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A nation in search of a fix

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

Shazia Omar’s debut novel is a fine portrait of disaffected youth in modern Bangladesh, says Jai Arjun Singh

It was a speech to remember. Delivered in late 2003 by a young Afghan social activist and newbie politician under the alias Malalai Joya (for security reasons), the 90 seconds she was given to speak rattled her country. The setting was a historic Loya Jirga (political meeting) which had been organised to debate a new constitution for Afghanistan. The 24-year-old Joya grabbed the microphone and spoke to an international audience of 500 delegates quite fearlessly. Why were the same warlords — the ones who were responsible for much of Afghanistan’s misery and destruction — present amidst decision-makers at this all-important political forum, when they should, instead, have been taken to court? she demanded to know.

At the Jaipur literature festival earlier this year, a group of authors were asked about the role their home countries played in their work, and whether they felt the need to be spokespersons for their cultures. The standard reply (and the one you’ll hear from most cosmopolitan writers) was, “No, I don’t carry that baggage.” But the Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam admitted that she felt a strong responsibility towards her country, “perhaps because there are so few writers who are presenting the realities of Bangladesh. I’m not saying that I want to write a history textbook disguised as a novel, but I do have political stakes.”

Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky, a fine new addition to Bangladeshi fiction in English, is a fast-paced story about young heroin addicts whose “fixes” help them temporarily cocoon themselves from life’s rough edges. It’s driven by characters and vignettes, centering mainly on an alienated young junkie named Deen and his friend AJ (“Khor2core”, they call themselves, Khor being Bangla for “addict”), but it’s also a book that has political stakes. There are little asides about the social and economic issues facing modern Bangladesh: the disaffection of youngsters who regard themselves as both God-forsaken and GOB-forsaken (GOB = Govt of Bangladesh), the widening of the rich-poor divide, the conflicts between conservative and liberal attitudes, the frequent hollowness of the country’s democracy.

It isn’t easy to incorporate such material into a novel without interfering with the flow of the narrative, but Omar cleverly filters some of it through the staccato musings of a drug-addled mind (as Deen’s thoughts lurch from one subject to another — capitalism, organised religion, power structures) and through the Dylan lyrics that these youngsters use as reference points for the world around them: “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty/ Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten”. This prevents the book from turning into a polemic — though it comes close in a caricature of a Quran-thumping Sergeant whose puritan notions are a denial of his own baser instincts.

The title has different meanings. There are, of course, the real diamonds used by the country’s drug traffickers in their big-money transactions. But “diamond in the sky” can also be seen as code for something that’s brilliant, life-affirming and just out of reach. For Deen, this could be the beautiful Maria, whom he’s so besotted with that he can barely see that she has problems of her own. For people like the drug-peddler Falani, on the other hand, God is the ultimate diamond in the sky. “We poor people are happy,” she insists. “Allah has given us that strength. It’s no small blessing, let me tell you.”

Like a Diamond in the Sky is overwritten in places and some of the speech is stilted (“It’s not the weight of our fears that keep our ideas from growing wings and soaring in the sky,” says Maria, “it’s concrete reality hitting us like a wall”), but no more than you’d expect in a debut novel. More importantly, it has humour, rhythm and some striking passages, such as the one where Deen notices a sudden profusion of unnaturally bright red colours in certain objects around him, during a conversation with a boatman. The descriptions of his “turqing” also have the hallucinatory, speeded-up quality of the addiction scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem for a Dream. This book is a skilful account of a junkie’s single-minded pursuit of a high — and a slightly less successful one of a nation in search of its own fix.

Author: Shazia Omar
Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 264
Price: Rs 250

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First Published: Sat, September 05 2009. 00:06 IST