Ian Buruma’s ‘Playing the Game’ is an unusual delight for the cricket lovers — a novel on the life of KS Ranjitsinhji. Arunabha Sengupta talks about stumbling across this little known title in the streets of Amsterdam and the many treasures one can discover by thumbing through the pages of this engrossing work.
A novel about Ranji? By a Dutch author?
Amsterdam is not a city known for cricketing treasures. Once upon a time, the great game was indeed popular in the Netherlands. But then, along came hockey and football. Apart from the VRA Cricket Ground in neighbouring Amstelveen, and a smattering of serious weekend cricketers among the Indian diaspora, there is hardly any sign of the sport in this city otherwise throbbing with every kind of sensual delight.
But the streets running along the intricate network of canals are littered with fascinating bookstores, many of them dealing in used books — where Dutch volumes are generously complemented by English books. It is a haven for the bibliophile, and for the passionate collector there is always the chance of fascinating serendipitous surprises.
De Negen Straatjes are formed by nine quaint streets connected in a grid, in the very heart of the canal district, straddling the 17th century waterworks from the Singel to Prinsengracht. Just two minutes away from the Royal Palace at Dam Square, the streets host designer boutiques, artist galleries, gift shops, bars, cafes and restaurants — as well as some bookshops. And in the middle of Hartenstraat, one of the three streets connecting the canals Keizergracht and Herengracht, the JOOT Books is one of the favourite haunts of the connoisseur.
JOOT stands for Just Out Of Time — explaining that it specialises in second hand books. While giant coffee table tomes and a mouth-watering collection of reasonably priced volumes on art and photography greet one at the entrance, tucked away in the basement is an excellent assortment of second hand English books on a broad variety of subjects.
As I emerged from the subterranean treasure-trove, Marius Zevers looked on with interest from behind the desk. My arms were straining under several novels based in Prague — reading material for my forthcoming holiday. The pile of Hrabal, Klima and Skvorecky that I dumped on the counter was a defining snapshot of the lamentable fact — life is short and good literature aplenty. Marius and I got talking about Klima, and soon I came to know he was a writer as well, specialising in the life and works of Dutch author AL Snijders.
When he got wind of my forays into the world of the written word, and specific leanings towards cricket, he grew animated: “Have you read the cricket book by Buruma? The novel?”
I said I had not. Of course, I knew of the works of the Dutch author and academic Ian Buruma. I had read some of his very down to earth analysis of Japan. I had also gone through his famous Murder in Amsterdam — documenting the death of the celebrated and controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, killed by Islamic extremists. I seemed to recall one particular novel set in China. But, I had never heard of a Buruma novel on cricket. I had never associated him with the game at all.
Marius turned to his desktop computer. “I’ll try to pull it up. It’s about an Indian cricketer.”
This was even more astonishing, and delightfully so. I leaned over the counter and peered at the screen. After a few clicks the details were displayed. It was a volume called Playing the Game and the cover said it all. The famed portrait of the bejewelled and turbaned KS Ranjitsinhji stared back at me from a brownish background.
“Unfortunately I don’t have it in my store,” Marius said sadly.
However, such minor problems have hardly ever stood in my bibliomaniacal ways. Within an hour it had been ordered from abebooks.de. By the following weekend, the package was nestling invitingly in my letter box.
Playing the game
Ian Buruma was named as one of the 100 top global thinkers of 2010 by Foreign Policy. His stature as a serious intellectual of our times is prominent and globally accepted. Besides, he hails from a nation that — by the strictest definition — remains a minor force in the cricketing world. Hence, a novel on cricket penned by him could have been a real boost for interest in the game in the cricket-agnostic parts of the world. It is rather unfortunate that it remains obscure, even to the major dabblers in cricket literature.
Buruma has been living in New York for the last decade. But, he was born in Den Haag, to a Dutch father and a British mother. His field of interest has always been Asia, along with the associated angle of the West as viewed through Eastern eyes. He studied Chinese Literature at the Leiden University and later Japanese Film at the Nihon University of Tokyo. And with the pragmatism perhaps inherited from his Dutch ancestry, his writings traverse the nooks and corners of the Far East without the undue romanticism and imagined esotericism that is the bane of a majority of Western Authors dabbling in those distant lands.
In that sense, Playing the Game is a novel with a quaint difference. While the author’s maternal links to England definitely point towards interest and knowledge of the game, his Dutch roots allow him to write without being burdened by the romantic lure of Ranji at the wicket. Cricket plays a role, an important one, and at appropriate parts the batsmanship of Ranji has been analysed. However, the artistry has not overshadowed the theme which goes beyond cricket and deals with his life and times.
The book starts off as the chronicle of an unnamed writer interested in Ranji’s life. He travels to India sometime in the 1980s to research about the great man. His quest for the story of the Indian prince takes him to the town of Nawanagar and the royal archives, where he comes across the letters of Ranji. And amidst all the bills and invoices, he finds a long, long, hitherto unknown and unpublished, in which Ranji talks about his life with fascinating detail — covering every aspect, cricketing, regal and otherwise.
