To­mor­row, when war be­gan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jane Corn­well

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.

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