Ours are the Streets Takes the Reader into the Mind of a Suicide Bomber

Sunjeev Sahota rose to fame when his second novel, The Year of the Runaways, was shortlisted for the prestigious Man-Booker Prize in 2015. Blurbed by Salman Rushdie, who calls it a powerful novel, it tells the story of four characters: Tochi, Avtar, Randeep, and Narinder. The novel significantly deals with immigrant lives in England. When I met Sahota at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January last year, post his Man-Booker fame, he came off as surprisingly down to earth and almost awkward about his popularity. The awkwardness, however, does not translate into his novels.

His debut novel, Ours are the Streets, is a powerful monologue of a suicide bomber in Sheffield, England. The novel, written in the form of a journal, proceeds in two parallel narratives. One, where Imtiaz, the protagonist, addresses his wife, his daughter, and sometimes his parents, narrating the events of the present leading upto the day of the sacrifice. Two, where Imtiaz recalls his days of youth, how he met his wife and how they eventually got married, and the trips to Lahore, Kashmir, and Afghanistan.

The voice of the narrator is marked by the use of colloquial phrases such as 'abba' (father), 'ammi' (mother), and 'almari' (cupboard) as well as words like 'sempt' (instead of 'seemed'), 'twicely', 'taxiing', and 'kinda'. The use of such language creates a distance between the protagonist and the reader who is well-versed in language norms. Yet, at times, the reader cannot help but relate to Imtiaz.

To be known

Imtiaz, very early in the novel, announces his reasons for writing the diary. He says,

Because all this is just a form of du'a [prayer], isn't it? That's what these pages are all about. A form of prayer. Wanting to be found out, which is only another way of wanting to be known.

This knowledge is important for the reader to understand his motives. Imtiaz does not merely want to be labelled as a suicide bomber but wants the reader to know him intimately, to know how it feels when he is alone in his room, when loneliness takes hold of his gut, when he thinks about the horrors experienced by people in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, and Afghanistan while the perpetrators sleep contentedly, indifferently. He says,

Time to open myself out, wound on wound.

Through his journal, Imtiaz appears impossibly human; I say impossibly because there is often a tendency to dehumanise the 'other', to assign the homogeneous label of 'terrorist' to them. As the reader begins to know Imtiaz personally, almost like a voyeur peeping into his diary and his mind, several binaries- including that of criminal and innocent- begin to fall apart and one's ideological assumptions are brought sharply into question.

To belong

Imtiaz' transformation and radicalisation, to an extent, is pivoted on the idea of 'belonging'. He reflects on the efforts of the first generation of immigrants, his parents and relatives, who attempted to make a life in a country that is not their 'home'. He says that his parents wanted to become a part of the streets, to make the streets theirs and their children's. They fail because the country which held the promise of economic stability, only acted against them. The novel presents everyday instances of racial discrimination and violence against these people.

The predicament of the second generation of immigrants, like Imtiaz, is paradoxical owing to a dual sense of 'belonging'. Imtiaz says,

I wanted to talk about why I found myself defending Muslims against whites and whites against Muslims.

Later when he visits his parents' hometown in Lahore, he begins to nurture a different sense of 'belonging'; he shirks his identity as a 'valetiya' (a foreigner) and obsessively desires that the people consider him an 'apna' (one's own). His desire is fulfilled on an unmarked road in Muzaffarabad, when the group of men that he is travelling with finally accepts him as a part of their community and their mission.

However, the novel shows that it is impossible for Imtiaz to rid himself of the contradictions of his identity. One of the ways in which this is presented is in the shifting references to 'home'; sometimes 'home' is England, sometimes it is Pakistan.

Personal is political

For Imtiaz, the personal is, no doubt, the political. His mission is mediated through all that he has experienced, all the pain that he has gathered. He says that it is almost as if the lines of his palms are leading him on. Imtiaz' trauma is significantly brought out in the lines,

I swear down, your abba being made to feel ashamed is a terrifying thing to see. The way the child in him comes to the surface, so that all of a sudden it's like you've been turned inside out. The way all his adult strength is made to crumble by a few well-placed words, and all you can do is gaze helplessly at him with a kind of horror, as if you're watching a tower collapsing.

The reference in these lines is, of course, to 9/11; the attacks are also referred to when Imtiaz' father says that maybe if there were more people like himself who would be brave enough to speak out, their children would not be driving planes into buildings.

To conclude, in Ours are the Streets, Sahota takes the reader into the mind of a suicide bomber, humanizing him and revealing the reasons for his radicalization. The novel ruptures many ideological assumptions and disturbs one's comfortable complacency to all that is happening to our fellow people around the world. There is perhaps no better time to read this novel.

Ours are the Streets, Sunjeev Sahota, published by Picador.

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