the difficulty of life under the Taliban, Murari steers his novel towards cricket and the fun the odd bunch of players have learning the game and trying to understand its sometimes arcane rules.

By doing so, Murari illustrates that despite the daily hardships, Afghans still knew - and know even better nowadays, one hopes - how to have a laugh. And he put forward the glorious idea that a simple game of cricket is more than enough for peace to prevail among the various tribes, even if for only a few hours.

Its title notwithstanding, The Taliban Cricket Club is far from being a novel about cricket that happens to be set in Afghanistan. Take away cricket, and the central themes of the novel are hope, optimism, family, and courage.

While admittedly rather dry when delving into the more technical parts of the rules of cricket, The Taliban Cricket Club is a humane and brave novel. And it's worthy of a read, even if you are not a fan of cricket.

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