“Dear Husband, I lost our children today.”
These were the opening sentences of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age, the first book of her renowned “Bengal Trilogy”. This series takes a plunge right into the violent and bloody events that led to the independence of Bangladesh. The first two books in the trilogy — A Golden Age and The Good Muslim — make for a short journey which is just enough to make you feel intrigued and dive into the series.
A Golden Age
A Golden Age was Tahmima Anam’s first book, and it’s not at all surprising that it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 2008. Its captivating writing technique speaks about Rehana Huq and her life during the time Bengal split from Pakistan to become Bangladesh. Rehana is a widowed mother of two children. She was originally from Lahore in the western half of Pakistan but has lived in Dhaka, the Eastern Bengali capital, since her marriage.
The novel skillfully portrays Rehana’s relationships with her neighbours, her children, and her extended family. Her life centers around her household, which stays strong and steadfast even when the independence war breaks out and she finds herself sheltering freedom fighters.
The emotional appeal of the book lies in the matter that the division of Pakistan is not the only lens through which the stories of the individual characters are influenced. Rather, the struggle for independence is told through the characters themselves — some from the west, some from the east. And although the subject matter is dark, many of the conversations are very funny, which is quite a remarkable achievement.
The Good Muslim
Moving onto Anam’s second book, The Good Muslim talks about Maya (a character from the last book) who has just returned to Dhaka. Over the course of the novel, we discover her reasons for leaving — her anguish with how the war has affected her brother Souhail. He is no longer the same person he was before; he has become religious and inaccessible to her, and any attempt to influence him is futile.
The setting of the book is a newly independent Bangladesh, which is now a totalitarian state under a dictator, and the shadow of war is still lurking. There are men living among commoners whom the population wants punished for their war crimes. That aside, there are young women who are constantly shamed because they were victims of rape during the war. Many of them were rendered pregnant and unwanted, and eventually forced on flights to Pakistan. Bangabandhu had promised to take care of the women; he had even given them a name — Birangona, heroines — and asked their husbands and fathers to welcome them home, as they would their sons. But the children, he had said he didn’t want the children of war.
In short, The Good Muslim is a sad picture of post-war trauma and the difficulties people have in returning to family life and love after all that they have experienced. It’s not quite as engaging as A Golden Age, which was filled with more action. Instead, this is a novel dealing with the aftermath of war, and is a much more somber undertaking.
War hardly ever brings anything fully decent to any civilisation. As we strived towards our freedom, we lost countless brave lives who are no longer here to enjoy what they had fought for. Long gone are the days of Homer where war was glorified. In reality, it takes decades for people to heal from post-war trauma. And when wars end, it is literature that helps us make sense of it all. Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age and The Good Muslim are two remarkable novels that give a unique insight into the history of the 1971 war. It shows what circumstances were like, both during and after our liberation war, through the perspective of Rehana, Maya, and Souhail.
To conclude, I personally loved Tahmima Anam’s writing in these two books because she enables you to live with her characters. You feel like they are real people and you know them, even when you don’t always understand them or agree with them. Honestly, it helped me look at the history of Bangladesh in a completely unique way. So, reading these types of books is definitely a window into learning about and understanding our own culture and others, as well as their pasts, and I highly recommend A Golden Age and The Good Muslim to everyone.
The writer, a proud Slytherin, is a part of the TDA Editorial Team.