Don't be so frightened of it. It's only religion. – Tahmima Anam, The Good Muslim
The Bangladesh Liberation War was an armed conflict pitting East Pakistan and India against West Pakistan. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. As far as wars go it was a short one – it lasted only nine months, from 26 March – 16 December 1971 – but a lot of damage can be done in a remarkably short period of time:
During those nine months in 1971, the world watched while the Pakistani army conducted a campaign of mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing against an unarmed civilian population. In the name of religious unity, they killed up to 3 million people (although an official Pakistani report only acknowledges 26,000 civilian deaths), displaced another 10 million into neighbouring India, and are alleged to have raped hundreds of thousands of women.
March 26  marks the 40th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh (that being the day when the war began), and the country has come a long way. Born out of that brutal war of secession with Pakistan, battered by floods, cyclones, coups and political assassinations, it was once a country that had little chance of surviving. But against all odds, Bangladesh has flourished. It no longer fits the cliché of the "basket case" dismissed by Henry Kissinger in 1971. – ‘Happy 40th birthday, Bangladesh’, The Guardian, 24 March 2011
So writes novelist, Tahmima Anam a couple of months after the publication of, The Good Muslim, the second in a planned trilogy of novels. When I saw it on Canongate’s list of new titles I specifically asked for a copy. Like most of us I know little about Muslims. I get confused between Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism but from all accounts they can have some pretty odd ideas what Christians are all about too.
Anam’s first novel was called A Golden Age and was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. It was set during the Bangladesh Liberation War itself. This second book focuses on the transition period between 1971 and 1992 but concentrates on 1984. The third novel, which will be set in contemporary Bangladesh, will focus on climate change. Of it she says:
My husband asked me if I could write a story that didn’t have epic events. I’m fixated by people’s lives being difficult, and bearing the weight of a great event. I try to keep it intimate but when you come from a place like I do, it’s hard to write a novel about small things. – Tina Jackson, ‘Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim is an intimate view of extremism’, The Metro, 20 May 2011
Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975 Tahmima Anam grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, due to her father's career with UNESCO, and yet is clearly devoted to ensuring that the world remembers clearly what her nation of birth had to go through to gain independence:
I love the country. It is my nation. My heart stays there wherever I might go. I spend some months in a year there. – Ziya Us Salam, ‘Parallel Realities’, The Hindu Magazine, 8 May 2011
I certainly hadn’t remembered but from all accounts many of the Bangladeshis themselves didn’t care to remember; the war was over and they simply wanted to get on with their lives. No one wants to talk about the women who were raped and abused during the war:
After the war ended, Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman described the women as ‘birangona’, which translates as ‘heroines.’ However, any resulting children were not welcomed, and abortion camps were set up to deal with the problem. – Tina Jackson, ‘Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim is an intimate view of extremism’, The Metro, 20 May 2011
At least that’s how things are in 1984 when, after several years working as a doctor in the countryside (where she travels from village to village focusing on the care of these ‘birangona’), Maya Haque, the book’s narrator, decides to return home to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh:
Thirteen. 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, [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the independence movement, and General Zia, a decorated war hero]. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Madhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.
On Independence Day, Maya switched on the television and saw the Dictator laying wreaths at Shaheed Minar, the Martyrs' Memorial. He had a small dark head and wide shoulders fringed by military decorations. Last month he had tried to change the name of the country to the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. And before that, he had bought a pair of matching Rolls-Royces, one for himself, another for his mistress.
Now, on the anniversary of the day the Pakistan Army ran its tanks over Dhaka, he was making a speech about the war. Eager to befriend the old enemy, he said nothing about the killings. He praised the importance of regional unity. All Muslims are Brothers, he repeated. She couldn't bear to listen. She switched off the television and found her mother in the kitchen, frying parathas.
The unnamed Dictator in question is Hossain Mohammad Ershad whose rise to power seemed to confirm the world’s suspicion that democracy could not flourish in a country with so many problems. But in 1990, a popular movement not unlike the ones we are witnessing in the Middle East today ousted Ershad. There have been four successful parliamentary elections since then and whereas in the nineteen-eighties Bangladesh relied heavily on international aid, nowadays only 2% of its annual development budget comes from out of the country.
But that’s now. The twenty year period, when Bangladesh was finding its feet, was a turbulent time. The novel focuses on two siblings Maya Haque, who is in her early thirties and still unmarried, and her older, recently remarried brother, Sohail. Both have been terribly affected by what they witnessed and experienced during and because of the war…
She remembered the sight of dead men with their hands tied behind their backs, their faces lapped with blood, and she remembered every day she had worked in the camps, scooping bullets out of men with nothing but a spoon and a hunter's knife.
