The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

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While Anam’s debut novel A Golden Age (which I adored) focused on the widowed Rehana Haque, this second book continues the story from the perspective of her children Maya and Sohail.

It is 1984, 13 years after the civil war. Maya returns to Dhaka after many years away, including some time spent in the countryside of Rajshahi. The death of her brother’s wife Silvi and some uncomfortable threats in Rajshahi send her back to her family home in Dhaka, and to Sohail and to her Ammoo:

“Maya thought she might be overcome at the sight of Dhaka. She imagined the waves of nostalgia that would coast over her, forcing her to remind herself of the necessity of the last seven years away. She imagined emerging into the cool February afternoon, clouds moving fast overhead, and remembering everything about her old life – all the days she had spent at the university, the rickshaw rides to Rama Park, Modhumita Cinema and the Racecourse, regretting the spare years in the country. But, as she stepped out of Kamalapur Station, she saw that everything was loud and crude, as though someone had reached over and raised the volume. It smelled of people and garbage and soot.”

Driven by his involvement in the war, Sohail has fallen into extreme form of Islam, eventually becoming a religious leader.

“The Book spoke to his every sorrow, to every bruise of his life. It spoke to the knife passing across the throat of an innocent man; it spoke to the day his father died, hand on his arrested heart; and it spoke to the machine-gun sound that echoed in his chest, night after night, to the hollow where Piya had been. And every idea he had ever had about the world. it spoke to those too. That every man was equal before God – how foolish of him to believe that Marx had invented this concept, when it was ancient, even deeper than ancient, embedded in the very germ of every being; that is what God had intended, what God had created. He wept from the beauty of it.”

It had driven a wedge between the siblings. Maya, who became a doctor, fled Dhaka in 1977 after Sohail’s rejection of his old life, of everything that used to matter to him in the past, like his books.

“It was the loving way he did this, lining each crate with newspaper and placing the books gently inside, that made her angry. She saw the struggle that bent his hand over this title, that spine. The way he opened, read a page – lingered over Ibsen, perhaps considering Hedda, or Nora – then closed each volume with firmness, these women from another age, another world, forbidden to him now.”

And even after her return to Dhaka in the 1980s, the sceptic Maya still hopes for him to return to his former self:

“She had thought of it so often, it was a dream, a dream worn out from constant dreaming. He would see himself reflected through her eyes – see the absurdity of what he had become. He would see the ugliness of turning her family away, the cruelty of his own fathering. Cracks would appear in his belief, his faith would be shaken – not in the Almighty, she would not wish to take that away from him (or perhaps she did, but she was not willing to admit to it), but in whatever force had taken him from her and delivered up a stranger.

He would remember himself, awaken and resume the life she had imagined for him. And he would forgive her for wishing him difficult.”

Sohail’s religious fervour has caused him to neglect his son Zaid, and Maya grows to love this wild, uneducated nephew of hers. Sohail’s decision to send Zaid to a madrasah has Maya conflicted – should she fight for what she knows to be right or trust in Sohail’s decision?

Anam has written such a strong character in Maya – headstrong, intelligent and outspoken, a rarity in this society where women are meant to be docile and submissive. I liked her, the way she stood up for what she felt was right, but sometimes her stubbornness was just too much. Sohail begins as a bit of an enigma but as Anam gradually allows us back in to his past, we eventually understand what has led to his transformation, although we might not agree with the way he acts.

Anam takes us right into the sights and sounds and smells of life in Bangladesh. I am especially fond of her description of Maya’s train journey home, the smell of dung mingling with the aromas of lunch:

“The train made its way through Rajshahi, and then into Natore, the landscape remaining flat and dry, the smells of the paddy mingling with the mustard plants that shone yellow, the burning cakes of dung.

The old woman opened her tiffin carrier, releasing the aroma of dal and fried cauliflower. The family opposite followed suite, unwrapping their bread and bhaji.”

 

tahmimaTahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. She was raised in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok. Renowned satirist Abul Mansur Ahmed is her grandfather. After studying at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University, she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology. Her first novel, A Golden Age, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Costa First Novel Prize, and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. It was translated into 22 languages. Her writing has been published in Granta, The New York Times, and the Guardian. She lives in London.

A Golden Age

I’m always thoroughly pleased when a book surprises me. And this one was a wonderful surprise. Perhaps it was because I started off with almost no expectations about A Golden Age. All I knew about this book was that it was set in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1970s. And what do I know about East Pakistan today, let alone in the 1970s? I guess that’s why it took me a while to pick up this one – really close to the library’s due date. I even renewed it online as I wasn’t sure if I would finish it, but then, after an initial setback when reading the prologue, I found the pages flying by (once again, a prologue throws me off track… huh).

A Golden Age is a story of a brave woman, who at first doesn’t seem so brave. Rehana Haque is a widow, the mother of Sohail and Maya, who are caught up in the resistance movement, attending meetings, rallies, debating their fight for independence. Rehana “did not have the proper trappings of a nationalist. She did not have the youth or the appearance or the words”. Rehana was born in western Pakistan and speaks the ‘enemy’ language of Urdu, but has called East Pakistan home since her marriage.

But this is 1971 and war is looming. And everyone has to play a part, and Rehana knows that she cannot stop her children from joining the freedom fighters, although there was a part of her that “wanted them to have nothing to do with it all, to keep them safe at home”. Rehana too enters the fray, opening her house to the resistance movement, taking in refugees and fighters, helping out at a refugee camp.

A Golden Age is such an accomplished first novel. It is strong, but soft at the right moments. With the fight for independence, there is violence and terror and fear. But Anam also manages to paint us into 1970s East Pakistan, describing its landscape, cuisine, dwellings, sights, sounds and smells with a loving hand. And creates such a strong character in Rehana, someone I couldn’t help admiring and loving.

Title: A Golden Age
Author: Tahmima Anam (author’s website)
Year: 2007
Acquired from: The Library

I read this book as part of the Global Reading Challenge.