It is here that one discovers if not a hole at least a dent in the plot. As the author himself puts it, Ranji was never much of a writer. Even his Jubilee Book of Cricket was authored with the help of his celebrated friend and batting partner for Sussex, CB Fry. However, that sort of help is not available for this supposed chronicle — because it happens to be a missive from Ranji to Fry, which was never posted. The Edwardian style and the clichés used with abandon make it slightly difficult to believe that Ranji could pen such a narrative by himself.
The premise is also slightly thin. His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, had been all set to visit Nawanagar as part of his tour of India in 1921. At the last moment, his plans were revised, and as a minor kingdom, Nawanagar dropped off the itinerary in spite of all the pains Ranji had gone through to host and entertain the Prince. In a morose reaction, he writes to Fry, asking him to judge his claims as someone who deserved to play host to the crown prince of the Empire. And thereby he launches on a detailed account of the story of his life.
If we accept this rather dubious justification for an autobiographical letter, we can enjoy a lot of nuggets of recognisable flavour from Ranji’s life that will delight an adherent of cricket history. Most of the events of his life — from the adoption ceremony to his school days, from his Cambridge extravagances to playing cricket for Sussex and England, from his many tussles to secure the gaddi to his frustrating inaction during the First World War — have been touched upon with a lot of care. The cricket is more incidental rather than central to the story, but it is dealt with due importance as well. Some incidents, for example Fry being asked to become the King of Albania, have their own hilarious explanations.
However, there are a few parts of the novel that can be jarring to a romantic. As a social commentator, and an unpretentious one, Buruma refuses to paint glittering pictures of Ranji at the wicket. He analyses the brilliance of his stroke-play, dwells on the innovation of the leg-glance, but there is no Cardusian flight of fantasy.
And when it comes to Ranji the ruler, the portrayal of the man may seem slightly questionable. Yes, Buruma has obviously done his research, but it seems at particular parts of the novel that he tends to generalise Ranji a bit too much.
Much of the letter to Fry reads as a justification of the extravagances that Indian rulers were prone to — the lavishness of the ceremonies, the shikaars, the entertainment of the guests, the frequent trips to Europe. Ranji rationalises all of it and is made to come across as an archetypal ruler perched on the throne in a world coming to terms with modernity, slowly becoming an anachronism in costume. His endeavours in the First World War read almost comical, and his criticism of the agitation against British rule seems more than a tad overdone. It does seem that the social historian has chosen Ranji to portray the voice of the general Indian prince of those days. True, Ranji might not have been too different, but I doubt if he was as typical as Buruma makes him out to be.
Gandhi, CLR James and Nirad C Chaudhuri
A major gaffe in the book is the portrayal of the schoolboy MK Gandhi as an underarm lob bowler with a vicious break from the leg. Ranji comes across him during a match for Rajkumar College and Gandhi also dismisses him at the non-striker’s end by flicking off his bails as he leaves his crease before the ball is bowled. Later, Gandhi meets him in London and the two watch cricket together, during which Ranji is fed up with his pretentious and largely misguided commentary on the game.
As far as has been documented in history, Gandhi never indulged in cricket. He was never a cricketer of either ability or note, and the accusation of Mankading is rather far-fetched as far as poetic license goes. He did meet Ranji in London, but no account talks of their being together inside a cricket stadium.
It may be that in his letter to Fry, Ranji wrote fictitious accounts of Gandhi’s unscrupulous behaviour on the cricket field to underline that he was dead against whatever trouble the man was causing the British at that point of time in the early 1920s. However, if that had been the intention, Buruma does not clarify it in the novel.
From time to time, between the parts of the letter, the story returns to India in the 1980s. And there are amusing commentaries of the Indian way of looking at the West, the dichotomies of Indian tradition and British influence. In some sense, these are as rewarding as the account of Ranji’s life.
There are also some additional delights in the book. Some historians and cricket writers often step into the story, under different names but very, very identifiable words, phrases and mannerisms.
There is KC Lewis in London, a Trinidadian Marxist, who links cricket to the ancient Greek Olympics. He has read Vanity Fair over and over again, swears by Tom Brown’s Schooldays and sports The Black Jacobins on his shelf. No caricature of CLR James could have been closer.
There is also a nonagenarian writer who wears traditional Indian clothes in Oxford and British suits complete with tie and cap in India. One does not have to be a genius to decipher the image of Nirad C Chaudhuri peeping out from behind the garb.
And finally there is a historian who says, “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British” and commences on a verbose and rather obtuse description of the Indo-British and Ranji-Fry relationships.
These are the delightful nuggets that make it more than just another cricket book. They help it to traverse the rather gaping fissures in narration, the rather one-sided portrayal of Ranji as a great cricketer and an incorrigible Anglophile, and elevates it into a must-have in the cricket-lover’s library.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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