This novel is a sequel to “A Golden Age,” which I reviewed on an earlier page. “The Good Muslim“ continues the story of one family – an intense, deeply personal story of the enduring pain and sacrifice of a bitter civil war in Bangladesh. It is the second book in a planned trilogy.
It’s a story that, it seems, will not go away. Current events in that country have brought the narrative into even sharper focus. Just last week – and even today as I write – at least half a million protesters gathered in Shahbag, an intersection in the capital Dhaka. They are demanding justice for atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence from Western Pakistan and the death penalty for war criminals. The Bloggers and Online Activists Network organized the rally of mostly young people. According to the international blogging website Global Voices Online, the protests began “after the Secretary General of Bangladesh’s Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami Abdul Quader Mollah was found guilty of war crimes committed during 1971. He was sentenced to life in prison on 344 counts of murder, rape and arson by the International Crimes Tribunal on 5 February 2013.” According to protesters, Abdul Quader Mollah should receive the death penalty under Bangladeshi law.
Almost immediately after the protests began, one of the most influential Bangladeshi bloggers, Ahmed Rajib Haider (who wrote under the pseudonym Thaba Baba – Captain Claw) was murdered. Meanwhile, people are asking: Why are young Bangladeshis so passionately engaged with events that occurred before they were born? The bitterness has carried over, somehow.
I believe that Maya would certainly join the protests at what is now being called the Bangladeshi equivalent of Tahrir Square. When we meet her as “The Good Muslim” opens in 1984, Maya has stayed true to the idealism of the war. A midwife by profession, she sits in the third-class carriage on her way back to the capital. She is returning after a long absence – several years – away from home. She has maintained an awkward, polite correspondence with her mother, Rehana Haque (the widow Rehana’s story of determination, sacrifice and patient love for her family is told in “A Golden Age.”) Maya had left Dhaka after the nine-month war of independence ended, to volunteer in refugee camps. She started her own clinic in the rural town of Rajshahi, working with and seeking to empower desperately poor women. But now, thirteen years after her country’s liberation, Maya’s liberal views are no longer quite so welcome in the town. She is forced to leave, followed by bitterness, anger and, above all, ignorance. She leaves with a scar, where a whip has caught her neck.
Dhaka circa 1984 has changed; the old city is festooned with huge posters of what the writer calls “the Dictator.” Maya returns to her once-beloved childhood home to find the kitchen filled with women in black burkhas, preparing to mourn the passing of her sister-in-law Silvi, whom we met in the first book. Silvi was one of the passionate fighters for the country’s liberation – one of the group of young people that Rehana worried about and cared for. Silvi married Maya’s brother, Sohail. And it takes a while for Maya to even find her brother, on her return. He is distant, in more ways than one.
Like Maya, we try to understand Sohail all the way through the book. After his belated return from the war, his mother and sister are grateful and happy; everything will be back to normal. But the beautiful, comforting routine of the house only returns in fleeting glimpses: The delicious meals, the nurturing garden, the love they shared. And by the way, descriptions of the landscape and people of Bangladesh – a trip down the Jamuna River, a walk through a Dhaka market – are finely drawn, although not as rich perhaps as in the first novel.
But why did Sohail change, soon after his long-awaited return from war? Why did he withdraw, burn his books and become a charismatic religious leader, “worshipped” by his followers?
The sense of unease persists through the novel. Maya continues her tentative efforts to draw closer to her ailing mother. She rekindles a friendship with Joy (in this case, a man’s name) – a friend of her brother’s who had also fought in the war, and who has lived in New York for a while, driving a taxi. And her heart is captured by Sohail’s son, the vulnerable and neglected Zaid, whom she protects and nurtures. Through these relationships, she tries to find her way back to her beloved brother, who used to wear jeans and fall asleep after late night discussions on politics. She has lost him, she believes.
But has she really lost him? Families are complicated. Siblings grow apart, then together again. Is there still hope for Maya and Sohail? They say blood is thicker than water…
As the story weaves back and forth, from 1972 to the 80s and back again (which I did find rather distracting at times) several female characters appear and disappear. These women, none of them fully fleshed out, serve to illustrate the oppression of women. There is their terrible suffering during the war; and afterwards, the growing and insidious pressure of religious fundamentalism on their lives. The seductive power of religion – alongside the pretentious cocktail parties of the middle class – give us small, sharply focused windows into independent Bangladesh.
When I was at school, I loved to play netball. I was captain of the school team. Then, one day I fell and injured my knee. The wound refused to heal; it opened repeatedly, became infected over and over. My netball career was over, and when the wound eventually healed, I was left with a large scar, with a piece of grit embedded in it that is there to this day.
Sometimes wounds never heal. And some revolutions are never resolved. The only thing we can be certain of is change.
http://petchary.wordpress.com/book-review/ Petchary’s book reviews
Shahbag protesters versus the Butcher of Mirpur (guardian.co.uk)
With #Shahbag, Bangladesh Protest Movement Blows Up on Twitter (techpresident.com)
Portland to Shahbag: No War Criminal Can Escape (ireport.cnn.com)
Shahbag, Dhaka: The Beginning of Another Tahrir Square? (aisjournal.com)
The war Bangladesh can never forget (independent.co.uk)
War crimes trial reopens Bangladeshi wounds (nzherald.co.nz)
Tahmima Anam was born in 1975 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, because of her father’s position in the UN; and now lives in London and Dhaka. She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and obtained her Ph.D. in social anthropology at HarvardUniversity in 2005. She maintains close ties with Bangladesh, where her father Mahfuz Anam edits the country’s largest English-speaking newspaper, the Daily Star. Published in 2007, her first novel, “A Golden Age,” was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and has been translated into 22 languages. Read more about Ms. Anam, at http://www.tahmima.com/, where the author gives you a short video tour of the city of her birth and discusses “The Good Muslim.”