The Good Muslim is a good book, but parts of it leave you feeling very dissatisfied. I have had a similar experience recently, with Shahryar Fazli’s Invitation which, at first look, seemed brim-full with possibilities located as it was in the turbulent Karachi of the 1970s when Pakistan was teetering on the brink of democracy while its eastern arm was twitching to break free. I had described Fazli’s book as a tease, as one wilfully promising more than it could deliver. Tahmima Anam’s book is not a tease; it is however, a bit of a disappointment.
Cleverly structured in two parts, the past and the present which allow the reader to flash back and forth, dip in and out between now and then, the story spans two time zones: 1971 and 1984. A great deal has happened in the course of these 13 years. The year 1971 marks a traumatic severance from West Pakistan after a long and painful cutting of the umbilical cord, a bloodied beginning, and the emergence of a new nation called Bangladesh. Those who fought long and hard for this new country, the young men and women who hoped for a fresh, pure and hopeful new country instead find a land soiled and bloodied and so trampled upon as to be almost without hope. Anam tells the story of this new country, now almost 13 years old, through two siblings, a brother and a sister -- Sohail and Maya. Young students at the university when the war breaks out, both were once ardent revolutionaries sharing the same dreams for themselves and their countrymen. While Sohail picked up arms and worked in the guerilla army fighting the West Pakistani forces, Maya, a medical intern, crossed the border into India to work in the refugee camps.
The Good Muslim picks up from where Anam’s previous novel, A Golden Age, ends. The latter documents the emotional journey of Rehana Haque, an Urdu-speaking widow raising two politically-volatile children in a country that is about to become Bangladesh. If the first novel documents the horrors of war, the second one shows us the no-less horrific after-effects and the agony of post-parturition. The Good Muslim tells us what became of Rehana, her two children and her new country once the hard-won freedom was achieved. In a nut shell, Rehana discovers, and survives, cancer. The son discovers, and succumbs, to religion. And the daughter discovers herself and learns acceptance.
This, however, is too bald and banal a summing up. Anam tells her story with great resources of skill and craft at her command. Interlacing her narrative with brief, brutal flashbacks of war, she presents us with the challenges of peace. The biggest challenge, by far, is about the women who have been raped and traumatised at an unprecedented scale. Anam is to be commended for raking up an issue that has long been buried but one that refuses to go away. The raped women, called birangona (brave women) by no less a person than Banga Bandhu, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, were told to forget about the past and move on. Husbands, fathers and sons were told to welcome these ‘heroines’ back in their homes, but what of the seed they carried in their bellies? What of the children of war? The new country had no place for them; the despoiled women were expected to scrape off the offending remains of war from their wombs. Anam writes:
‘It was time, they were told, to forgive. Forgive and forget. Absolve and misremember. Erase and move on. The country had to become a country. Just as it needed them, once, to send their brothers into the fighting, to melt their pots and surrender their jewellery, so it now needed them to forget.’
Clearly, this was too tall an order and an inhumane one, too. As a young doctor working in refugee camps and later in rehabilitation centres for women, Maya follows the official diktat pained though she is by the double trauma it causes. She knows redemption lies in acknowledging not forgetting, in affirming not negating. She is similarly appalled by the other types of erasing she sees all around her: old heroes are forgotten, streets are renumbered, buildings and parks renamed; it is almost as though the young country’s history is being air-brushed, the cracks papered over. Paltan Maidan, the historic ground where Mujib had made his speeches, where the Pakistani Army had surrendered, the spot where the exiled Banga Bandhu had returned to inaugurate the new country, is turned into an amusement park. Maya rues: ‘It was where, for a moment, they had won. Now their history would be papered over by peanuts and the smell of candy floss.’
If Maya is the emotional fulcrum of the novel, its intellectual tension arises from the relationship between the siblings and the different trajectories they occupy. Maya remains questioning, wandering, wistful and wishing for a better, more just world. Sohail, on the other hand, has reached the end of his journey and become a Believer. From a firebrand student leader, he has become a jamaati, a Hazrat who is venerated by those who believe, like him, that just as there can be no God but God there can be no book but One Book. Shortly after the war, Sohail made a bonfire of all his prized books and in it burns his old self to emerge as a Hazrat, one who shows the way. Maya tries, but cannot find sustenance in prayer, in the ‘abandonment of all other thoughts, all other pursuits.’ The differences between the siblings are too sharp, too brutal, too black-and-white, and there are no prizes for guessing where Anam’s sympathies lie. It is this, perhaps, that causes my disappointment with an otherwise intelligently-written book.
The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, Hamish Hamilton, 2011, pp. 297, Rs. 499.
(This review appeared in The Hindu, The Literary Review,3 July 2011.)