At the end of Tahmima Anam’s impressive first novel, A Golden Age (which won the Commonwealth Prize in 2008), the blissful domesticity of the Haque family had shattered. Rehana, the widowed mother, kept her house going during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 even as her son Sohail disappeared into the countryside, joining the Mukti Bahini, as the Bangladeshi rebels fighting the Pakistani army were known, and her daughter Maya went to Calcutta (now Kolkata), working among refugees.
In The Good Muslim, Anam’s second novel, the story moves forward and back without the predictability of the pendulum, but the shifts have a purpose. Anam, whom I should reveal I know as a friend, is fully in control; there are no unplanned lurches—there is the beginning, middle, and end, but, as Jean-Luc Godard said in another context, not necessarily in that order.
Canvas: A village in Bangladesh. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Moving constantly between the end of the war and the 1980s, Anam’s novel is a tightly crafted narrative, as much about the Haques, as about the existential question of identity in Bangladesh. Is it a Muslim country where most people speak Bengali, or a Bengali nation with a large majority of Muslims? Does faith matter, and if so, what sort of faith is it? And if the faith seeks submission of all, and treats everyone equally, why are the women invisible?
These are profound questions, and Anam’s achievement lies in exploring the questions without burdening her fiction.
The novel begins with Sohail making a deeply troubling discovery in a camp abandoned by defeated Pakistani soldiers—a discovery which will change his life fundamentally, in all the word’s senses. Upon return to Dhaka, Sohail turns to religion. His mother indulges him, thinking religion will offer him the solace he needs after the trauma of the war. Instead, Sohail turns more inward, becomes a preacher, burns his books, converts part of his house into a camp of believers, and propagates an austere faith, placing severe restrictions upon women and children, including his own son. He shows little emotion when his wife dies, and is cold towards his son, refusing him toys, sweets, and schooling.
Maya, now a doctor, is unable to accept the transformation and goes to remote villages, helping women bring up healthy children, and encouraging them to discover their identity (many years later, she will recall how it felt: “I heard a woman screaming. She was squatting at the back of a tailoring shop, in labour. I helped her, and I felt—well, as I hadn’t felt in a long time. Like I was finally good for something”).
Mukti Bahini men on their way to East Pakistan. Photo: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images
Conservative Islam drives her back to Dhaka, after one of her patients is punished with lashes for dipping her ankles in the river to beat the heat, and she feels powerless to protect her, or to fight blind faith. She finds her brother even more remote, preventing her from playing any role in his motherless son’s upbringing. The brother has moved far: “The future was suddenly clear: he was going somewhere, somewhere remote and out of reach, somewhere that had nothing to do with her, and that even if he didn’t disappear altogether, she would, from now on, be left behind.”
Sohail sends his son to a madrasa. The estrangement between the brother and sister is nearly complete, as the novel inches inexorably towards a climax that sets the reader thinking. Who, indeed, is the good Muslim here? The brother, a believer coming to terms with the war’s horrors, and attempting to understand life, keeping his emotions—love, hatred, anger and compassion—suppressed? Or the sister, the woman with no time for faith, who strives to do good, who wants to celebrate life, even if it means defying norms alien to her, as she discovers the limits of what she can do?
Their meeting point is the home their mother Rehana has preserved during the war—Sohail escapes that to retreat into an insular world of faith; Maya embraces it to flee the extremists in the countryside. When the mother fights cancer, what has ensured her survival? The medicines Maya and the doctors have given, or the prayers and holy water Sohail has brought?
As Sohail recedes from the ephemera of daily life, Maya plunges into political struggles. Anam’s own anger at military dictatorships is transparent: During the period in which the novel is set, Bangladesh was ruled by Gen. H.M. Ershad. She never names him; he only appears as the Dictator. Maya becomes a columnist, initially writing about her life in the countryside, but later, she demands justice for war crimes. Bangladesh has become a country that permits “the men who betrayed it, the men who committed murder, to run free, to live as the neighbours of the women they have widowed, the young girls they have raped,” Anam writes. In that morally confused landscape, some seek the certainty that fundamentalist Islam provides.
The Good Muslim: Penguin, 297 pages, Rs 499.
Sohail and Maya are two sides of the Bangladeshi saga. Both want change—Maya through individual empowerment, and Sohail, through collective submission. She revels in nuances—she is understated when she describes the horrors. Graphic descriptions of violence—physical or sexual—are unnecessary, because the violence that words, gestures and ideas can unleash, can be equally menacing. At the same time, she offers perhaps the most nuanced portrayal of a fundamentalist in fiction. Not a caricature, as in the attempts of John Updike and Martin Amis; nor a clever sophisticate, as in Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but an imperfect man struggling with his identity.
Or is the good Muslim the woman? Anam wants the reader to decide who should be sympathized with. I rooted for Maya in the end, and I resented Sohail’s obstinacy—but Anam’s skill lies in making the reader empathize with Sohail. He is as much a victim as a perpetrator, just as Maya’s interventions lead to consequences never intended.
The Good Muslim is a quiet novel, its scream silent. It forces you to think and leaves you wondering whether being a good believer is compatible with being a good human being. There are no final answers, and for a good reason; this is after all a projected trilogy, and it takes us to the stage where we eagerly await the finale.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere in Mint and is researching a book about international war crimes focused on Bangladesh.
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