First there was the Indian writer in English, and it was good. Then came the Pakistani writer in English, and some say it was better. Now it is Bangladesh’s turn. Of course, if Shazia Omar’s depiction of Bangladeshi youth is anywhere near authentic then it’s going to be tough for them to string a sentence together through that haze of smack, yabba and other vein-snapping drugs. Her novel “Like a Diamond in the Sky” is a little gem that blindingly sparkly in parts and cloudy in others. When she hurtles through the electric rush of a high and the painful crackle of withdrawal, the novel is intense enough to make you hold your breath as you race through the words that make up her sentences. It isn’t an easy read because of what she’s describing and also because she smoothly inserts Bangla slang into her storytelling like an expert dealer who slips that little packet into his client’s palm with sure-fingered subtlety. There’s no glossary to decode meanings, not that you really need it. The meaning of turquing or khor or dosto isn’t too hard to figure out but you piece the meanings together as you read and they linger in your memory. Turquing, for example, is one word that has been haunting me. I’m left remembering all the friends whom I’ve witnessed trying to survive those moments when their bodies bite into themselves because they need another hit so damn badly.
It’s when Omar gives in to the temptation to become the bard of Bangladesh that her novel becomes slack. There are sections of “Like a Diamond in the Sky” when the omniscient narrator decides to pontificate upon the state of the nation and Omar tries to weave this into the storytelling but it’s an awkward fit. This need to insert a social commentary so that a novel isn’t only the story of a set of characters but also the nation in a nutshell is a cross that South Asian authors eagerly take upon their shoulders only to crumple under its weight. Almost every postcolonial South Asian author wants to write something that is relevant, insightful and somehow holds up a mirror to the society they see around them. For some reason, it isn’t enough to tell a story and build characters. Jhumpa Lahiri’s works have to be a chorus for the middle class non-resident Indian in America. Amitav Ghosh’s novel has to be steeped in accurate history that shows India in detail-heavy authenticity. Not that any of this is a bad thing but I really wish sometimes that our writers would just have fun with their writing and tell us a story. And not in the silly way that pulp authors like Chetan Bhagat do. The problem is we don’t value fun enough to realise that quality entertainment is as hard to craft as philosophical truths.
There’s a whole bunch of guys in Bengali literature, like Sukumar Ray, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, Narayan Gangopadhyay and Premendra Mitra, who wrote stories that were officially kiddie literature but they’re wonderful, silly stuff that’s a blast to read no matter how old you are. Translated, they turn vaguely clunky and stodgy because the language, its phonetics and the colloquialisms are integral to the story telling. There hasn’t been anyone among the South Asian writers in English who writes stories like these rather average Bong writers. Light, clever, often hilarious and constantly entertaining, those old Bengali stories are a joy to read decades later even though the city and its people have changed dramatically since the ’40s and ’50s when Ray and gang were writing. Like most Bengali kids today, Omar’s Bangladeshi boys and girls don’t know these stories. Their realities follow the notes and melodies of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty songs. The khors of Omar’s world are beautifully-crafted creatures and their agonies are piercing. But after finishing “Like a Diamond in the Sky” (slightly blah and predictable ending, by the way), it was time for me to get my fix. So out came Teni-da and Ghana-da, who are addicted to their tea and cigarettes and too busy being silly to make any searingly insightful points about contemporary Bengali society. Bless.