In “A Golden Age,”Tahmima Anam chronicled Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence through the story of Rehana Haque, a widow drawn into the rebellion by her devotion to her teenage children. Anam’s new novel shifts the focus to those children, Maya and Sohail, once again using personal struggles to illustrate broader issues. “The Good Muslim” is an angrier, more bitter book — fittingly so, since the main protagonist is Maya, the family’s thorniest character — but it’s also more mature, evoking ambivalence and regret with a complexity that was not as evident in Anam’s accomplished first novel.
In February 1984, Maya returns to Dhaka after seven years in the countryside. She left because she was unable to bear her brother’s transformation from a freedom fighter into a devout Muslim. She blamed his decision on the woman he married, and she rejected the counsel of their mother, who chided Maya for refusing to acknowledge the solace that religion gave Sohail, tortured by his memories of the war.
Maya has her own painful memories. She abandoned her surgical training to devote herself to delivering babies, in part to atone for “the babies that had died, by her hand, after the war.” Maya performed abortions for women who had been raped by enemy soldiers, knowing that she lied when she told them that “their lives would soon return to normal. . . . Their families would embrace them as heroes of the war.” The revolution had not changed rural Bangladesh’s patriarchal values, she learned as a village doctor. When she encouraged a pregnant friend to swim with her on a hot day, the consequences were dire for both of them.
Shaken by her friend’s humiliation, Maya comes home, “her protests still urgent, still angry.” Sohail’s wife has died, but there will be no easy reconciliation with her brother, who has built a new life within the Tablighi Jamaat movement. His young son, Zaid, not permitted to attend school, runs around town thieving and lying while Sohail preaches to the faithful upstairs in Rehana’s house. Their mother has wearily retreated into passivity, no longer willing to wrangle with Sohail — or Maya.
Maya starts writing for an opposition newspaper, joining in calls for Bangladesh’s unnamed Dictator to prosecute war criminals who “live as the neighbours of the women they have widowed, the young girls they have raped.” As she moves toward inevitable confrontations with her brother and the authorities, the narrative shifts between the mid-1980s and the years immediately following the war. Anam reveals two dreadful events that sparked Sohail’s religious awakening and shows Maya taking the worst possible approach to a traumatized veteran.
“He is afraid to talk,” the author writes from Sohail’s point of view. “Maya is always regarding him hungrily, eager for small scraps of detail. . . . He wants her to be quiet so she can hear the roar in his head . . . [then] she might understand.” But Maya doesn’t want to understand. Looking back from the perspective of 1984, she realizes “how fiercely she had needed him to be like her, how she had turned away when he had leaned towards God.”
Anam works hard to be fair to both siblings, though her portrait of Sohail’s conversion is more conscientious than deeply felt. His sister’s rage against sexism and political corruption strikes a truer note, and it’s not entirely persuasive when their mother’s battle with cancer sends Maya upstairs to find comfort with Sohail’s female acolytes. Melodramatic developments at the madrassa to which Sohail sends his ungovernable son also hint that Maya’s negative view of fundamentalist Islam is shared by the author.
Yet the disastrous results of Maya’s attempt to liberate Zaid from the madrassa forcefully make the point that she cannot be the arbiter of other people’s lives. She may or may not have misjudged Sohail’s commitment to protect his son; Anam lets readers decide that on their own. She does not, thankfully, leave us with a guilt-racked heroine adrift in a nation mired in denial. An epilogue set in 1992 shows Maya, now the mother of a 5-year-old girl, attending public testimony by the victims of war crimes, including a woman whose son bears her rescuer’s name: Sohail.
Anam does not suggest that this truth commission will miraculously solve Bangladesh’s problems, but she presents it as an act of healing for those who have been silenced for too long. And she shows her chastened heroine finally accepting Sohail’s choice as the act of healing necessary for him. Maya cannot follow her brother’s path, and it continues to grieve her, but she has come to understand it: “She recognises the wound in his history . . . because she has one too.” Sad though their story often is, it gives quiet pleasure to see a gifted young writer grappling thoughtfully with the wounds of history in this compassionate novel.
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for Book World and the Los Angeles Times.
The Good muslim
By Tahmima Anam
Harper. 297 pp.