Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Broken Wishbone Of Bangladesh

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian


Independence and its discontents are at the heart of Tahmima Anam’s new novel, The Good Muslim, the follow-up to her A Golden Age. That earlier novel dealt with the tempestuous period of Bangladesh’s formation; this one deals with the aftermath. That one revolved around a mother’s efforts to make sure her daughter and son came to no harm; this one is more concerned with the relationship between brother and sister.

Set primarily in Dhaka, The Good Muslim is a look at how revolutionary ideals give way to pragmatic adjustments, and the circumstances that make people switch from one path to another. It’s as true of countries as it is of individuals.

The time is the mid-Eighties, and Maya, a doctor who’s spent the last seven years at a village clinic, returns home to her brother Sohail and mother Rehana in Dhaka. She finds that Rehana is “no longer the panicky, protective mother she had once been”, and as for Sohail, he’s now a devout man of the faith, preferring to sequester himself with those who share his beliefs. As a secular, independent woman, Maya is dismayed at this and further disheartened when she finds that Zaid, Sohail’s young son with whom she tries to strike a bond, is to be sent to a madrasa for religious instruction.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth also featured ideologically divided siblings – the irony there was that the one who’s sent to Bangladesh becomes an atheist, while the one who stays behind in the UK embraces Islam. In contrast, there is little irony in The Good Muslim, if at all; the author chooses instead to delineate incidents and feelings with sincerity and fluid grace. (Book-burning features in both books, too, being more incendiary and politically-motivated in Smith’s novel.)

Much of The Good Muslim is given over to the playing out of present-day consequences born out of past events . Anam  tries to strike a balance between action and reaction by inserting episodes set in the early Seventies, soon after the country’s birth, but the need to maintain tension and then defuse it means that the book’s later sections suffer from an over-abundance of explanation and incident.

The balance between the personal and the political, too, is skewed towards the former, more so than in A Golden Age. However, Anam captures with skill and insight the changes in Bangladesh in the decades after its formation. Some are physical, such as when Maya returns to Dhaka and finds that “everything was loud and crude, as though someone had reached over and raised the volume. It smelled of people and garbage and soot.” Buildings are taller, traffic more dense, and there are “signs of the Dictator everywhere, graffiti on the walls declaring him the ‘General of our Hearts’ and the ‘Saviour of Bangladesh’, posters of him ten, twenty feet tall, with his high forehead, his thin, satisfied moustache”.

The more important change, though, would be the slow seeping of religion into the public sphere, captured here not just by Sohail and those in his ken, but also by depicting the man on the street’s acceptance of an almost fatalistic belief.  The state of the nation could be said to be symbolized by the family’s house, with its grey streaks, sinking foundations and “a collection of shacks” that makes up the first floor, inhabited by Sohail and his religious cohorts.

Overall, in one memorable passage that sums up the “broken wishbone” of a country, Anam writes that it “had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees...A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.”

In such a place, Maya finds herself out of place. There is little comfort to be found in the way Zaid is being brought up and in the attitudes of former comrades who now prefer to chase riches and ostentation. She starts to writes incendiary newspaper columns (with ramifications that become apparent at the book’s close), attends meetings of those who seek restitution after the war, and spends time with Joy, an old associate who has started to harbour feelings for her. Most of all, though, she seeks to understand and live with Sohail’s disconcerting conversion.

When he first turns to “the Book” to find comfort from the memory of his actions during the war, Maya, despite reservations, sees that he is sincere in his feeling. It “suddenly become clear to her that religion, its open fragrance and cloudless stretches of infinity, may in fact be what he is claiming it is, an essential human need, hers as much as his, and because she feels the twinge of his yearning, turning like a leaf in her heart, she decides, at that moment, that it cannot be. She will not become one of those people who buckle under the force of a great event and allow it to change the metre of who they are”.

As for Sohail, “he longs for her to know, to know something of what it was like, longs for her to have a heart as heavy as his, a heart that needs to wrap itself around a certainty, a path”. This is one of the occasions in the book where we see him from within. Too often, he is a cipher-like presence –all too apparent, for example, when Maya confronts him with suspicions of dark deeds in the madrasa where Zaid has been cocooned. Though Sohail’s back story contains reason enough for him to turn to religion, the workings of his mind once he’s done so aren’t exactly dwelt upon.

For all that, The Good Muslim is a deeply-felt and fleshed-out account of committed individuals dealing with unfulfilled hopes in a country they have made many sacrifices for.  In late 18th century France, those watching the accused being led to the gallows used to mutter that  revolutions devour their young; in Anam’s depiction of Bangladesh, the revolution swallows idealism, leaving behind disillusionment and the seeking of ways to fit into a changed landscape.

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