'Ours are the streets' is the debut album by Sunjeev Sahota, born to a Pakistani family living in England. The book had a very interesting cover, which had played a vital role in its being bought (impulsively). Interestingly, the cover or the blurb don't tell much about the central plot except in large hints.
It is a story about a young man, Imtiaz Raina. He is the only child to a Pakistani family living in England. His father is a cab driver, a man without scruples, a loving father, a man too much aware of his stature outside the house and inside. A patient cabdriver to the outside world, working to make his family comfortable, he is representative of a typical patriarchal head of family inside the house doors, and his wife his supportive companion. Imtiaz sees through this pretense of assumed strength and feels frustrated, helpless and often hateful for his father. So much so that even when he loves his father dearly, Imtiaz wishes for his father to die soon when he is (terminally) ill.
The life is usual, like it often is. He gets his girlfriend (who is English) pregnant. Then, they marry. His parents want her to drop the child, the two don't. Then his father dies, Imtiaz and his mother leave for Pakistan to perform the last rites of his father. There, the 'vilayati' gets his taste of 'his people', 'his homeland' and what it is 'to belong'. It is there where he gets into some dangerous company. He travels to Kashmir, and then to Afghanistan on a 'field trip'. In that one trip, Imtiaz Rana transforms from a simple vilayati into a brainwashed pawn to the 'cause'. There is no looking back.
It is a weak account of what he saw, or what was fed into him, except for the imposing presence of his fellow (and the instigator) Aaqil. There are traces of self glorification like at the time where Imtiaz recounts his first experience with the rifle - he recounts how focused he was that he barely registered anything other than the target, the rifle and the streak of smoke that emanated from the hot barrel after the shot (much like Arjuna). There are, nevertheless, moments where the portrayal of emotions and situations are apt. Fear is beautifully displayed when their group is frisked at the Afghanistan border.
... Someone was shouting. I sat up. The front door were open and in the wing mirror I could see Aaqil. He looked frantic. He were jabbing at his mobile. Then a big brown hand grabbed hold of his jaw, squeezing. Bandits, I thought. Dacoits, even. I started edging away, stretching for my phone. I don't know why. Who did I think I could call? Who were going to help me here? I couldn't even see Charag or Faisal. They could've been killed. My legs were shaking, and I stepped right back into the hot metal floor. I swalloed the scream, lurched forward. The van shook. I stood still, begging to God to please not let it end like this. I thought I'd got away with it. But then the back door swung open and a man stood there. He had a rifle.
'No!' I said, in English, moving my hands in front of my face. 'Please no!'
There is an account of how he saw one of his friends go up in smoke as he attempted suicide bombing on a US army convoy delivering medical supplies to the local doctor. It is perhaps, in a cursory kind of explanation that the author hints his brainwash, like how his cabal lied to him about seeing butterflies before Faisal pulled the wire.
The most real and interesting character in the whole Pakistan episode was Quasoomah. The kind of keeper who's outspoken, and yet, soft at the core. There is so much warmth in her portrayal that depicts how families, especially among the rural populace exist - a widely cast net of love and affection. Despite meeting him for the first time, Quasoomah gives him the affection as if he had grown up there with her and makes an effort to attend to his needs like an elder sister or mother would. To me, Quasoomah is the most heart warming and real character in the book.
The account of how he just started to help his uncle in the fields is a bit unreal. That, probably is because of the stark absence of blisters. Consider a guy, who hasn't really handled tools suddenly starts to go all out with the farming tools, and does not mention getting blisters in the process, that is plain unreal to me.
Returning from Pakistan, determined to do his bidding as a good fighter of his faith in the 'cause', he is a changed man. Throughout the story, he appears to be of wavering faith towards his decision. He seems to be seeing all the things going haywire around him, about him losing out on everything he cared for and yet, not once trying to back off. Very unconvincing. The plot is half baked, or so I think. Hs cousin Charag accompanies him to England under the garbs of being his comrade in the 'cause'. He never wanted to die in the first place. But, wouldn't the police just hunt him down when it starts to backtrack the traces and notice that Imtiaz wasn't alone when he had returned? But that is another thing, I'll discount the book as a work of fiction - in a different universe.
The language is mostly journal like, informal, mostly artless. Nothing wrong about it, but felt improper. The overuse of the word 'sempt' in place of 'seemed' made me wonder, why this embellishment! Lookup the world's meaning, and you won't find anything proper about it. [Here]
Then, you don't introduce your wife to your readers with a blowjob! Is that the first thing you remember about her to note in your journal? Brilliant! But again, a young husband - I understand.
What is funny is that this book has enjoyed pretty good overall rating from the readers at goodreads. I find it weird not just because it fails to look into the ideology that might be fed into the people who are essentially victimized in the name of faith in a 'cause', but also fails to capture the sketches of daily lives of regular people. He has done justice to Imtiaz's father's character? Yes. His mother's? Yes. His character, well He was the prime canvas, so cannot say a yes or no, but I am inclined towards a no. Rebekah, perhaps, yes. Quasoomah, yes. Anyone else? No. His transformation is in a black box, and that makes me uncomfortable with the authenticity of the entire thing. If covers were deceptive, this one might rank high in the rooster.