Tomorrow, when war began
AFTER war, is peace all it is cracked up to be? How best to reconcile traumatic memories and get on with living a decent, moral life? In the years following the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence, siblings Maya and Sohail Haque arrive at different answers and make very different choices.
Maya, an idealistic doctor, seeks communion with her new country via its villages, where she delivers babies, teaches birth control and lives the simple life of an aesthetic. A former rock ’ n’ roll-loving guerilla fighter, Sohail turns to faith to help assuage the horrors of the past.
Sohail’s increasing extremism alarms his sister, who on returning to the family home in Dhaka finds the top floor given over to prayer meetings. She learns that Sohail’s young son Zaid is about to be sent to a madrassa, an Islamic school, located on an island in the middle of the hazardous Jamuna River.
Maya’s battle with her brother over Zaid’s fate is at the heart of Tamima Anam’s compelling and beautifully written novel, the second in a projected trilogy following her award-winning 2008 debut, A Golden Age.
While The Good Muslim can be appreciated without its predecessor, some knowledge of the violent war that split Pakistan and drew in neighbouring India will facilitate smooth passage through a story told in two timeframes: 1972, after the homeward-bound Sohail stops at an abandoned enemy barracks and finds a woman whose story will haunt him; and 1984, when Maya arrives back to find her brother transformed.
These jumps in time and tense take a little getting used to, but their convergence, when it comes, is masterful. A fearless realist, Dhakaborn, London-based Anam writes with a stylistic poise that never sags under the weight of its material, never shies from the tragic realities of war — torture, rape, killing — and indeed, of life (there is cancer and child abuse).
Sohail’s abandoning of liberal beliefs and tight embrace of ‘‘ The Book’’ is explained but judged only by the sensitive, stubborn Maya, whose story this ultimately is: Religion, [with] 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. But 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.
Having witnessed various atrocities committed in the name of God and recalling a dictator who frequently name-checked Allah (a dictator she accuses of war crimes in an inflammatory newspaper article), Maya sticks to her pluralistic path.
The siblings’ moral choices mirror the larger events of the day, when religious fundamentalism was being used to bring about a sense of national unity, and a secular aesthetic animated the independence movement from its base at Dhaka University.
This tinderbox setting was conjured from personal experience: the author’s family was among the thousands embroiled in the brutal upheaval.
Conveying a young nation’s searing growing pains and identity crises in novel form is no mean task, especially for a relatively new author. It’s no wonder, perhaps, Anam, 36, carries this off with aplomb: not only is she the scion of a respected literary family (her father Manuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s best-known English language newspaper), but her parents were rebels.
Her ongoing concern for the welfare of Bangladesh, a country of great highs and lows (‘‘A fast acting country, quick to anger, quick to self-destruct’’), is marking her out as a formidable critic as well as an important literary voice.
Thankfully the inevitable comparisons with Monica Ali and Zadie Smith — attractive, prodigiously talented female writers at the vanguard of the so-called BME (black and ethnic minority) market — were dispensed with last time around. (Anam doesn’t write about immigrant life in Britain, for starters.)
And while Anam has listed South Asian writers Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth among her inspirations, The Good Muslim sees her come into her own, consolidating a poetically precise approach that finds entire worlds in small things: the bruise on Sohail’s forehead is ‘‘ pearly and blue black from his daily submission to the prayer mat’’; a man named Joy has his finger severed by soldiers after a bird dared alight on it.
Big themes, however, abound: the concept of the mother as carer, nurturer and country. The idea that freedom can be found in a book, that goodness can be stoked through rebellion as much as duty, that peace often lies within. That family ties can adapt and reconfigure, just like new nations can.
An eloquent and authentic testament to human resilience, The Good Muslim had this reviewer crying hot tears at its gut-wrenching climax — and thinking about it, on and off, ever since. Jane Cornwell is a London-based writer and critic.