Literate Indians should be familiar with Ashis Nandy’s remark: “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.“ A Trinidadian Indian by the name of Chuck Ramkissoon, in Joseph O’Neill’s superbly inflected novel “Netherland”, is also fond of making bold pronouncements on the behalf of the game he wants to introduce to the U.S. “I’m saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket. What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match…”
It’s now my turn to be bold: “Netherland” is more of an Indian novel than the recent, much feted, Indian fiction. This is not only because O’Neill’s novel feeds our national obsession with the game. Nor even its exquisite description of what transpires on the playing field: “…. where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.” No. My pronouncement is based on the fact that the Indian characters in the book are highly individualized and yet fully global in their identity. “Netherland” is not a sociological-historical epic thesis, nor is it a shallow, cynical report on injustice in the hinterland. Rich in observation, reporting as much on the interior life as on the life outside, it is a captivating literary achievement. A masterpiece.