The life AJ and Deen lead is one given over to the ‘chase’. They spend their days in search of ways to chase, anything that gives them a high that makes life worth living. Otherwise, there is so much dreariness and poverty around. In her explanation of this, the sad overwhelming state of affairs in Bangladesh today, Shazia Omar begins to sound like a social scientist. So there are paragraphs the reader comes upon, which blame the exploitative richer countries of the west for using cheap labour that Bangladesh has, there is enough blame also placed on Bangladesh’s neighbours (read India) for polluting rivers or damming them up upstream. The government of Bangladesh too is one that is corrupt to the core that only works to further its own interests, and of the 200 or so families who control most of the country’s wealth.
Deen realises early on there is no hope. His father’s early death (in part fuelled by his acute disappointment in his son) only pushes him farther into the abyss. In the beginning though Maria who enters his life like a breath of fresh air, offers some hope. She promises him redemption but it turns out she is as hopelessly lost as he is. A product of a family that has suddenly broken up, Maria is looking for emotional sustenance. And so Deen, who needs to fix on something for his high and Maria who is love deprived crave each other. As is true for AJ and Sundari, the prostitute he loves.
AJ works for Raj Gopal, the biggest mafia don in Bangladesh, and does not hesitate to steal off his boss when needed to fuel his addiction. There are a host of other characters as well – Sergeant Akbar, the fanatic policeman who is determined to bring the ‘khors’ or drugaddicts (for some reason Omar has spelled it as one word throughout the book) to book; Falani, who is devoted to her daughters, but who has to deal in drugs to feed herself and her family; Parvez, scion of a rich family who Deen loves as a younger brother but is powerless to save as he gets hopelessly mired into addiction as well; Sundari, the high class prostitute who has been ‘bought’ from Bombay by Raj Gopal but whose one true hopeless love is AJ. There is Deen’s mother who had once been an activist but is now totally shattered by Deen’s degeneration. Her perennial weepy state in fact is most reminiscent of Bollywood’s ever tragic, ever weepy mothers.
In the first half of the book, the movement veers between two facets of Deen’s life - the heaven he experiences with Maria, and the desperation in which he seeks his chase. In his moments without Maria, Deen is actually filled with self-loathing. Sometimes he wants to rid himself of his terrible habit but the terrible withdrawal symptoms make such efforts short-lived and half-hearted.
AJ, the friend who knows where to get their fix, would appear to be the book’s villain but instead it turns out he is a victim too, a victim of his own addiction. The young people in this book have experimented in drugs of all kinds and there are succinct descriptions Omar’s book is replete with, of the highs obtainable from different drugs. Drug pushers are only the petty villains; the real McCoys are the Mafia dons and ministers who work hand in glove with the former, turning a blind eye to the flourishing drug trade where Bangladesh located at the apex of the Golden triangle is a crucial player.
Deen has been in rehab once but as Detective Khan knows rehab doesn’t help, it makes the addict to be a criminal. But no solution is ever offered, there is really no rainbow at the end of the book. Bangladesh may be in a sorry state of affairs but the country doesn’t even have an optimistic younger generation to turn to. For the youth, in Omar’s book are lost in some drug induced oblivion. Even hopes of redemption go awry: Deen makes an attempt to kick the habit but ends up feeling so sick and itchy that quite obviously he gives up too soon. Maria talks of becoming a journalist, of going abroad to the US for a course so she can return and write about her country’s ills but turns out she is not accepted. The disappointment is enough to make her a defeatist. In fact, she soon resigns herself to an arranged marriage. So by the end, even her dreams of opening a lingerie store for the richer classes has dissipated.
The blurb describes the book as representing “the despair, hopes and aspirations of a generation struggling to survive in the harsh realities of life in modern Dhaka”. But this book really offers no hope. Even those imbued with some hope lose early on whether it is Parvez, innocent and rich, who drowns to his death or Falani, brave and indomitable against all odds, who is molested, ill-treated in police custody and sent away to prison. One can only hope that this novel centred on the lives of middle class youth in Dhaka, is only partly representational of the country, and of its many aspirations.
Book Description: At twenty-one, Deen is dismayed by the poverty around him and trappedin negativity. Alienated from family and society, heroin is his drug of choice. Deen and his partner in crime, AJ, ride high on acid and amphetamines, philosophize in the university canteen, party in a politician's posh pad and contemplate God at a roadside tea stall. From Maria, a chemically imbalanced diva, to a rickshaw-walla who reflects on the importance of positive energy, to a group of fakirs who sing about love, and a detective who has his own take on addiction, the characters in Shazia Omar's debut novel crackle with life. They represent the despair, hopes and aspirations of a generation struggling to survive in the harsh realities of life in modern Dhaka.
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