The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, 2011

The Good Muslim

Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim is her sequel to A Golden Age, which I reviewed in December 2011. But calling it a sequel doesn’t quite do it justice because it surpasses her earlier work in complexity and strength. And while it could be said that with A Golden Age the Bangladesh War of Independence of 1971 provided a ready setting to which the characters responded, in The Good Muslim, Anam had to create a setting with no prompt.

Anam returns to her central characters of A Golden Age, Maya and Sohail, thirteen years on, but prior knowledge of them is merely helpful, not essential, giving The Good Muslim stand-alone strength. One of Anam’s authorial skills is to make the reader empathise with unlikeable characters. Maya is headstrong to the point of arrogance; so independent that she shuts out those close to her; she is politically engaged, but so idealistic that it she actually reaches back around the corner to naivete. Sohail, in this novel, turns to religion as solace for the horrors of the war he was part of as a young man in 1971. He is the good Muslim of the title, but “good” refers to pious, devout, rather than other readings of the word, kind, generous, pleasant. His is a religion detached from this world. Maya, on the other hand, “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 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.” (pp. 205-6)

The Dhaka of 1984 is very different from that of 1971. Bangladesh is independent, but is at risk of losing much of what was fought for, as a dictator has taken over. Many people have chosen to wilfully forget the lessons of the war, but Maya is determined not to let this happen more than it already has:

“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. 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.” (p. 103)

The knowledge of something that has been so hard-won slipping away with the realities of corruption, identity politics, and disenfranchisement is perhaps something that many who have been involved in revolutionary or socially transformative movements can understand, especially in this part of the world. I can understand Maya’s plight, intellectually and theoretically, but on a personal level, the level on which I reach her character, I cannot help but see her idealism as foolish. But perhaps this cynicism comes from never having been involved in something that has the potential to actually make the world, or a piece of the world, for some people, a better place. To see that slip away must be devastating.

Anam does not shy away from the big and painful issues, and she achieves power in this, I think, through her creation of such ambivalent characters. After the war, Maya had worked as a doctor performing abortions on women pregnant after rape. These abortions were not only sanctioned and encouraged by the government, but almost forced. Maya had seen her work as patriotic, as important as the guerrilla fighting that the men, her brother included, had done. The ethical question of the work aside—and this is not something that Anam treats lightly—Maya understandably wants to be given credit for doing what she could, as a young, educated woman, for her country’s freedom struggle, but is fighting dismissal from the men:

“When he [Sohail] asks her about her work at the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, she snaps, what, you don’t think women are victims of war too?
He thinks of all the people who have died—the enemy combatants, and the people he didn’t save, and his friend Aref, and all the boys who went to war and were killed. Every day he thinks of them. How very selfish of her to want a piece of that.” (p. 125)

After reading A Golden Age I wouldn’t have expected it to have a sequel, but here it is. I wonder if Anam’s next project will be a third in the series? I think there is still room for movement and growth with these characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something along these lines is Anam’s next offering, and I will watch closely for it.

The Good Muslim was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and for good reason, though it didn’t win.

[The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. First published in the UK by Canongate Books, 2011.]

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Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems, ed. Jaishree Mishra (2013)

Of Mothers and Others

A surprisingly lovely book. I was prompted into buying this at the Jaipur Literature Festival after seeing it launched, and noting that some excellent writers were included: Urvashi Butalia, Mridula Koshy, Shashi Deshpande, among others whom I like. But I was a bit concerned that it might turn out to be earnest, or sentimental, or twee. Motherhood is a topic that could easily fall into these traps. But this book wasn’t any of these things, largely, I think, because of the enormous variety of genres and angles covered.

It would be easy to assume that you know what this book is about, and jump to conclusions. But despite the universality of the fact of motherhood (everyone was born from one), there is no uniformity, between or within societies, of what mothering physically, culturally, or psychologically constitutes. And this comes through perfectly in this book. Anita Roy, in her non-fiction “Eating Baby” somewhat comically recounts the angst of feeding her baby son. This is something that I think many non-mothers, or non-parents (like myself) would be quite surprised by. I hadn’t imagined it could be such a daunting task! Though I do remember my parents’ stories of how at a certain age I would turn my spoon upside down just before it entered my mouth, making mealtimes a very messy business. I hadn’t realised, though, that perhaps babies wouldn’t always want to eat. Or that when they can eat what things has to be thought about carefully, to avoid stressing their sensitive systems. I thought anything soft enough would do! This learning curve is something that Roy discusses. She also describes the raw emotions of the post-birth days, when things that would not normally have concerned her did:

“I was head-over-heels in love, of course—but more than that, overwhelmed by a kind of world-encompassing, almost intergalactic, compassion. The thought that there existed at that very moment other babies who were hungry, was almost too much to bear. I believe this is not uncommon. But slowly, as I returned to ‘normal’ after the radical, human openness of birth, the psychological defences came up, narrowing the love down somehow, focussing it like a beam, until I was again able to tolerate the intolerable, until other people’s hungry children seemed merely irritating, inevitable and nothing to do with me.” (pp.24-5)

Perhaps it is self-preservation that causes this, as daily life would be unbearable if one could not block out these terrors, though perhaps a more compassionate place. I am thinking of India now, particularly as I am in Calcutta as I write this.

