Not (only) cricket: Playing a second innings in love (Book Review)

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Title: Man of Her Match; Author: Sakshama Puri Dhariwal; Publisher: Penguin Random House India; Pages: 272; Price: Rs 299

Take a cricketer whose on-field exploits are matched, if not overshadowed, by his non-sporting scandals, a woman marketing executive, who was once his best friend in their childhood, but since estranged after a “misunderstanding”, and throw them together after many years. Add a Bollywood actress, media managers, family pressures and so on. Recipe for another “chick-lit” romance? Not exactly.

For one, this term has not only acquired a dismissive and unjustified connotation which ignores the fact that we all are eager to see the same ingredients in most of our films, newspapers’ page 3 sections and other glossy magazines but pretend to scorn it in novels.

There might be some who profess outrage, but it is cricket, Bollywood and love — no matter how emotionally messy and choppy — that makes for the most entertaining stories, and Sakshama Puri Dhariwal uses them to great advantage in her second book.

And while Dhariwal goes on to season these popular motifs with some typically Indian tropes — the loyal retainers, the English-mangling but straight-talking Punjabi manager, imperious bosses, but especially micro-managing, even manipulative, parents, women’s freedom to work and entitled, sexist male suitors; there are also universal issues like office politics and celebrity culture.

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It essentially is the story of Nidhi Marwah, who finds to her horror she has to collaborate with Indian cricket team’s enfant terrible Vikram Walia, for her Delhi paper’s education mission after Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan pulls out at the last minute.

Vikram, whose bad behaviour on the field has led to him being grounded from the team and scrapes outside has kept him in the news for the wrong reasons, is seeking an image makeover and agrees to participate for free. However Nidhi, who not only dislikes him for “being an obnoxious self-centred, spoiled Casanova” but for a older, much personal reason, cannot overrule her boss and is forced to comply.

Though sparks fly from their first meeting, and subsequently as they trade barbs and slurs, they manage to cooperate but cannot ignore their past, which crops up quite frequently — given they are neighbours in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar (Vikram, to his manager’s consternation, decided to stay at his grandmother’s old house instead of a hotel).

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As their professional and personal engagement continues and rekindles what they felt towards each other as teenagers, will they have a chance at surmounting their bitter parting of years ago? Can Nidhi achieve her heart’s desire while preventing heartbreak for her father, and fend off the rather repugnant and sexist suitor he has lined up for her?

But will Vikram’s “bad boy” image and rumoured liaison with Bollywood heartthrob Natasha get in her way?

Given the genre and its format, the answers to these questions will be not in any serious doubt of being in the negative but the path to them, though long and twisted, is the story. And Dhariwal has presented it well with flair, wit and bit of pathos as Nidhi and Vikram’s tale ends on expected lines — at the Feroze Shah Kotla in front of his teammates.

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Along the way, there are touching episodes of childhood for those with busy or absent parents, swipes at Indian pastimes (especially match-making/matrimonial advice), the media business and its penchant for celebrities (beyond Vikram) and above all, the tendency of parents to remain too focussed on charting their progeny’s course in life.

These are set off by a range of colourful characters, especially Nidhi’s top lawyer father, but also her two best female buddies, her trio of devoted servants — cook, driver and Nepalese watchman — the surly ex-cricketer-turned-sports editor, the actress whose role is decisive and many others.

But above all, it is a story about loss and companionship, fame and loneliness, media and parental manipulation, miscommunication, and finally second chances and redemption (beyond our hero and heroine).

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])



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