Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Anam means without name or without fame. If Tahmima's first novel is any indication, her name, her characters and her writing, will be recognized by generations to come. We live in an age where such tag-lines accompany every review we read, and we hardly see serious criticism of ordinary work. To fish out a book like A Golden Age from a stack of books, all claimed to be pathbreaking and brilliant, requires a dint of luck. The aim of my review is to suggest why Tahmima Anam's novel deserves more readership than it has received so far. Since the plot of the novel is tied to the birth of Bangladesh, it provides an alternative history of the birth of a nation; but this subplot is secondary, though necessary part of the novel's appeal.

Rehana is a young widow, whose life revolves around her son, Sohail and daughter, Maya. Rehana grew up in Calcutta, and is as conversant in Urdu as she in Bengali, and most of her relatives live in West Pakistan, while she lives in Dhaka. Without giving away any subplots and surprises that fill this novel, let me say that the story revolves around the relationship of these three and the effect of Bangladesh War of Independence on their life and the life of their neighbors, friends and relatives. The narrative flows with a lyrical beauty, exposing us to the fears and dreams of Rehana, as she deals with national and personal events. Heroic personal struggles of Rehana and other characters are described with a dignity and delicacy; but together these individual struggles translate into a national struggle for survival of their language and identity. The mother-son and mother-daughter relationships are presented with honesty, which presents a reader with an unadulterated sense of how families in Bangladesh and everywhere, stay together, in spite of forces that try to disturb this harmony. Generation gaps, differences in desires and dreams, education, upbringing, personalities are all apparent in this novel; and yet it is also apparent that humanity knows how to express these in the worst and the best possible manner.

Let us look at an exemplary passage, where Rehana wonders if she should attend a meeting comprising of the friends of her son/daughter; the meeting is about "resistance" or the fight for Bangladesh:
"... she did not have the proper trappings of a nationalist. She did not have the youth, the appearance or the words. The correct words, though by now, familiar to her, did not glide easily from her tongue: 'comrade', 'proletariat', 'revolution'. They were hard, precise words and did not capture Rehana's ambiguous feeling about the country she had adopted. She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy." It continues: "She could not give up her love for Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.
No, Rehana didnot have the exactness to become a revolutionary. But she had recognized a long ago that, while the children will remain fixed at the center of her life, she would gradually fade out of theirs. She wanted to hold on for as long as she could, especially now that their dreams had suddenly grown so spacious. She turned into the kitchen and wondered how she would feed all the hungry dreamers."

The birth of Bangladesh as a nation is a story that must be told again and again. After 1947, India was partioned, and a Muslim dominated nation was constituted, including present day Pakistan and an East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after 1971. The events that lead to creation of both Pakistand and later Bangladesh are rooted in religious and historical contexts, which need to be understood for various reasons. The most immediate cause for this study should be as it provides perspective on the conflicts in the Middle-East as well as Afghanistan-Pakistan. Even though religion united East and West Pakistan, the Bangla people were treated as lesser citizens. Such tribal/lingual divisions exist everywhere, and lead to bloodbaths every so often, say in 1990s in Afghanistan. Bangladesh's struggle to break free led to a widespread genocide of Muslims by Muslims, (and the Hindus living in that territory faced the worst). This had created a huge refugee influx into India and one of the greatest humanitarian crisis of twentieth century. Let me include a telling excerpt from the novel, where Tikka Khan (called "The Butcher of Bengal" elsewhere in novel) heads Pakistan forces, Zia, leads the Bangla resistance:

"Throughout June, Tikka Khan's soldier's made their way across the summer plains of Bangladesh. They looted homes and burned roofs. They raped. They murdered. They lined up the men and shooted them into ponds. They practiced old and new forms of torture. They were explorers, pioneers of cruelty, everyday outdoing their own brutality, everyday feeling closer to divinity, because they were told they were saving Pakistan, and Islam, maybe even the Almighty himself, from the depravity of Bengalis; in this feverish, this godly journey, their resolve could know no bounds.
The Bengali resistance was sporadic and weak. General Zia relied on the youthful spirit of his soldiers, and they had small victories. A blown-up bridge here. An army-convoy ambush there. A captured railway station. They celebrated these victories with the broadcasters of the radio, who sent up cheers in the homes of their listeners, those city dwellers spending long, hot afternoons hugging their wireless radios."

The context here has personal connotations for the protagonists: Sohail has joined the resistance movement, Rehana listens to the radio, raped and murdered women include Maya's friends, and so on. For me, personally, the grand success of Tahmima as a novelist lies in creation of character like Rehana, one of the finest female characters to emerge in English novel in recent times. As a mother from Indian sub-continent, she presents all the foibles and strength of that universal character, she represents a character that carries the essence of millions of women; as a human being, she carries weight of all our virtues and vices. Again and again, her characterization goes from being matter of fact, to being sublime. The dilemmas that Rehana faces may be considered as a source of engaging drama in a literary critique of the book, but for me that drama, that detail, those dilemmas provide the stamp of authenticity to author's writing. The nuances of the emotional state of a woman, are easily missed or misrepresented; the craft helps you to construct sentences, but it is a deep sensitivity and familiarity with the character that helps an author to make a full-bodied, memorable woman like Rehana.

I cannot resist from quoting another favorite passage: "Rehana regarded the saris and the tried to recall the feelings the had given her, of being at once enveloped and set free, the tight revolution of material around her hips and legs limiting movement, the emty space between blouse and petticoat permitting unexpected sensations -- the thrill of a breeze that has strayed low, through an open window, the knowledge of heat in strange places, the back, the exposed belly. It was bringing together of night and day, the sari: as it concealed the skin, it also released it, so that one body, one woman, would know something of he complications of her sex."

To bridge such beauty into her wordplay seems to come naturally to Tahmima, for the novel is rich in such passages. Perhaps by showing you these passages, I provide a stronger substance to my argument than by any sentences I grafter in the praise of this novel. Herein lies the strength of Anam's writing: it evokes everything from itself, and no critic, no reader can present to you a flavor of this exceptional writing, without directly quoting from this book. Whether you read it as a story of Bangladesh, or of Rehana and her son & daughter, or you read it as an example of modern fiction done well, like me, you will be amazed at depth of feeling and lyrical beauty of this novel. Thank you Tahmima.

No comments: