In this novel the characters struggle with personal losses alongside the journey of a nation

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Ushering in 2022 felt to me simultaneously hollow, ceremonial and momentous. Perhaps this was because it followed in the heels of a year that dragged its feet, moving at an obstinately slow pace while introducing historic changes that some of us didn’t notice till we looked back and took stock. A year of gradual transformation that refused to be rushed.

“Bittersweet is the passage of this year,” reads a Tricontinental newsletter. “There have been some immense victories and some catastrophic defeats.” In this vein, it seemed fitting that my first read of the year was Geeta Rahman at Championship Point – a book that performs a balancing act between victory and defeat, the historic and day-to-day, in a wobbly but intrepid way.

I will confess that my first reaction to being handed a book with a badminton racket on its cover was to be underwhelmed. It was a sport that I believed belonged to schooltime recesses, not to the epics. It is testament to Saskya Jain’s ability that halfway through the book I began imploring my friends to join me in the park’s court.

This might be some of the cause for dismissing the sport – how accessible it is to everyone, how affordable the equipment. Badminton cannot promise cricket’s degree of stardom, it is not the class-confined activity of golf. It is making its soft climb into the public eye. I regretted referring to it as “watered-down tennis” and began to view it in its own right when one of the characters described it as “chess for the body”, saying, “Tennis and cricket you play with your arm, but badminton you play with your mind.”

And while Jain proved herself a very compelling sports writer (the descriptions of the matches are riveting even for someone unfamiliar with the sport), the other hope I had for the book – that it not be just about badminton – was more than fulfilled. It is a book as much about a nation as a sport. It is perhaps the everydayness of badminton that grounds a book so ambitious in its ambit.

The Babri Masjid before its demolition by a mob | Image credit: PTI

It would be unfair to say that politics or history acts merely as a backdrop to this kind of literature – rather, it is sewn into the fabric. Often, there is a tendency to consider only the principal actors of history and cast common, everyday actors as background characters – likewise, there is an impulse to consider history and its happenings as a background to literature.

This book places characters struggling with personal losses and challenges alongside the journey of a nation. I was reminded of Shashi Deshpande’s essay, “Catching the Truth of a Nation” – “it seems, then, that even when the writer is actively engaging with the nation, when the writer takes the nation as a subject, the writer cannot and does not write to an agenda which gives the nation a place beyond and above humanity.” Jain picks up the most infinitesimal element of a nation – the family – and uses this lens to catch a turning point in history.

Set in 1993, there are two ghosts haunting the novel – the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the death of Geeta’s mother. The story begins through twelve-year-old Geeta’s perspective. Her voice is a curious, contradictory amalgamation of childish and deeply mature. Sometimes this produces a jarring effect that I’m not certain was intentional. I’ve read many books that effectively convey darker themes through the eyes of a child, but this novel doesn’t seem to fully commit to Geeta’s naivety.

In some moments, she is looking up words like “imbecile” in her dictionary and in others she’s giving profound and articulate meditations on grief and loss. There might be reasons for this – it might represent the accelerating effect grief has on one’s maturity. It aligns with her eagerness to please her father (referred to in mock-IAS jargon as the “parent cadre”), who is always urging her to develop her “interlicked”.

One scene in which she endears herself to me greatly is when, in order to convince her father to coach her in badminton, she employs some of the words she memorised to impress him. “There is no emolument but as your daughter I promise to give you the maximum most dearness allowances in return. The dearest allowances, in toto.” With a gurgling laugh, her father realises who it is that’s been stealing pages from his IAS files.

The book does not follow the formulaic trajectory of a sports star, although it appears that the elements are all there – an unrecognised talent, a father who dismisses her gift and a coach who sees the child’s potential and steps in. However, even when it presents us with a trope, the book excavates the character beyond that veneer.

For example, the many apprehensions of Geeta’s father, Akbar, seem increasingly valid as we read his point of view. He is raising a daughter who is a product of an inter-faith marriage in a political climate that is growing increasingly unfavourable to her – and he is doing it alone. His outbursts of impatience with his badminton-obsessed daughter stem from his self-doubt as a single parent. His anxiety about the shifting tides of the nation pervades the book. “Split loyalties, they’ll say. Go back to Pakistan! They’ll scream,” he warns his daughter.

Saskya Jain | Image credit: David Fischer.

Is it the knowing, retroactive gaze of the historian that lends his predictions eerie accuracy or is it something more? The sense of foresight especially evident in Akbar seems to crystallise in the word “kal”, which he struggles to translate in one scene. “How could he render in English the nuance of the Hindi that united in a single syllable two contradictory but interwoven worlds: yesterday and tomorrow.”

“Kal” seems to accurately capture Akbar’s state of grief, making him shuttle between memories of his wife and the reality of her absence. “Yestermorrow. Toyester.” He mulls. “The two could mix in language, but not in life. Sakshi would never relent to him again.” And yet, the two do mix – the past is impossible to read without being coloured by knowledge of the future.

This was my own affliction while reading the text, conjuring a feeling of foreboding of what I expected would come. This also served to give it a rather contemporary feel despite being set decades in the past. Perhaps this is what makes Geeta’s voice also work by the end of the book – it mirrors the sense of muddled time that has been emblematic of this past year as well.

Like Akbar, the other characters are also afforded complexities beyond the tropes they seem slotted into. Vicky, their new neighbour who spots Geeta’s talent and is keen to invest in her, has an obsessive edge and his own scrambled motivations.

Then there is the character of Geeta’s Nani, whom I initially read as a bit of a caricature of an old, neglected woman. She is baffled by the generations that succeed her and bitter she’s not receiving the respect she believes is her due. Once I’d spent some time with her, however, other facets began revealing themselves.

Her relationship to Hinduism is oddly inspiring and increasingly rare. It is deeply personal – born from habit but also assured, not in need of fanatical defence. She enjoys the sense of importance it gives her, marching around the mandir like “the department income tax conducting an audit”. She is not appreciative of the men in saffron that interrupt the peace – “Lord Ram knows, of course, that he can rely on her like no other accountant, state or private, which is why she does not need to spend hours there in confused prayer or fierce crusade like all the others.” She is also fighting with the idea that she might have been a bad parent to her deceased daughter, and watching her tussle with this thought is moving.

What makes the book even more interesting than how it digs its teeth into its characters is how it only gives you material to chew, never quite swallow. While we delve into each character, we never reach any resolution. Each character is given little redemptions, but never in a manner that negates their flaws.

We are made to understand why a character might behave in a certain way, but that does not protect them from the occasionally heartbreaking consequence of their decisions. The book culminates in one of the most unexpected, heartbreaking endings I’ve encountered in a while, and one that left me floundering for hours after.

Rather like closing the new year, it hardly felt like a conclusion – because life will go on, like it or not. Maybe to wrest some optimistic meaning from the book you can decode it through Geeta’s mother’s advice – “This is not a Greek tragedy, madam, it’s a fully desi chutkulla.”

Geeta Rahman at Championship Point: A Novel

Geeta Rahman at Championship Point: A Novel, Saskya Jain, Simon & Schuster India.

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