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.]