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History is not enough

  • Published at 08:04 pm April 6th, 2017
  • Last updated at 08:10 pm April 6th, 2017
History is not enough
Securing a contract with an Indian publisher is undoubtedly an admirable achievement. While Bangladesh has a dearth of readers, especially for English writing, India boasts the world’s third-largest readership and is a serious market to crack for any writer. Dark Diamond, published by Bloomsbury India, is Omar’s second novel, following Like a Diamond in the Sky. Omar’s relish for the shiny carbon allotrope is apparent, but unlike her first novel, this is not a contemporary tale. Recounting the fictional tale of Kalinoor, a cursed diamond created on the template of the famous Kohinoor that it predates, Dark Diamond is supposed to transport readers to Mughal Bengal. It is an interesting premise, initiating an adventure seasoned with a multitude of characters from Bengal and beyond, thrown into the pot to see what manner of stew they can produce. However, rather than losing oneself in the richness of the novel’s world, the reader is tasked with willingly suspending disbelief that this is a novel that has been brought out by a reputable publisher. Once into it, whether tastes tilt towards the historical or the artistic aspect, one suspects most readers will feel the novel falls short of fulfilling even the rudimentary conditions of a successful work of fiction. A cursory examination of a few features will adequately prove this point.
He instinctively knows who is an assassin and who is a trader, thereby dispensing with the need for foreshadowing actions or building to incidents. The result is for the central character to be a fundamentally clichéd ideal man lacking any inner conflict or human arc, thus causing the story to be devoid of any tension with solid literary potential
Dark Diamond is a novel heavy on clichés. Costa, the pirate, has a gold tooth and scurvy; a Bengali governor who is an unsavoury man is “[p]udding-faced and drenched in pearls” and “known for his penchant for rape;” the Subedar is known as a despot; various characters repeatedly use a dark hooded cloak as a disguise that the world falls for every time. The characters are cardboard caricatures of old stereotypes, lacking in depth and going to great lengths to speak in clichés. The following exchange sets the tone for the rest of the book: Hira Lal: “A diamond [larger than two fists] must be worth half the King’s treasury. I won’t have to work another day in my life!” Rupa, his wife: “You won’t?” Hira Lal: “We will live in a house.” Rupa: “We will?” Hira Lal: “Our children will go to school.” Rupa: “They will?” Hira Lal: “We will eat mutton.” Rupa: “We will?” Hira Lal: “Twice a day.” Rupa: “Oh Hira!” The action is as contrived as the unconvincing and inconsistent speech patterns, happening without forethought or afterthought. Things happen conveniently, at the writer’s whim, expressed in minimalist sentences that are judgements and instructions issued to the reader. Costa says of Shayista Khan, the Subedar of Bengal: “‘He’s my mate. We’re like this.’ He crossed his fingers.” Illogical and lacking an explanation, it is a friendship required for ease of storytelling. The Subedar – an octogenarian at the time – is constructed mostly through the eyes of Madeline, the Western visitor, in Chapter 11. This view is reaffirmed rather than challenged, in the remainder of the book. An entire chapter has been dedicated to spelling out the character of Shayista Khan rather than allowing the story to reveal necessary details as part of the narrative. Character biographies and plot summaries are writing tools, but should not appear in print. That he is perfect – wizard, honest saint, handsome sword-fighting martial artist warrior, and wise, liberal and wealthy ruler, all rolled into one – makes it worse. He instinctively knows who is an assassin and who is a trader, thereby dispensing with the need for foreshadowing actions or building to incidents. The result is for the central character to be a fundamentally clichéd ideal man lacking any inner conflict or human arc, thus causing the story to be devoid of any tension with solid literary potential. The motivations of characters are convoluted, and never explained nor justified. Hira Lal steals a diamond only to want to return it to his supervisor; Champa goes from being a reluctant helper to an overly eager one; Costa rebuffs Madeline’s inexplicably generous offer to take her aboard his ship, but then slaughters several policemen and rides off to his ship with her. A few lines separate the first decision and the resultant contradictory journey, thus failing to give a strong foundation to the characters’ motivations and their