I have had a number of conversations recently about the lack of humour in Indian writing. This was pointed out to me, for the first time I think, at the Jaipur Festival, but several other people I have spoken with in recent days have reiterated these feelings. Bulbul Sharma, then, is a welcome relief if one is looking for this type of writing. Her “Grandmother at Large” explores the joy of being a grandmother, and she admits that she thinks she loves her five grandchildren more than she does her own children:

“I am amazed that my children have managed to produce such perfect children. I repeat: I do love them more than my own. I love them with a pure, selfless, unconditional love just the way a mother rat loves her ugly babies.” (p. 102)

It is easy to laugh at painfully proud grandmothers who whip out the “brag book” at any pause in conversation, but Sharma also has the ability to laugh at herself. Describing her two-year-old twin grandsons:

“The world cannot touch me, no one can hurt me, irritate or upset me when the twins are with me, one perched on my shoulder, the other on my lap. ‘Dadi… so nice…’ they say. I am not sure whether they mean the picture in the book we are looking at or the chocolate in their mouth. I believe with all my heart they mean—me (though the other day they saw a picture of Kareena Kapoor and said, ‘So nice’ with equal, if not more, enthusiasm. I was a bit hurt at the sudden betrayal).” (pp. 108-9)

There are a number of accounts of coming to terms with having a child with a disability, and with the loss of mothers and children, which are deeply touching. Shalini Sinha’s “Amma and Her Beta” is a beautiful double tribute to her recently-dead mother, and her teenage son with Down’s Syndrome, to whom her mother was primary caregiver. Manju Kapur’s “Name: Amba Dalmia” is a painful and moving account of how she dealt with the sudden death of her twenty-one-year-old daughter, in 2001. When reading these accounts in particular I felt that this book should be read by all, women and men, as they are about humanity and parenting, though I suspect the vast majority of readers are likely to be women.

Amidst the personal memoirs, short stories and poetry is one academic-style essay by Sarojini N. And Vrinda Marwah, “Shake Her, She is Like the Tree that Grows Money!: Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy.” I’ll admit that surrogacy, whether “at home” or abroad, is not something that I have given much thought to, ever, and continues to be something that I don’t have strong opinions about. But one line really caught my attention and resonated with an itchy feeling that I’ve had for some time, and that I thought I was alone in feeling, about IVF in western countries:

“Feminist critiques of surrogacy have highlighted that the ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology] industry lies at the intersection of patriarchy and market, wherein these technologies meet rather than question the pressure on women to be mothers. These are expensive technologies with low success rates and significant health risks, and their ‘demand’ comes from and reinforces a culture that glorifies motherhood and biological determinism over other options such as adoption or even voluntary childlessness.” (p. 197)

I think this is something that needs to be examined more, at least within the societies I am most familiar with, but I don’t believe it will be anytime soon. It can be hard enough to broach the sensitive topic that perhaps not every woman should, or needs to be, a mother.

I only wish I could have passed this on to my own mother, almost three years gone now, who I think would have enjoyed reading it. And this state of being motherless is something that many of the authors in this book would understand perfectly.

[Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems. Ed. Jaishree Misra, foreword by Shabana Azmi. New Delhi: Zubaan and Save the Children, 2013.]

Kolkata Book Fair 2013

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On this unpleasantly overcast day I made my way out to the 33rd annual Kolkata Book Fair. And remembered why the Delhi metro has been a transformative god-send to that city. The Kolkata traffic, grid-locked at times so that I pulled out my book and read in the back seat, made the journey from Park Street to Science City much longer than it should have been. And I’ve been reading in the papers that no extra provisions have been made this year to ease the jams. Until a few years ago this event was held at the central Maidan, and I imagine that would have been great, right in the middle of the city, accessible by Kolkata’s small metro and close to other things that people might want to visit in their leisure time.

The focal country of this year’s fair is Bangladesh. So, unsurprisingly, the majority of books on display were in Bangla, from both Indian and Bangladeshi publishers, as well as a lot of English books, from academic and mainstream publishers. But, I was here in 2010 as well, when the focal country was Mexico, and I don’t recall seeing all that many Spanish books. Today, at one of the stalls, a small shelf of Hindi books were put in the “international literature” section! I think that a dominance of Bangla books is par for the course at the Kolkata Book Fair, and that’s great because that’s the main language of the region, so makes sense. I hope it means that the event is truly accessible to those who would not consider themselves the socio-economic elite, but who are interested in books. But it does make the event a bit inaccessible to non-Bangla-reading tourists. Is it ironic, then, that the only purchase I made today was a pocket English-Urdu dictionary!? Lonely Planet lists the book fair as a highlight of visiting Kolkata in January, but, unless a tourist has a strong interest in Bangla literature, I wouldn’t highly recommend going far out of one’s way to attend. There are a few talks by international and Indian authors put on in the evenings and weekends, though, which would likely have caught my attention more if I hadn’t seen most of them speak last week in Jaipur—Ahdaf Soueif, Jeet Thayil, Amit Chaudhuri, among others.

The Book Fair is on now, until 10th February.

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