A Roman Column
The Days of Love and War
This is the lyrical title of the book that has put Bangladesh solidly on the literary map of the western world: The Days of Love and War. Don't recognize it? I am referring to Tahmima Anam's 'A Golden Age,' but in its current Italian version as 'I Giorni dell' Amore e della Guerra'.
That is the more poetic and romantic title under which Anam's novel has recently been translated into Italian and launched in book shops all over Italy by the prestigious publishing house Garzanti, based in Milan.
Tahmima was in Rome last week for the book's release and I met her and her Italian publishing team. I have known Tahmima from when she was a little girl, but this time I was meeting her as a writer who has achieved recognition in the western world, not easy for writers from the third world.
I met her on two occasions. The first was at an intimate tea and chat reception thrown by mutual friends, Basharat and Yasmin, who have known Tahmima even longer than I have. It was a large gathering of sub-continentals and international friends who were delighted to meet a Bangladeshi writer of English. Although we have a growing number of writers making their mark within South Asian Anglophone literature, like the Australia based Adib Khan whose 'Seasonal Adjustments' won the Commonwealth prize in 1994, and Syed Manzurul Islam, many of the invitees at the tea had only read or heard of Monica Ali and 'Brick Lane'. So, for the non-Bangladeshis present at the gathering, meeting Tahmima and hearing her well articulated comments about the book, its making, and the land that inspired it, was an eye opener to them about the literary talent nurtured within the 'delta of disasters,' as the world sometimes perceives Bangladesh.
Tahmima's book has become the ambassador for her country in the west. She has just returned from her North American book release tour organised by Harper Collins who published the American and Canadian edition of her novel. Now it’s the turn of Italian book shops to display her title in their windows.
I remarked on the beauty and aptness of the title in Italian and how close 'The Days of Love and War' was to the Bangla romantic spirit, as well as to the title of its Bangla edition, 'Shona Jhora Deen', and asked who had chosen it. Elisabetta Migliavada, the lovely and astute Foreign Fiction editor of Garzanti, smiled and said in her fluent English: "I thought of it. I felt 'A Golden Age' was too bland and didn't say anything that would touch the hearts of the readers. The combination of the words 'love' and 'war' has the right magic and is true to the spirit of the book."
Interestingly, Tahmima too, says, "It's funny, I had all along wanted the word 'love' in my title. But when John Murray's editors were preparing the book for publication, they felt it would be too trite and suggested the more prosaic title." So she is happy to finally have 'love' put back on the cover of her narrative on war. In fact, Tahmima is very happy with her Italian publishers and with her trip. "I have had a wonderful time and found everyone so friendly and supportive," Anam said at a dinner hosted by the Bangladeshi Ambassador to Italy, Mr. Fazlul Karim, to honour Garzanti and their new Bangali author.
Anam was all praise for the team and for the way they had guided her through the busy promotional schedule the publicity team had organised for her. She was interviewed on some of the top talk shows of television and radio; and reviews of her book, and articles on her, were splashed in the major newspapers of Italy.
Elisabetta proudly pointed out the front page coverage in the Repubblica and the fulsome article in the Corriere della Sera, among other newspapers and said, "Tahmima is such a lovely person, intelligent, unassuming and so professional. Every journalist loved her and the media reactions were wonderful." Her eyes twinkle in pleasure: "Tahmima's book, our book, is already on the list of the top twenty-five foreign fiction published in Italy."
At the dinner was present also Stefano Mauri, the CEO of the publishing company which runs Garzanti. A low key and soft spoken gentleman, Mauri beamed in satisfaction at their product as the book was held up proudly by Ambassador Karim, after dinner.
In his speech Ambassador Karim praised Anam for having brought Italy and Bangladesh in closer touch through her literary depiction of a glorious part of our history that many in Italy and the western world are ignorant of. He said, "I don't think there is any Bengali family that was not affected by 1971 and the war of liberation. Tahmima has beautifully captured the emotions and struggles of that time, and most importantly, brought them to the attention of the western reading public. We thank her for this". He also thanked the members of the Garzanti team for creating a cultural and literary link between the two countries that would go a long way in deepening the understanding of Bangladeshis by the people of Italy. (It goes without saying that a large group of immigrant Bengalis is a growing reality in Italy, and normally most Italians don't know the rich history of these people.)
I know there is a tendency among us Bangalis to look askance at any attempt to recreate the events of a time that to the generation that lived through the trauma and triumph of 1971 is regarded as almost sacrosanct. I know that many Bangali readers have pointed out flaws in the book that only we, Bangalis, are aware of and that have to do with fine-tuning some cultural or social nuance or detail; but no one can deny that as a work of fiction it has deployed its facts in an artistically impressive and accomplished work. Anam's language in its restraint and intensity is beautiful, and her love for her 'bruised and beautiful country' shines through her spare and skillfully structured prose.
Above everything she evokes the days of love and war, if not necessarily or perfectly for us who lived through its tumult and fire, at least for the western world, which needs to know. These readers comprise also the second generation of Bangladeshis growing up in the western world with an inherited love and curiosity for their cultural roots but without the linguistic ability to access its literature.
The Italians, certainly, seem to be charmed by the book, confirmed by the fact that it is already in the top twenty-five list of books in a country that publishes 300 titles in a month, and includes names like Ian McEwan, Isabel Allende and Khalid Hosseini. And for this Garzanti has to be congratulated as much as Anam.
I wish Tahmima the best for writing the remaining parts of her trilogy, for which she says she first needs to settle down in London and get her life together. "I am so tired of travelling. I have been all over the US and Canada, then continued on to Dhaka for the 'Bot-tola' inauguration of the Bangla edition of my book for the Ekushey Boi Mela. And the day after I returned to London I was on the plane to Milan. Now, I just want to sleep!"
She is young and on the crest of success and doesn't look tired, but radiant. Her Italian edition of 'A Golden Age' is another golden page in her book of literary landmarks. I promise to meet her at the Turin Book Fair in May and bid our Golden Girl goodbye.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008