I was thinking about this while reading Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky, a fine new addition to Bangladeshi fiction in English. This is a fast-paced story set in Dhaka, about young heroin addicts whose “fixes” help them temporarily cocoon themselves from life’s rough realities (and from well-meaning family members). 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 does come 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.”
Deen frowned. He could not figure out if Falani was really happy, or if it was a false consciousness she had been conditioned into during childhood. Be content with what God’s given you. System justifying bullshit. Opium for the masses. And if that was the case, was her happiness fake? Was it less real? Once in her reality, who cares how it got there? Maybe that’s what she needed, promises of bliss hereafter. What was bliss, anyhow?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 I'd be willing to overlook in a debut novel. More importantly, it has humour, rhythm and some very vivid 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. I also thought the descriptions of his “turqing” had the frenzied, 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.