In A Golden Age, (IC, April 2008) Tahmima Anam introduced the intrepid Rehana Haque and her revolution-bound children, Maya and Sohail. Their story ushered us into the war for East Pakistan’s independence via Rehana’s fierce dedication to her children and her unplanned role in the rebellion. The Good Muslim, the second entry in Anam’s Bengal Trilogy, continues the saga with a more critical eye and an edgier tone.
This novel is bold, self-assured, and important, without losing the energy or conviction of its predecessor. Now, the Haque children are the focus. Both Maya and Sohail have seen the evils of war, but how they deal with the aftermath is the seed for the displacement and disconnect they feel for each other and for their new country.
The Good Muslim begins just days after the war has ended. Sohail, haunted by the conflict, makes his way home. The story then alternates between 1972, when the relationship between Maya and Sohail begins to deteriorate, and the mid-1980s, when both continue to struggle with unresolved personal, political, and moral issues.
Maya returns home after seven years as a rural doctor and learns that the things she knew about her home and family have drastically changed. Her sister-in-law, who Maya assumed was the catalyst for Sohail’s interest in religion, has died. Her brother has made Islam the centerpiece of his life. Maya’s college friends have become prosperous, complacent, and bourgeois.
Once home, Maya encounters her own displacement. She is surrounded by strangers who are more comfortable than she in her own home. In contrast, her loved ones have become strangers to her. In short, “It was a mistake … to think she could come home and everything would be as it was before.” Providing medical care for women, Maya participates in both the joy and the termination of wartime and post-war pregnancies. Her history fuels her independence, and her regrets spark a crusade for fair and decent treatment of women. She writes fiery essays that express her anti-regime views and offer a compassionate voice for the countless female victims of the war.
Still unable to connect with Sohail, Maya attempts to take care of her young nephew, Zaid. When Sohail deposits Zaid at a remote madrasa in retaliation for Maya’s intervention, she risks her life to rescue the child and finds herself in an unforeseen and desperate situation.
Anam is masterful at showing the anger and disconnect brought on by a victory that traded one misery for another. Anam writes succinctly and heartbreakingly of Bangladesh’s growing pains through Maya’s perspective:
“Her broken wishbone of a country was thirteen years old. Didn’t sound like very long, but in that time the nation had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalizing itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Modhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.”
Anam’s solid writing never allows her readers to feel comfortable in their distance because she never allows her characters to act without reason. In moving Maya and Sohail forward, she is neither sentimental nor judgmental. Yet she protects Sohail from being reduced to a caricature or stereotype.
Young Zaid is the novel’s most tragic character and an unintentional, residual victim of the war. I asked Anam about the relationship between father and son.
“I wanted, on the one hand, to portray Sohail as a three dimensional person, someone whose conversion you could understand, given the terrible tragedies he had witnessed during the war,” she responded via email. “On the other hand, I did not want to shy away from portraying the real dangers of extremism—often we calculate that cost in political terms, but in this case, it was the family, and particularly this child, who bore the burden of it.”
In Maya, Anam offers a feisty yet admirable character who assumes the non-traditional roles of doctor and activist. In an interview on National Public Radio, Anam described Maya as a universal representative of women:
“Even though she comes from this very conservative society,” Anam said, “she espouses a lot of the hopes and dreams that women all over the world have, including in the Western world.”
The novel is about Bangladesh, but its themes and ideals are global and contemporary. The Good Muslim speaks to current world events and most pointedly to last year’s Arab Spring.
When asked about the parallels between that uprising, A Golden Age, and The Good Muslim, Anam didn’t hesitate to respond.
“There are many correlations. In fact, in Bangladesh we had a very similar uprising in 1990, when Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who had ruled as a military dictator for nine years (the “Dictator” in The Good Muslim) was overthrown by a peaceful and grassroots popular movement for democracy.”
Anam doesn’t wrap up the ending with a neat and pretty bow, for that would be unfair to history and to her characters. After reading A Golden Age, I was filled with anticipation for Anam’s next book. After reading The Good Muslim, I am even more anxious to learn what the final book of the trilogy will bring for Rehana, Sohail, and Maya.
There is a question that must be asked at some point while reading this novel. Just who is the “Good Muslim”? Sohail, the religious Muslim, with his devotion to faith and Islam? Or Maya, the political Muslim, with her devotion to justice and truth? It is a fitting title for either, and Anam explains it simply.
“The title is meant to ask a question—who is the good muslim? The title can be applied to any of the characters [as] they are all part of a dialogue, among and within themselves, about the moral imperative in their lives.”
I leave it to each reader to determine the answer to the question.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, NC.