BOOK REVIEW / A winning goal for the freedom team: Hem and football - Nalinakska Bhattacharya: Secker & Warburg, pounds 7.99

THIS YEAR has seen the publication of two excellent books about association football; first Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's account of his obsession with Arsenal; and now Nalinaksha Bhattacharya's vastly entertaining first novel. Despite differences of geography, gender and form - as well as being fictitious, Hem and Football is about women players in Bengal - they are mildly similar books, if only because in each case the sport, simultaneously a refuge, palliative and escape route, ceases to be a sport and takes on a wholly symbolic significance.

For all its devious comedy, the jokes about bogus holy men and the impenetrable Indian caste system, and some uproarious dialogue, Bhattacharya's novel tackles the serious theme of a young girl's attempt to detach herself from the stifling bonds of family and establish her independence. Hem's problems begin when as a sexually ambitious 13-year-old she is seduced by a local barber. Her marriage prospects gravely imperilled, she is despatched to the Champaboti Girls' High School. Seeking to evade the prescriptive friendships of schoolgirl snobbery, she is inveigled into the school's unofficial soccer team.

Throughout the rest of the novel, sport and familial obligation uneasily contend. In the face of maternal opposition, Hem strikes back by enlisting her ne'er-do-well uncle, now masquerading as a holy man, to provide scriptural authentication, a ruse that succeeds until the occasion on which a charity match against a rival school ends in a riot. Married, after several hitches, to a mother-fixated clerk from the Animal Husbandry department - one of these interludes allows her an unsuccessful trial for the first Bengali professional club for women - Hem's horizons are further reduced when roguish Uncle Nontu elopes with her mother-in-law. With her husband regressing towards infanthood and destitution imminent, only football can offer salvation.

Unobtrusively paced and plotted, Hem and Football achieves its best effects when it forsakes comic realism for the high whimsicality of Uncle Nontu's scriptural tampering and Babu's infantilism. Another high point is Miss Nag, coach to the professional side and a devout Marxist, who distributes copies of the Communist Manifesto to the members of her squad and encourages them to relate its principles to their play. 'The whole thing only makes sense if we consider ourselves as proletarians and our opponents as the bourgeoisie,' Hem's friend Tama explains. An epigraph from Tommy Docherty's Better Football sustains this fantastical air.

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