How do you write a first person narrative about a potential suicide bomber? I mean, how can you imagine yourself into such an extreme situation and tell a believable story about it? I really had my doubts but, on the whole, I think that Sunjeev Sahota has achieved it.
The story is written in a popular slang style – Imtiaz is from Sheffield and so the narrative is written with Sheffield slang – ‘I were this’, ‘I were going up Meadowhall’, ‘it sempt to me’ – and there are no chapters, simply gaps where the narrator stops writing. It’s not a diary but more sort of notes to himself, not to justify his actions, but to try and explain them to himself.
Basically, it strikes me as a desperately sad story. It’s about a deep, deep sense of alienation. Imtiaz grows up in this northern town, watching his parents sacrifice themselves, taking almost any abuse in order to raise him, to see him have a better life than they. But when his father dies and he returns with the body to Pakistan, he finally feels a sense of belonging and quickly wants to fit in, to adopt the clothes, manners and beliefs of those around him, to not be the foreigner.
And really, it’s this sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that prompts him to take the actions he does. He watches the videos of atrocities but doesn’t seem particularly moved by them, says that he’s seen them before. He is outraged by what the fighting has done to Kashmir, but it’s not a strident, violent anger. His commitment seems to come much more from that sense of belonging he finds in Pakistan and his sense of alienation when he returns to Sheffield.
By making Imtiaz’s motivation more subtle and complex, perhaps Sahota risks making the story less believable. I had my doubts almost all the way through. But, in the end, it hardly matters because the story ends up being much less about a potential suicide bomber and far more about belonging, friendship, loyalty and loss.
Ours are the Streets; Sahota, Sunjeev; Picador India; Rs. 450