Few things can be more exciting than finding a great new writer and then realising that he’s not new at all and there are nearly a score of other books for you to track down and read. Timeri N. Murari is an Indian-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada, USA and UK as a journalist, novelist, film producer, playwright and stage director. He’s written for children, young adults, and adults tapping into genres across the spectrum of fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. So how come most of us have never heard of him? Read our Q&A to find out more about Murari and his latest book – The Taliban Cricket Club – then head over to the forum to find out how you can win a copy.
CBF:How did you learn about the Taliban’s interest in using cricket for propaganda purpose and could you tell us about how the seed of an idea grew into The Taliban Cricket Club?
Timeri N. Murari: Way back in 2000, I read a very brief report in the newspaper that the Taliban announced they would promote cricket in Afghanistan and the regime, backed by the Pakistan Cricket Board, would apply for associate membership to the International Cricket Council. I thought the item surreal – Taliban? Cricket? They were contradictory, an oxymoron. The regime had banned everything – including chess – and this was a diplomatic way for acceptance in a world that condemned their brutal rule. The idea nagged at me and I made a few notes on how I could use this for a story. I thought I’d throw in a tournament and that the winning team would be sent out of the country – all expenses paid – and never return. Great! But as no one knew how to play cricket back then in Afghanistan who’s going to teach my team of young men? A pro from England/India/Pakistan – it didn’t have any dimensions. I set the idea aside and went back to my other work when the Taliban were driven out by ISAF. When they ‘returned’ to fight ISAF, I pulled out my notes to re-think. I grew up playing cricket with my sisters and female cousins in our garden and even had a niece who played for India. So, why not a young Afghan woman who learned her cricket in India, returns to Kabul when the Taliban announce this and have her teach her cousins how to play this game? Through her I could explore the plight of women under the Taliban rule and have my cricket team as well.
CBF:Do you have any personal experience of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and if not, how did you research your characters? Did you have a friend or relative in mind as your mental ‘model’ for Rukhsana?
Timeri N. Murari:No, thankfully I didn’t have any personal experience living under the Taliban. I wouldn’t have lasted long as I’m not Muslim and most non-Muslims fled the country back then. First, I read all I could, books and website, on stories of life under the Taliban. In Delhi, I met a few Afghan refugees who told me their stories too. Then I went to Afghanistan and met men and women (working in offices beside men) who had lived under the Taliban and they told me what daily life was like in those years. I incorporated many of their stories and incidents into the novel. Surprisingly, the women had more sympathy for the men as the men had to grow beards and pray five times a day, otherwise they were beaten. The women told me life under the burka was hard, restricting their lives but they learned to survive. What worries them today is the fear that the Taliban will return and send the women back into those dark ages. I had sketched out the inner life of Rukhsana before I went to Afghanistan but didn’t have a complete image of her. Then when I was in Kabul airport going to through immigration I saw my Rukhsana – a woman in her 20s, lively, animated, talking to her friends, laughing easily. Now and then she’d frown and listen before reacting. And she had a ‘C’ curl of hair that fell across her forehead. She was also quite beautiful but unaware of her beauty. I watched her for ten minutes and then she was gone.
CBF:Books set in Afghanistan are almost all unremittingly miserable. How does it feel to have perhaps written the first book about the life under the Taliban that doesn’t need to be sold with a large box of Kleenex?
Timeri N. Murari:I am delighted that Kleenex has lost a possible market. I wanted to show that under every tyranny, people did fight against the tyrants in many ways, some violently, others more cleverly. At the same time they have to lead ‘normal’ lives. We try to snatch joy and love under the most cruel circumstances in our need to survive and keep our sanity.
CBF:Your average British woman has a pretty low level of interest in cricket – your average American or Canadian even less so (Cricket? That’s like a grasshopper, right?) Was your book written with the Indian market in mind? Did you make any changes to the text to appeal more to readers who aren’t so cricket-savvy?
Timeri N. Murari:I didn’t write it with anyone in mind. Since, I enjoyed writing it, I thought there’ll be a few people out there who could enjoy reading it too. I was very surprised that my New York agent first loved the book, without saying ‘cricket! No one will read this?’ She sent it out New York publishers and the bigger surprise was that five responded, wanting to buy the novel. Ecco bought it and the editor, Lee, called me and we talked for an hour and she barely mentioned the word ‘cricket’. But yes, I had to cut back on the technical terms – leg slips, silly point, leg breaks – I used in the first draft as she didn’t understand their meanings. As I’ve played cricket nearly all my life, mostly in England for the Guardian newspaper team, the hardest work was simplifying the game for readers who had never seen a cricket match and thought cricket was an insect. India bought the novel only after the French, Dutch and Norwegian publishers, none of whom, I suspect, have ever seen a game of cricket!
CBF:I suspect many readers will assume you are a woman, probably 20-30 years younger than you actually are – yes, I checked you out on Facebook! Is that stereotyping a good thing or a bad thing and are you amused or insulted by the inevitable mistakes?
Timeri N. Murari:I’m more amused. Writers are slotted into comfortable genres – thriller, crime, romance, historical, literary (whatever that means) and are expected, like prisoners, to remain in their allotted cells. The first question I’ve been asked is ‘how could you write this as a first person woman narrator?’ I had written a previous novel, ‘Lovers Are not People’ with a first person woman narrator and that did extremely well, with no questions asked. On this one, I had a mail from a woman in Texas who saw the book in Barnes & Nobel, was intrigued by the title and the story line but said she hesitated to buy it when she saw it was written by a man. Her letter was very flattering as she completely believed Rukhsana’s voice.
CBF:Is there any future for Rukhsana and her friends and family once the book ends? Where do you see them today, a decade after the events are set?
Timeri N. Murari:For Rukhsana, yes, there is a more stable future – a married life, happily I believe – and she returns to spend time in Afghanistan to write about it for a newspaper. By now, she has a couple of kids and is settled in New Delhi. Her brother Jahan, after his degree from Delhi University, is now in America, probably working on his masters or even working for NASA as that was his ambition. The cousins’ future could be darker. They were trying to get to Australia by paying a smuggler to get them there. The journey was hard and dangerous but they make it, are imprisoned by Australian immigration, appeal to the courts and, after a year, are finally allowed to settle in the country. They worked and studied in the evenings for their degrees, remaining close knit and supporting each other and now are happily settled down in their careers. They are the lucky ones – today hundreds of young Afghan men, more boys, walk all the way to Europe looking for work.
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