The British empire in India was never so careless and cynical as when it left. The arbitrary redrawing of borders on the Indian subcontinent in 1947 left it broken into two, necessitating one of the largest migrations of people in history. And one of those countries was itself divided from birth, poised peculiarly—so thinks Rehana Haque, the protagonist of Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age—“on either side of India like a pair of horns”.
As territories from Northwest and East India became Pakistan, so, in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The full irony of this continuous churning and upheaval is realized in a remark by Rehana who, when asked about which side she supports in East Pakistan’s war for independence, says, “I’m not sure I’m a nationalist.”
Rehana is born in Kolkata, sees her sisters married off and sent to Karachi, and is herself married—neither by choice, nor against her wishes—to a businessman, Iqbal, in Dhaka. When Iqbal succumbs suddenly to a heart attack, Rehana is left with two small children to bring up. Her brother-in-law and his wife, who are childless, argue that her children are better off living with them in Karachi. She loses her children for a few years before her circumstances improve and she is able to bribe a judge to decree that her children be returned. Anam’s narration then leaps forward from the 1950s to 1971, showing us Rehana in middle age and her children, Sohail and Maya, in their teens.
Rehana’s children identify with the Bengali language and landscape: Sohail, we are told, loved “the swimming mud of the delta; the translucent, bony river fish; the shocking green palette of the paddy, and the open, aching blue of the sky over flat land”.
But Rehana always feels slightly out of place in Dhaka, for more than anything else, language is constitutive of human identity, and “She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.” Here, and on many other occasions, Anam’s writing summons a polished lyricism to give expression to human allegiance and longing. When conflict breaks out between the two halves of Pakistan after the elections of 1970 (in which the party of Mujibur Rahman, from the East, won a majority), Rehana realizes that her mother tongue is now “the Urdu of the enemy”.
Yet, the turbulence in Rehana’s world is not all political; some of it is also domestic. Sohail is in love with Silvi, the daughter of their neighbour, Mrs Chowdhury, but Silvi is abruptly betrothed to a lieutenant in the army and breaks Sohail’s heart by complying without protest. At a celebration to mark the engagement, when the bride’s mother raises a toast to the couple, Sohail, reconciled to his defeat, pitches in with a toast to the country: “May it emerge from this trial and stand strong.” In this one moment, we see romantic ardour shading into revolutionary fervour and sense that Sohail joins the resistance, not just to fight, but also to forget.
Anam’s narration bears witness, though never jingoistically, to the brutalities of West Pakistan’s assault, the ravages borne and the resistance shown by the nascent state of Bangladesh, and the pathos of refugees spilling over the border into India (Rehana herself escapes to Kolkata, becoming a refugee in the very city where she was born).
But even as it registers the drum roll of history, her novel does not lose sight of the individual: Anam presents a complex and satisfying portrait of her protagonist. Rehana, who still holds imaginary conversations with her husband, is both exasperated by and proud of Sohail (“she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge”), and feels guilt that she does not care so deeply for her headstrong daughter.
Rehana longs for stability, but “sifting her memories” one day amidst the chaos, she realizes there was never a then to contrast against the now. “No, there had never been any other time… there was only this time, this life, this fraught and crowded era, to which they were bound without choice, without knowledge, only their passions, their loves, to lead and sustain them.”
Although the novel ends on a note of hope after great suffering, Anam’s title suggests that, where individuals have lived fully and deeply in full awareness of life’s fragility, any age is a golden age.
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