actions. The reader has no time to invest in, connect with, or feel the novel. Historical novels are meant to transport the reader to a different era, both in time and space. Here, a lack of investment in world-building by a writer who proffers scarce and sketchy details of the world she has created is only made worse by elementary mistakes. Children living in poverty in 1185 India expect to go to school; gender roles in 17th century Europe conform to their present iterations; a Bengali Muslim woman runs a school for girls in 1685 Bengal by day and channels Indiana Jones by night (in a book that, in Madeline, already has one cheap, female imitation of Indy). The book lazily imposes trite neo-liberal aspirations of a judgemental contemporary elite class to every facet of various historical societies. Champa's sentiments and perspectives align with contemporary middle and upper class feminist discourses than with the royal subjects of 17th century Bengal. This is not to say a story set in that time cannot have any feminist potential, but that should have been properly historicised. Champa's character should have been put in the context of that time and class, when contemporary discourses of gender were neither known nor applicable. Anachronism is an unforgivable offence in historical fiction, but the unwillingness to understand and represent different societies from bygone eras appropriately is not a lesser offence by any means. Fiction, even in its most experimental form, is a testament to reality and truth. This book nonchalantly suspends both. History appears confused, if not rewritten, in this novel. People in 1684 France count money in rupees, not in livres, and policemen there are armed with batons, over 150 years before the policeman’s club was first used in London. Paupers eat aloo bhaji in 1185 South India, even though potatoes were introduced to India by the British in 1652, and South Indian cuisine was grain-based in 1185, as it is today. Shoals of tilapia swim in the ponds of 1685 Bengal, nearly three hundred years before the introduction of this African species to this part of the world. Dhaka is consistently referred to as Dacca – a distinctly British word that entered widespread usage from about 1695 – even in the author’s note. These are but a few examples. Reality is also defied. Hira Lal has his arm hacked off, but remains lucid, having a coherent conversation with Rupa, and uttering this long, hackneyed prayer to Kali: “Jaya Mata Kali, Divine Mother, hear my cries. You are the destroyer of time! You are the embodiment of terror! You are the giver of boons! Avenge my wife’s death! Hrim! Srim! Krim!” The worship of the goddess, especially her depiction in the book, one might add, was not prevalent in South India in 1185. Mariamman, the equivalent of Kali in the region at the time, was a rain goddess not readily associated with acts of bloodshed and anger. Kali in the Bengali tradition is a mother-figure, which leaves her portrayal in this book derived, evidently, from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, sans the entertainment. The ordinariness of the language highlights these errors instead of masking them. The text is replete with unnatural and confusing similes. Two of many examples are: “[Kalinoor] glowed like a star from Hell” and “a smile as insincere as a whore’s orgasm.” Sections about Bengal that are meant to lend historic authenticity – expositions about its trade for instance – read like they have been lifted from an old, charmless encyclopaedia, and are jarringly dropped in without being woven into the narrative. The “prosperous villages and manicured gardens,” “brown-bodied children,” “foliage spread like an emerald carpet” and “sky [that] was a brilliant sapphire” of Bengal, viewed through a spy-glass by Madeline, would not look out of place in brochures of a now-defunct travel agency, offering trips to the exotic East that its white proprietors have never visited. For a book to be honest requires diligence, dedication, and deliberation absent in Dark Diamond. A writer can take certain liberties in shaping the content, but a publisher is accountable to readers for printing it. There is an interesting story, perhaps even a decent book, somewhere in Dark Diamond. In its present form, however, it misses the mark. As a first draft, this may have been intriguing, even promising. However, as a published book, on which an editor has worked, it simply does not live up to a reader’s legitimate expectations. Bloomsbury India is highly regarded in the book industry, but in publishing this novel that still needs so much work, it has done a disservice to the writer and failed in its duty to its readers.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a poet and fiction writer.