A slim novel for ten-year-olds. Written by Joy Bhattacharjya and his twelve-year-old son, Vivek. The story is about Sachin, Neel and a bunch of boys who are competing to join the Delhi team of the Junior Premier League. The story is from the time they are selected, trained and compete in the championship. I enjoyed reading the book. It is very clear from the story, irrespective of the format of the game being played, cricket is like any other sport — it is gruelling in the training and discipline that is required.
While reading the story, I kept getting the feeling that the story was reading well, since there were details about organising a cricket tournament, preparing the players for it — in terms of practice, nourishment, mental strength etc. Details about time management, slowly changing the players from thinking only about themselves to behaving like a team player, while retaining their individual traits and strengths. In an email conversation with Joy Bhattacharjya, he said that the series arc will develop slowly. For now he is trying to establish and build the JPL universe and follow Sachin, Neel and a couple of the other characters as the league goes into another year. The frequency of the books will be twice a year, with the next one due to be published in November and Book 3 to coincide with the next IPL.
My only quibble with the story is that the brutal competitiveness that children and young adults are capable of is lacking in this story. The focus is on cricket but the characters are comparatively tame. Contemporary young adult literature can be at times horrifyingly honest and sharp in the violence and harsh world it depicts. Young adults are still on the cusp of adulthood, so have not completely lost that clarity of behaviour that exists in childhood, of being who they are, seeing the world in black and white. Even though Joy Bhattacharjya had taken the help of his son to get into the mind of a twelve-year-old and they have worked on the plot together, I felt that they fell a little short. Maybe once Joy and his son settle into the skin of the characters, they will be able to express themselves more confidently.
Writing about sports and literature is never easy. IPL or the Junior Premier League which is the focus of the novel is a new version of an old sport. Tailor-made for the speed age, part-entertainment, part-sports, but a business that involves huge amounts of money. So creating a story that is trying to yoke together the IPL version of cricket and create a good story for young readers is a tough balancing act. There is a lovely portion in the correspondence between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee published in Here and Now: Letters ( 2008 – 2011) about sports. Coetzee says in his letter of 11 May 2009, “What strikes me is how difficult it is to invent and launch a thoroughly new sport ( not just a variant of an old one), or perhaps I should say launch a new game ( sports being selected out of the repertoire of games).” To which Paul Auster replies, “…essentially you are right. Nothing new has been made to impact for generations. When you think about how quickly various technologies have altered daily life ( trains, cars, airplanes, movies, radios, televisions, computers), the intractability of sports is at first glance mystifying. There has to be a reason for it…So much is at stake now in professional sports, so much money is involved , there is so much profit to be gained by fielding a successful team that the men who control soccer, basketball, and all other major sports are as powerful as the heads of the largest corporations, the heads of governments. There is simply no room to introduce a new game. The market is saturated, and the games that already exist have become monopolies that will do everything possible to crush any upstart competitor. That doesn’t mean that people don’t invent new games ( children do it every day), but children don’t have the wherewithal to launch multi-million-dollar commercial enterprises.” ( p.65, p.68-69)
For Joy Bhattacharjya, who is associated with Kolkota Knight Riders, it is such an integral part of his professional life, he is able to infuse the story with details about the team, give the children like Sachin and Neel dreams to be like their heroes, all of which ring true and important for accurate storytelling but it needs to soar higher than the particulars of the game. While providing insightful tidbits about the game and championship, the story at the same time has to be in step with good children’s literature that will continue to be read and sell beyond the current IPL season; well after heroes like Sunil Narine have quit professional cricket. For now much of reading pleasure stems from the familiarity with the media buzz about the game.
There is promise in the first book. Hence the expectations. I have no doubt the series will live up to these expectations.
Joy Bhattacharjya The First XI Junior Premier League Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 176. Rs. 199.