Bangladesh is mentioned in prominence in Susan Brownmiller’s pioneering work on the politics of rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. The 1971 War of Liberation and its aftermath in the context of war “crimes” against women has been compared in the book to the Japanese rapes in Nanjing and German rapes in Russia during World War II. “… 200,000, 300,000 or possibly 400,000 women (three sets of statistics have been variously quoted) were raped. Hit-and-run rape of large numbers of Bengali women was brutally simple in terms of logistics as the Pakistani regulars swept through and occupied the tiny, populous land …” (p 81).
Tahmima Anam initiates the first scenes of her second fiction work The Good Muslim in this horrific moment of history, and uses the same premise to assemble a plot centred around two perspectives of being a Muslim, in the Bangladesh of the 1980s. Ms Anam’s much lauded and Commonwealth Prize winner debut novel, The Golden Age, recorded the build-up to the days of the Liberation War. It details a West Pakistan-born widow Rehana Haq’s life story along with how her children fight for the liberation of East Pakistan. The Good Muslim takes up the life of Rehana Haq’s offspring a dozen plus years later, and this book is the second in a trilogy. With quite some back story thrown in, the book zigzags between the 1970s and the 1980s and documents the post-war pain and its repercussions through the life of the siblings Maya and Sohail. But it’s eminently possible to read The Good Muslim as a stand-alone story.
Both the protagonists are depicted in homecomings. Sohail comes back from the War in the seventies and Maya, the doctor, returns from a self-imposed exile into the countryside in the eighties. Yet, their experiences, though similar in trauma, are so contradictory. Their perceptions and acceptances of the experiences also contrast in the extreme, which actually contributes to the pace and the depth of the book.
Bongabandhu Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s charisma, influence and his status as an unquestioned leader and hero are set against the policies adopted by the ruler post-liberation, barely discussed now. The women of the country who were already victims of a nine-month ordeal of rape, forced prostitution and abduction faced much more trauma as a result of these well-intentioned policies. The Abortion Teams formed to get rid of the War babies (Mujib is said to have spoken against “bastard babies” of different racial origin born to the rape victims), the declaration of war-rape victims as “Biranganas” or national heroines, and the endeavour to integrate them back into the conventional society by advocating acceptance back into families or in marriage with the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters are all weaved in fine threads that take the plot forward. But the story actually revolves around a much greater personal loss, that of love between siblings. Maya’s continued quest of the old Bhaiyya in the now-aloof Sohail proves futile and it’s a new interpretation of religion that disconnects the once-inseparable siblings.
Maya transfers some of her expressions of affection to her motherless nephew, but here too rigid religious observations come between her and the nephew. The world and her crowd in the seventies have moved on past her, but she finds a few likeminds still around. Maya is also haunted by her perception that they were not “just victims” and needed to admit their own sins as well. She, like Sohail, goes on to answer her heart’s calling and the directions these odysseys take are not even parallel. In the course of the story that follows a lonely soul’s yearning for catharsis, it’s not a happy ending that comes up.
Why does a man turn to God is a question we ask frequently. Here, the reservation is around how a God divides two people born into the same womb and bound by filial affection? Ms Anam tries to guide us to some answers. She succeeds to a limit when she flashes Sohails’ past and perceptions and dilemmas on the various pages. His justification may seem like episodes of escapism, but takes on some credibility in a psychological assessment of traumas. The war does not end with a headcount of its victims; it continues to rage in the minds of the affected.
Tahmima Anam talks about her new novel THE GOOD MUSLIM
Ms Anam’s prose is beautiful, crisp and moving. The characterisation is very believable. Her turn of phrases makes the reader think this could not have been expressed better and the style is effortless. The research also seems to be done excellently. The only thing that stood out from the pages was the absence of scenes of scarcity, which one expects in a post-war scenario. The social scenes documented in the story seem to belong to a society of plenty, whatever the period of narration. The years covered are 1972 to 1985 but surely there was a major famine in the country in 1974?
THE GOOD MUSLIM
Originally published in the Business Standard which you can read here.