One hot release at this year’s Boi Mela was the novel Yaba Sundori.
The phrase had only been coined last November with the police campaign against the methamphetamine drug marketed as Yaba. That was our News of the Hour, the Sensation of the Month.
What a sensation that was. It began with a circle of upper-class youth arrested in Banani. Then a midnight raid in Gulshan bagged a drug kingpin. There were rumours of pretty women as suppliers. The aura of sex fringed the whole affair. In one arrest, the seize list included One Viagra Tablet. I hadn’t realized Viagra was illegal. If so, it must be to preserve the monopoly of the thousands of ‘homeo clinics’ in Bangladesh that promise you local medicine for a harder, longer dampotyo jibon.
Then came the Really Big Drama. The ultimate Yaba Sundori hiding out with her lover. And just as they were about to surrender, the RAB netted them and paraded them before the cameras.
She came into our lives as Nikita. A village girl from Brahmanbaria who climbed up by marrying an MP. He gifted her a Banani flat. She acquired internet skills and found her way to an online affair with a probashi in Korea. The marriage collapsed and she rejected the lover too. Her final catch, the hotel MD. He had her skin whitened in Bangkok. Flew her to Japan. Showered her with jewellery.
Thanks to the RAB commander and our informative media, we learned of her taste in lingerie. From Brahmanbaria to Victoria’s Secret — here was our own B’Sharpe. Perfect material for a reincarnated Thackeray.
Would Moinuddin Kajal’s book deliver? Topical novels are tough. But this is Dhaka where authors and translators churn out three, four, seven titles in one year.
Opening the book, I meet Nodi, an MA student who finds a part-time gig as a music and art teacher at a school. Another teacher there, Digonto, falls for her. I read on, expectantly, but for pages and pages, there is no hint of any Yaba beauty. I feel cheated but wonder, would Nodi transform? I look forward to be surprised.
Not a chance. Nodi is the Bangali beauty of our male imagination who breaks into Tagore songs at every turn of the courtship. Given her talent in art, I’m surprised she didn’t stop the rickshaw now and then to sketch a portrait of Digonto.
He pressures her to marry but she resists. She graduates, lands a job. Now we are in another story. We meet Mita, and it seems likely she is our woman. The clues? She doesn’t sing, paint, or dance, but she is rich, pretty, and favours hangouts in Gulshan.
Mita is in love with her colleague Oronyo. Finally, on page 79, at a Gulshan restaurant she introduces him to the magic pill.
Meanwhile, Nodi gets close to her other colleagues Kotha and Kobita. Living up to their perfect names, they introduce her to their anti-drug cause, the Madok Bimuktikoron Niramoy Institute.
Now we enter wholly new territory. Perhaps at this point the author wasn’t sure whether he would be a novelist or an encyclopaedist. For much of the remaining pages, he educates us about the harmful effects of drugs. There are lists galore. Numbered lists. Dashed lists. I’m amazed he left out pictures. From heroin and Yaba to phensidyl and marijuana. Tobacco. Even tea is not spared. Why no mention of pan-shupari? Has the author not seen the condition of our people’s teeth?
But what happened to Nodi and Digonto? If any readers are still awake, they will find them again on page 147. Digonto brings his brother to take a marriage proposal to Nodi’s sister, her local guardian. The woman lobs a bomb: Nodi is not her real sister but a foundling. Nodi overhears the news and falls into depression. Digonto leads the rescue, persuading Nodi’s mother to divulge the secret of where they found her. Then the whole crew of Rang de Basanti youth rushes to Ramu where the police OC dusts off an old GD about a lost girl. The lead brings them to a Supreme Court Barrister, and after some predictable man-obhiman, father and daughter are reunited.
As the book ends, we are told the Barrister was a hero of the Muktijuddho. He closes the book with, “We won independence by waging the Liberation War. Imbued by patriotism, the new generation will build a drug-free country.”
Is this supposed to be a tribute to freedom fighters? What kind of hero was this who didn’t even spend more than two days looking for his lost daughter, who never contacted the Ramu thana again? Wait, he must have neglected that duty because he wanted to hand over that task to the new generation.
I suspect the story behind this book is not very high-minded. The author probably started with an ordinary love story. The talented woman. A shy suitor. A romance subverted by the discovery of a secret. How many times have we seen this plot in our movies?
Such a story could be a bore to write out yet once again. Last November’s news must have brought a bolt of inspiration. Yaba Sundori was selling many a newspaper and magazine. Perhaps it could also market a book.
In came this middle plot. Then the author padded the book with lists of the Negative Consequences of Drugs. With that the novel could not be accused of pandering to sensation. After all, it was now a Tool of Moral Education.
The book flap describes the author as a kothashahityik, a writer of literary prose. He and his publisher can make the claim but it would be an affront for us to accept it. Such a book has as much relationship to literature as the film Koshai Mastan has to cinema art. There are footpath chotis published in Roshomoi Gupta’s name that might better qualify. Once in a while they’ll at least surprise you, such as with an original metaphor. Readers will look in vain for surprises in Yaba Sundori.
(A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in The Daily Star, Saturday, July 26, 2008.)