Bangladesh is a young nation. Formed in 1971 after a bitter struggle for independence from Pakistan, the country is still struggling to find its footing. There is constant turbulence and economic instability along with widespread poverty, resulting in massive immigration from the country. Although Bangladesh claims to be a democracy, there are constant reports of human rights violations, widespread corruption and snubbing of protests from the government.
Bangla literature comprises of works both from West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. It has a sparkling identity of its own and claims the likes of Ravindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay among its ranks. However, the country itself is very recent and hence has just a few author renowned internationally. Foremost among them is Taslima Nasreen who gained notoriety post the ban of her book “Lajja” (Shame) by the religious factions.
The book I have chosen for my reading is “Like A Diamond In the Sky” by Shazia Omar.The author is a social psychologist, who has explored the phenomenon of addiction in her debut work. She writes about students of Bangladesh getting sucked into the miasma of addiction and pulled into the murky world of crime and religious fanaticism. This promises to be different than the scores of books available on the Bangladesh Liberation War and should provide an insight into a more contemporary issue.
The novel tells the story of Deen and AJ, “Khors2Core” where “Khor” is an addict. The narration starts on a jovial tone. The protagonists are simply enjoying their addiction, having fun, falling in love and in general, are able to have a normal life.
In the beginning, the drugs are as simple as a companion to loneliness and a wish to belong, to be accepted by a group.
“Deen felt lost. He needed to connect to God in a language he could understand. Questions cluttered his head. Ever since God split Adam and Eve, since the separation of nature from religion, since the day he was born, man’s greatest need had been to transcend the loneliness that engulfed him, but how? Deen wished for a feeling of oneness to save him from the abyss of aloneness. Faith, love, giving, these were the paths he needed to take, but he was stuck in the swamp of his ego. He didn’t know how to let go. Surrender. Rise above it and ascend to Nirvana.”
Disappointments for the family serve as further reason to pursue substance abuse.
“Deen’s father was a self-made millionaire, but like all honest men in corrupt countires, he had his balls unceremoniously ripped out by the first government with the guts and the gall to do it.”
As the novel progresses, we see their slow decline into addiction to the point of no return. The fuel for this comes in the form of a dealer driven by desperation, named Falani, who sells drugs from a “basti“, a slum to feed her decrepit family.
“Whatever’s happening on all those levels, GOB, tob, at the end of the day, we poor people are happy. Allah has given us that strength. It’s no small blessing, let me tell you. I am thankful.”
There are others in the game such as a business tycoon profiting from AJ’s thievery done to feed his addiction, a cop driven by religious dogma to hunt down “drugaddicts” and dealers but is also voyeuristically attracted to them. We see Deen’s girlfriend Maria, quite playful at the beginning, revealed as a turbulent character later on, whereas AJ’s girlfriend Sundari, a prostitute who turns out to be a much more composed person. We are shown the plight of the addicts’ mothers, who blame themselves for their children’s destitution as well as the failed attempts at rehabilitation, either institutionalized or self driven. The story of the addicts becomes a social commentary on the kind of environment which has facilitated its birth and survival.
“Educated upper class citizens kept their heads below the parapet, sending their kids to colleges abroad. Inevitably, those children never returned to the hellhole they had just escaped from, settling for comfortable jobs on the Wall Street instead. Those who stayed in Bangladesh were the ones whose fathers ran illegal operations on the home front, which they inherited and ran with the same iron fists (and bullets!) because there was no other way to survive inn the political climate of Bangladesh.”
The title is a reference to their drug addled state, “high… like a diamond in the sky.” The novel intends to serve as a warning to addicts as to the totally hopeless condition it drives a person into and their families to take early precaution to break the cycle of addiction and decline. A good read for an insight into the plight of student addicts in the subcontinent.
Other Choices from Bangladesh:
A Golden Age: Tahmima Anam
First part of a trilogy where we see Bangladesh liberation from the eyes of a family
The Days of Seventy One: Jahanara Imam
A diary kept during the war of liberation