A Personal Story on 1971
Aasha Mehreen Amin
While the surge of South Asian English literature continues, very little of this tide can be attributed to Bangladeshi writers. This is why names like Adeeb Khan and Monica Ali are the only ones we can recall when talking about internationally known Bangladeshi novelists. Thus when a young Bangladeshi writer gets international attention with her very first novel, it is indeed something to celebrate. Thirty-one year old Tahmima Anam's yet to be launched novel 'A Golden Age' published by John Murray, has already created waves in the international literary scene. She has been compared to award winning novelists Monica Ali and Zadie Smith although her book deals with themes that are very different from either of these authors. Her book is about struggle --a personal struggle of a widow who almost loses her children at first physically when she is forced to give them up and later when she must let go of them emotionally when they become adults. Anam narrates this story in the backdrop of a greater struggle -- the 1971 Liberation movement in which she inadvertently, through her children, gets involved.
Born in Dhaka, Tahmima is the daughter of Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star and Shaheen Anam, Executive Director of Manusher Jonno, a human rights organisation. In an exclusive interview with Star Weekend Magazine, the London-based young writer explains why she chose the Liberation War as a central theme and the process she went through while writing her first novel. Excerpts:
Star Weekend Magazine (SWM): So why did you chose '71 as the backdrop of your novel?
Tahmima Anam (TA): When I was very young I used to listen to many stories from my nani (maternal grandmother), my mother and her brother, my mama. They used to live in a house in Dhanmondi road 4 and during the Liberation War, many Muktijodhas used to come and take shelter. It made me curious and I wanted to write a story about that time and how ordinary citizens, not the Muktijodhas, lead their lives.
SWM: Was it difficult to recreate a time that you were so removed from, since you weren't even born at the time?
TA: Well yes. But you would be surprised at the willingness of people in our country, to talk about the Muktijudho. So I spent a lot of time meeting a lot of people and asking them what they were doing at that time. I obviously met Muktijodhas, but also other people, nurses who used to work in the camps, people who were stuck in Pakistan, people crossing the border. I asked them things like how they passed their days while escaping, what the train journey was like…I think they are stories that people have inside them and have no one to tell them to. So I really didn't have to do a lot of reconstruction. 1971 is what people remember the most. It's almost more real than the present.
SWM: So the story does not directly deal with the political side of the war?
TA: The story is about a widow; how this widow survives when her children are taken away by her husband's brother to Lahore. She has to wait till she raises enough money so that she can bribe the judge to change the order.
Then the story jumps forward to 1971 when the children are grown up and university students.
She still feels she had betrayed her children for letting them go. So it is her struggle within and how she can forgive herself. In the meantime her children get caught up in the war. They take part in the protest marches; the war starts and her son joins the freedom fighters. She goes to Sheikh Mujib's famous March 7 speech. You do get a lot of the politics.
She is partly an outsider (coming from an Urdu-speaking family from Kolkata) and she gets dragged into it because of her children. So it's a story of how an ordinary person becomes a hero in trying to protect her children.
SWM: Your doctoral thesis from Harvard was on the oral history of the Muktijudho. Did your academic training influence you in choosing this theme for a novel?
TA: My PhD on the Muktijudho took about eight years and part of the reason it took so long is because I was writing the novel. While doing my PhD, I started asking people about '71 and while I was listening to these stories I realised that I did not really feel like writing a thesis. I felt like writing a novel. The stories were so fascinating.
SWM: So that's when you decided to become a writer?
TA: If you want to be a writer, one of the things you need to do is find your story. I always wanted to be a writer but I just hadn't found my story. Then when I was meeting these people I found my story. I felt someone had given me this gift and I asked myself: Am I worthy of it?
Then I started taking creative writing classes. I did my MA in Creative Writing with Poet Laureate Andrew Motion who was my tutor for a year. In that year I wrote fifty percent of the book.
SWM: How disciplined are you as a writer?
TA: The main thing about writing is rewriting. You have to go through so many stages. I write a draft then edit it; again edit it then give it to my editor. After she edits it, it goes to a copy editor who checks it line-by-line and then the draft is proofread line by line. So around 4 to 5 people go through it before it gets to the final stage. The end result, therefore, is actually quite a collective effort.
I would say I am not the most disciplined person in the world. It really helped me to know that someone was going to read it when I finished. So I worked to meet a deadline.
SWM: You have been compared to Monica Ali and Zadie Smith. How do you feel about that?
TA: I am honoured by the comparison as they are both very well known and I admire them both but to be honest it is a lazy comparison. People think: you're Bangladeshi, She's (Monica Ali) Bangladeshi and you both wrote books on your people. But they are totally different. Monica Ali wrote about immigrants in Britain; my characters are not immigrants. For immigrants it's a different kind of struggle than for people who have to free their country.
SWM: So what kind of writing really inspires you? Who are your favourite writers?
TA: I like novels about the American South, books that have a sense of place. There's something about the American South that's a lot like Bangladesh. It's hot, there is a lot of poverty and people are in love with the land. You can find a lot of parallels with our part of the world.
I like Toni Morrison a lot, as well as a lot of Indian writers--Rohintan Mistry, Vikram Seth and of course Arundhuti Roy.
SWM: So what's the next novel going to be about?
TA: I had to sign a 'two book' contract with my publisher John Murray. I am writing a trilogy and A Golden Age, which is coming out in March, is Part II of the trilogy. The one I will be writing now will be Part I and it will be based on the Partition of Bengal. Part I will be about Rehana's (the main protagonist in Golden Age) father. It will be the experience of the Partition of Bengal from a Muslim perspective. Rehana's father is a zamindar who loses all his money after the Partition. It will be a harder novel to write because it is so far in the past. I have nothing to compare it to.
So I will have to spend a lot of time in the library because there are not many people around today who will be able to talk about that time.
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