…but they each respond in radically different ways.
The words ‘radical’, ‘militant’, ‘Islamic’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are words we are used to hearing on the television and reading in our paper in various combinations, mostly bad. The term "Islamic fundamentalism" is most often used to describe Muslim individuals and groups which advocate Islamism, a political ideology calling for the replacement of state secular laws with Islamic law but when Anam talks about her characters as “fundamentalists” this is not what she means; no one is building bombs or planning the downfall of the West. Think Hasidic Jews and you’re probably closer to the mark. And even with them there are approximately thirty larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor groups and it’s the same with Muslims and Christians. There is no ‘Christian Church’, there are Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Wee Frees, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Anglicans and hundreds of other denominations and sects.
When Sohail returns from the war his mother encourages her clearly-troubled son to take comfort in his faith which he does. She gives him a copy of “the Book” which he reads. His pre-war ideals were secular and reformist but over the next few years he becomes more and more devout, growing his beard, rejecting modern dress, burning all his books and devoting his life to his faith eventually attracting a band of followers who address his as ‘Huzoor’, an Urdu word (surprisingly) meaning ‘my lord.’ When his sister, on the other hand, witnesses what’s happening to her brother she cannot bear it; she leaves home to work in the countryside and only returns when Sohail’s wife dies to find him changed beyond recognition and it is this period the book concentrates on. This is what the author had to say in a recent interview:
Maya feels certain companionship with people. Sohail opts to take the path of faith, religion, decides to educate his boy in a madrasa. He is representative of a big resurgence of religion in political life. The siblings have different concepts of the country. Maya works as a midwife, wants to serve the people. Sohail is attached to faith and afterlife. I have tried to project the conflict between faith and secular society. – Ziya Us Salam, ‘Parallel Realities’, The Hindu Magazine, 8 May 2011
I should explain what a madrasa is. The word itself refers to any kind of educational institute but although the word is never defined in the novel – virtually no foreign terms are which I have to say bothered me – it is clear from the context that this is a school that focuses on a study of the Qur'an, Islamic metaphysics and Islamic ethics pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. It is also, in the case of Zaid (Sohail’s six-year-old son) a boarding school far from home and because his father shuns modern technology it’s not as if he can phone home for a bit of reassurance. Zaid becomes the main point of contention between Maya and her brother, the battlefield on which they wage their war. The boy wants to go to a normal school with all the other children but his father will hear none of it and even when, at first, Maya takes up the boy’s education, her brother places heavy restrictions on what she can and cannot communicate to him. Maya naïvely believes that her brother needs rescuing despite the facts that…
She sees that he fell into the abyss and that this Book is what brought him to the surface and allowed him to breathe. She sees too, in herself, the need for such a rescue, such a buoy, such a truth. But because it has suddenly become clear to her that religion, 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, and because she feels the twinge of his yearning, turning like a leaf in her heart, she decides, at that moment, that it cannot be. 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.
…but if she cannot rescue him then she can try and save his son. Which she does, try, and this is her brother’s simple response:
He was not yours to save.
When you start to read the book it’s impossible not to imagine Sohail in the role of the good Muslim and that that title should really be read in a disparaging tone – i.e. a good Muslim = a bad person – and there will be people out there who hold the same view as the generals who maintained that the only good Indian/German/Jap/whatever is a dead Indian/German/Jap/whatever. It’s never that simple. Maya is also Muslim but she is a Muslim in the way a great many of us are Christians, getting married in a church, having our kids baptised in one and having our funeral service in one but never setting foot in one any other time of the year (apart from possibly Easter and Christmas) unless it is to attend the wedding, christening or funeral of someone else. This is what the author had to say when pressed on the subject:
I meant to ask the question to my readers, left it open to them. As a novelist, my job is to raise questions; not to pronounce verdict on who is a good Muslim. – Ziya Us Salam, ‘Parallel Realities’, The Hindu Magazine, 8 May 2011
Sohail is not a bad man. Far from it. When we first meet him he is returning from the war when he discovers, rescues and returns to her village a woman who had been captured and repeatedly raped by the opposing army. When he finally arrives back home – later than all the rest because of this detour – it’s abundantly clear that he has been terribly affected by not just this but by everything he has witnessed and, as we learn late in the book, what he himself has done. He’s not suffering from PTSD – at least we are never told that he is – but that doesn’t mean he’s not in crisis. And in times of crisis people very often turn to God. As the aphorism goes: There are no atheists in foxholes. It happens the world over although usually after the crisis they slip back into their old ways. Religion – any religion – does one important thing: it orders the universe. It tells you what to do, what not to do and what to expect to happen if you do or don’t do what it tells you to; its followers relinquish control to a higher power. All you need to be responsible for is learning the rules and following them. Following rules is easier than thinking for yourself and so the tighter rein his god has on him the better as far as Sohail is concerned.
