Bangladesh’s Troubled Birth

Tahmima Anam’s glorious second novel, The Good Muslim, follows her earlier one (A Golden Age) as the center volume of a projected trilogy. Readers who did not read the first novel will find the second one totally satisfying, with no confusion. It’s a credit to any writer of sequel novels to make them self-contained. If these first two are indications of her enormous talent (and, indeed, they are), Anam has already staked out her claim: Bangladesh, in the years immediately and after its bloody war for independence. Politics, yes, but the human dimension is always central, particularly as it relates to past debts and traumas.

Maya Haque, a medical doctor and once a radical student, returns to Dhaka and her immediate family after an unsettling incident in a remote village where she has been practicing family medicine. Her departure has been provoked by her decision to permit a pregnant woman to bathe in the community bath—a taboo that, sadly, has almost immediate ramifications, because when the woman’s baby is born it has Down’s syndrome. Men, particularly, are outraged at Maya, becoming enough of a menace that she abandons her practice in the village.

The incident is especially troubling because immediately after the war, Maya performed dozens of abortions on women who had been raped: preventing war babies and giving the women a little bit of dignity. She has largely hidden her activist side but she remains troubled that her country has never come to grips with the rape of so many women. She’s also disturbed about Bangladesh itself, reflecting, “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 cannibalising 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.”

There’s another unsettling matter for her: her older brother Sohail, who has become a holy man, no longer interested in politics. Once they were as close as two fingers on a hand, and Maya idolized him, admired his revolutionary ideas, but he has been totally changed by the war, retreating into himself and his religion and ignoring the concerns of his own family. After Sohail’s wife dies, he ignores the needs of their six-year-old child, Zaid, abandoning him to street life. His treatment of his own child disturbs Maya the most, especially since—as a holy man—he pays loving attention to complete strangers, who often become his followers.

When Rehana, their mother, appears to be dying from cancer, there’s a further conflicting incident. Rehana underwent a hysterectomy and months later the cancer metastasized to her liver. Sohail—who has mostly ignored his mother—visits her on her deathbed and, amazingly, after pouring holy water into her mouth, she fully recovers. Has her brother performed a miracle? Is his religion genuine? Is it her secularism that is the real problem and the cause of the tensions within their family? “Maya had taught herself away from faith. She had unlearned the surahs her mother had recited aloud, forgotten the soft feather of air across her forehead when Ammoo [her mother] whispered a prayer and blew the blessing out of her mouth. She had erased from her memory all knowledge of the sacred, returned her body to a time before it had been taught to kneel, to prostrate itself.”

Whatever her characters’ conflicts, Anam makes it clear that they are all still dealing with the stresses of the war, the country’s own birth. Slowly, Anam peels their histories back and reveals the realities of their lives during that war, the conflicts which she describes as “a necklace of guilt.” The Good Muslim is a beautiful novel, the writing lushly evocative. Best of all, Tahmima Anam leaves a few incidents and characters intentionally ambiguous. Who, for example, is the good Muslim? Maya? Sohail? Their mother? I’ll leave that for you to decide for yourself, though I think you will certainly agree that this is, above all, a good novel.

The Good Muslim
By Tahmina Anam
HarperCollins, 293 pp., $25.99

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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