Decades hence, when literature students discuss predominant themes of early 21st century fiction, ‘the psyche of a suicide bomber’ is bound to have a starring role.
Sunjeev Sahota’s debut novel Ours Are The Streets is the latest addition to fiction on the subject. Thankfully it has a bit more to offer than recent potboilers and Bollywood movies on the subject.
We meet the protagonist, Imtiaz Raina, a few days before he receives his ‘call to duty’. He’s writing his story in letters to his family — his baby daughter Noor, wife Becka and others. “I guess knowing you’re going to die makes you want to talk,” he writes.
Born in Sheffield, England, to Pakistani immigrant parents and married to his white girlfriend who ‘reverts’ to Islam when she realises she’s pregnant, Imtiaz is your typical maladjusted second generation South Asian. He cringes at the plastic covers on the sofas, hates his taxi-driver father for passively accepting racial abuse, is okay cheering for Sheffield but can’t bring himself to root for England.
His father’s untimely death takes him and his mother to Pakistan, where he is overwhelmed by a sense of belonging. Somewhere along his journey from a ‘valeitiya’ to an ‘apna’, Aaquil the local fanatic takes Imtiaz on a trip to a jihadi camp in war-torn Afghanistan. Lulled into a disconnect from life “back home”, Imtiaz declares “I can take the struggle back. You should be thanking Alaah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, that He has seen fit to bring me to you.”
The letters jump between the past and present — with the trip to Afghanistan juxtaposed against Imtiaz canvassing a possible bombing site around England.
As the violence in his past escalates, Imtiaz the writer slides into madness. It is here that Sahota is at his best. Initially, one trips over the language the author has used, with colloquialisms such as ‘sempt — seemed to be’ slightly jarring. But once the story starts to take shape, the language flows with it.
Though the insight into Imtiaz’ psyche is well sketched, the book falls short of convincing me why a 20-something year old, who has a lot going for him, will decide to blow himself and several hundred other people up.
For the reader, the tussle between alienation and belonging doesn’t seem an adequate enough excuse. It may not be among the definitive books on the subject, but it will definitely merit mention in future discussions.