The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
19 May, 2011
I’ve just finished Tahmima Anam’s second novel The Good Muslim just in time for her talk at the Festival of Asian Literature, a sequel to her debut, A Golden Age, which won the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize in 2008. I first came across Anam at the Galle Literary Festival in early 2009. I hadn’t previously come across her name but upon listening to her talk, I promptly purchased her book, devoured it, and fell in love with her story-telling. Because she tells her story in such an enchanting, quiet way that hides a stinging punch, rendering you speechless as you close the book. And she’s done it again.
A Golden Age was about the Bangladesh Liberation War, told from the point of view of Rehana, a young widow, who has regained her two children and watched them grow as East and West Pakistan were flung into a brutal and vicious conflict. Sohail and Maya are educated, liberal, uninterested in religion and tradition. They join the war effort in different ways but both fighting for an independant and free country. And Rehana stays at home, waiting, hoping, hiding revolutionaries and only just catching the last, surprised, gasp of bittersweet love. I don’t think I’d read anything as beautiful and powerful as Anam’s tale.
The Good Muslim follows on from A Golden Age and is set immediately after the birth of Bangladesh. This time it is Maya, Rehana’s daughter, who tells the story. And it is about her and her precious brother Sohail, both having survived the war and living with the consequences of their actions. I think this was probably a much harder book for Anam to write. There is a depth to it told in deftly controlled prose. It is once again beautifully written and yet more devastating because it is sparse. There is no over-writing here. Anam deals with the consequences of war: the killings, the rapes, the fate of war babies, the shame and the injustices. Maya is now a surgeon, having spent the last seven years practicing medicine in rural areas, helping women give birth and treating and educating the people of the land. Sohail has become a religious man and we learn that this is part of the reason why Maya has left her home and family, too shocked and hurt that he has turned his back on everything he held sacred and turning into a person she no longer recognised.
The tale begins with Maya’s return to her family home upon the death of her sister-in-law, Silvi. She finds Sohail has set up a religious meeting place where people are constantly coming to hear him speak. And she meets Zaid, Sohail’s 10 year old son, uneducated except for what his father deems is acceptable to Islam, and still grieving for his mother. The tale skips back and forth between the present (1984) and the past (1977), just after the war has ended, and we slowly learn what has shaped Sohail’s choices, and Maya’s persistent attempts to understand her brother. How Sohail changed from a carefree brilliant student to a troubled soldier, scarred by his experiences and unable to help the woman he rescues and with whom he has fallen in love. How Maya herself, no longer an innocent revolutionary, has had to help heal her countrywomen by performing abortions. How she cannot smother her anger at the politicians of her country who have forgotten the sacrifices made in their name.
Rehana is here, growing older, happy her family are back together but not in the way she had imagined. Then there is Joy, Sohail’s best friend’s younger brother. He has lost both his brother and father and a finger in the war. He had left Bangladesh for the States soon after, but returned to Dhaka a year before Maya. And their friendship is re-kindled as Maya finds that there is hardly anyone amongst her revolutionary peers who still fans the flames for justice.
More problematic is Sohail’s extremism and the impact on his son, Zaid, as he is sent to a madrasa, away from all non-religious influences. None of Anam’s characters are perfect. They are all flawed in some way.
It’s a weighty book but Anam is so skillful as a writer that she doesn’t drown you in the injustices of history. Her writing is beautiful and flowing and carries you through the emotional journey of Maya’s tale. Anam’s training as an anthropologist shows in the content of her novel. Yet she is a wonderful writer of beautiful prose and I look forward to more books by her.
I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge and would like to thank the lovely people at Canongate Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.