It’s the final ball of the cricket World Cup final. Can our hero score the winning runs and take India to victory? Of course he can … oh, hang on, it’s gone to VAR. *Please* tell me that this is not going to become a thing in books?! Imagine all those school story scenes in which our hero/our heroine/a hitherto much-maligned character about to win acceptance at last scores the winning goal/try/run in the final seconds, and is triumphantly carried off the pitch on their team-mates’ shoulders, to be mobbed by cheering friends/wannabe friends, being reduced to everyone standing around waiting for a VAR decision. No. Just no!
I don’t usually read books set in the present day, but the October reading challenge was to read a book set in 21st century India, and, having an anxious-obsessive brain, I have to complete challenges or else I get stressed and feel like a failure. And I like reading books about India. I just wasn’t quite bargaining for the big moment being decided by VAR.
Our hero is Nikhil Khoda, the fictional captain of the Indian cricket team, but the main character is our heroine, Zoya Solanki, a young woman who inadvertently becomes seen as the team’s lucky mascot. She lives with her widowed father and their maid, in New Delhi, and she’s a bit of a young Bridget Jones, with neither her career nor her love life going very well, and constant worries about her weight and her hair. As part of her job at an advertising agency, she has to work with the underperforming Indian cricket team. After she’s had breakfast with them, they win a match. She was born on the day that India won the 1983 cricket World Cup, and her dad and brother have always been convinced that this was some sort of lucky omen. The media get hold of this, and it all becomes a big story. More breakfasts, more matches, more wins.
Along comes the 2011 World Cup. This was actually played in India, but, for the purposes of the book – in which all the players are fictional, incidentally – it’s played in Australia and New Zealand. The Indian cricket board offer Zoya an all expenses paid trip (for herself and a chaperone, an older, married lady from the agency), along with a substantial salary, to go to the World Cup and bring the team luck. There’s a suggestion of politics being involved – is the chairman of the selectors, who doesn’t get on with Khoda, trying to ensure that it’s only Zoya who gets the credit for any success? – but, by now, the Zoya Factor story is all over the news. And, as the team’s World Cup campaign gets off to a winning start, the talk intensifies.
Sports fans are superstitious. People have lucky pants, lucky socks, pre-match rituals, and so on. I solemnly waved my hand over a picture of David Beckham’s foot in order to help his broken metatarsals heal before the 2002 World Cup. I have been known to sit in ridiculously uncomfortable positions for ages whilst watching tennis matches, in case moving them is bad luck for “my” player. Remember when Oxford United had their stadium exorcised?! And I wrote about the curse of Benfica only last week – The Greatest Comeback . So it’s actually not hard to imagine this happening anywhere, but it’s something that would probably particularly strike a chord in India.
I’ve got an Indian lucky charm in my car, which I brought back from India last year. It’s supposed to protect you on the roads. I’m not sure that I particularly believe it will, but, hey, it’s worth a try. Belief in the supernatural is particularly strong in India, as the author makes clear. Before long, Zoya’s being referred to as Zoya Devi (goddess), and a huge debate has broken out between people who believe wholeheartedly in her powers and people who say that India needs to move away from putting so much emphasis on spirituality – and even that it’s all a marketing ploy and she’s only in it for the money. Unfortunately, there have been cases of people taking advantage of other people’s beliefs – and sometimes it’s resulted in something a lot worse than organisations being ripped off financially. But poor old Zoya’s just been cast into the spotlight completely unintentionally, and now the situation’s running away with itself.
All of a sudden, this ordinary young woman is at the centre of a very emotive national debate. It gets so far out of hand that her supernatural powers are blamed for a pizza delivery boy being knocked over, and even for skirmishes on the border between India and Pakistan. It’s a particularly Indian take on the modern phenomenon of someone suddenly becoming famous for being famous, and how everyone then has an opinion about this person whom they’ve never even met. It then goes even further, becoming, an international debate, with TV talk shows in other cricketing nations asking whether people believe in the Zoya Factor, and whether, if there is indeed something in it, it’s cheating and Zoya should be banned from contact with the Indian team.
Also, needless to say, a romance develops between Zoya and Nikhil, but the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. The tabloids keep publishing stories linking him to a string of Bollywood babes, and claiming that he’s fathered an actress’s baby, and linking her with other members of the team. And she gets it into her head that he’s only after her because he thinks she’s lucky. However, he’s in fact very upset about the whole Zoya Factor story, because it means that the team’s success is being put down to her, rather than to their own talent, hard work and application.
Eventually, it all gets too much, and Zoya returns home before the final. She’s offered a big money advertising deal, based on the idea of herself as a goddess, and, unwilling to turn down a chance to make more money than she could ever have dreamed of, she takes it. And everyone turns on her. This is so typical of what happens – the media build someone up, and then knock then right back down again. She’s let down the team. She’s let down her country. She was only ever interested in the money. She’s conned everyone. From being seen as a national heroine, and indeed a goddess, she’s now being vilified everywhere. One minute you’re the nation’s sweetheart, the next minute everyone’s slagging you off. How often do we see this sort of thing happen?
Of course, it all ends happily, with India winning the World Cup, after Nikhil scores the winning runs off the final ball (complete with VAR) and then he and Zoya getting together. But it wasn’t just a common or garden romance, or a common or garden sporting novel – it did make some very interesting points about Indian culture, about the conflict between traditional ideas and new ideas, and about the cult of celebrity in general. It wasn’t the greatest book ever, but I did rather enjoy it.