Maya follows another path after her return. A male friend, Joy (Sohail’s best friend’s younger brother), recently returned from the United States where he made a living as a taxi driver, takes her to a political meeting where she hears the author of a modern Bengali classic who lost her son in the war speak of a country "that allows the men who betrayed it, the men who committed murder, to run free, to live as the neighbours of the women they have widowed, the young girls they have raped". Maya decides she needs to do something – there are hardly any of her once-revolutionary peers who seems willing to fan the flames for justice – and ends up writing a newspaper column where she can address such issues, a risky thing to do and one that has inevitable repercussions.
If Sohail is a radical does that mean that his sister is an idealist? That would be a simplistic reading of this book. In the same way simply to say that it is about the conflict between the sacred and the secular isn’t quite right either. Where this book succeeds is that it makes Sohail human – we get a peek inside the mind of a religious zealot – but because the book is narrated by his sister we’re still on the outside. I think more could have been accomplished had we had access to his thoughts, what he was really thinking as opposed to what he says and what his sister reads into what he says (and probably more importantly what he doesn’t say).
Should we be frightened of religion? When Maya tells her mother that Sohail is going to turn her house into a mosque, Rehana replies "Don't be so frightened of it. It's only religion." Of course it’s only a religion until we start witnessing miracles. And Anam provides us with one in a place devoted to science: the irony is laid on with a trowel. If it is a miracle. And that’s the thing about miracles – they require a different kind of faith to the one scientists have in their formulas. Maya is shaken by it but who says that science and religion cannot coexist?
This is a striking, well-written novel and its style is well-suited to its content. It manages to bridge historicity and the demands of a fictional narrative quite well. Most of the characters are well-rounded, the important ones anyway, even if we don’t get as much insight into Sohail as I might have liked; I would have also been interested in learning a little more about his wife but she is kept in the shadows. I didn’t find out nearly as much about what a good Muslim ought to be as I had hoped either. It did reinforce my own opinions about puritanical brands of religion in general – I may know nothing about Islamic fundamentalism but I know plenty about Christian fundamentalism – and, although I can completely understand why Sohail makes the choices he does, I too wanted to grab him by the lapels and shake him.
The ending – really it’s a postscript – is a chapter set in 1992 and there is little in the book to identify what is going on but apparently in mid-January 1992 a hundred and one member national body was formed, popularly known as the Nirmul Committee, with the aim of bringing war criminals to justice. One of their demands was that Gholam Azam, the head of the collaborators (the Rajakar), be tried by a special tribunal, but the government paid a deaf ear to them, so they set up their own mock court:
The historic trial of Gholam Azam was duly held at the Suhrawardy Garden on 26th March 1992 before a mammoth gathering of inspired men, women and children. A court of twelve judges had been formed earlier with Jahanara Imam as its chair-person. Charges against Gholam Azam were brought and heard. Witnesses were produced. In the absence of Gholam Azam or anyone to defend him the court on its own provided a counsel for him. At the end of the trial the court, after considering the matter from all angles, found Gholam Azam guilty of all the ten charges brought against him and gave its verdict that he had committed such crimes as deserved death sentence and nothing less. The verdict was received with a deafening roar from the multitude present and the People's Court was warmly hailed by the people for its great patriotic role. Fresh demands were made to the government to try Gholam Azam as a war criminal by a special tribunal which could be easily set up under specific clauses provided in the country's constitution and implement the wishes of the people and the verdict of the People's Court by sentencing him to death without any further delay. But the government paid little heed to these demands. – Professor Kabir Chowdhury, 'Resisting Fundamentalism', Secular Voice of Bangladesh
In Anam’s fictional account one of the witnesses is Piya, the woman Sohail saved back in 1971. It is not exactly a happy ending but it is something.
Let me leave you with a video of Tahmima Anam talking about her book:
Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975 and grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, due to her father's career with UNESCO. Her father, Mahfuz Anam, actively participated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, and is currently the editor and publisher of the Bangladesh Daily Star – Bangladesh's most prominent English language newspaper. He is also chairman of a Bangladeshi NGO called the Freedom Foundation. Her grandfather, Abul Mansur Ahmed, was a renowned satirist and politician.
After studying at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University, she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology. Her first novel, A Golden Age, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Costa First Novel Prize, and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. It was translated into 22 languages. Her writing has been published in Granta, The New York Times, and the Guardian. She lives in London.