Book Review |
The definitive 1971 novel
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam; London: John Murray ; 2007; 276 pp (hb).
It has been a mystery why the great novel of 1971 has never been written. 1971 (or as Bangladeshis simply say, "'71", without there being any need to elaborate things further) has inspired innumerable non-fictional narratives and short stories; it admittedly has also provided material for novel-length fictional works, but for 36 years there has been nothing we could point to and unhesitatingly claim was the definitive novel of 1971, the fictional equivalent of say, either, Jahanara Imam's Ekatturer Deengulo or Mayedul Islam's Muldhara.
Until now, that is. For with the publication last month of Tahmima Anam's accomplished debut novel, A Golden Age, that gap has been filled. Until something else comes along the defining Bangladeshi novel of 1971 has been written. And in English, too.
There is a second point to be noted about the book. The very subject matter of her novel sets Tahmima Anam apart from other English-language writers of Bangladeshi origin such Adib Khan or Monica Ali. While the latter's works tend to be about the Bangladeshi diaspora (to use that ungainly term) and its attendant immigrant life and/or sensibilities, Tahmima's novel, in contrast, by being set in Dhaka, and to some extent in Calcutta, peopled entirely with a local set of characters, by closely spanning the war-torn months of 1971, with each chapter corresponding to a month or several months of that year in the lives of its characters, lays claim to be fully a Bangladeshi novel, to be about life here. It is a book which tells the story of Bangladesh, its people and the terrible year of its birth from the inside. That, combined with the high quality of its writing, makes the novel a milestone in the field of English-language fiction by Bangladeshis. The novel has been favourably reviewed in British newspapers, which have hailed the author as a 'voice of real eloquence' and 'major new talent.'
A Golden Age, appropriately enough, begins with lines from Shamsur Rahman's Shadhinota Tumi, (translation by Kaiser Haq):
Freedom, you are
An arbour in the garden, the koel's song,
Glistening leaves on banyan trees,
My notebook of poetry, to scribble as I please.
The book begins with loss, begins with the fateful month of March in 1959. Rehana Haque, suddenly widowed and insolvent, "with nothing to recommend her, no family near by," is forced by a court to surrender custody of her two children to her brother-in-law Faiz and his wife in Lahore. The novel then jumps to March 1971, with the children Maya and Sohail now seventeen and nineteen years old and back again with their mother at Road No. 5 in Dhanmondi. Maya is the intense, serious type, who has joined the student wing of the Communist Party. Sohail is popular and handsome, disdains parties and politics, is imbued with a "love for all things Bengali: the swimming mud of the delta; the translucent, bony river fish; the shocking green palette of the paddy and the open, aching blue of the sky over flat land." It is however, Rehana, born into an aristocratic family in Kolkata that has witnessed a precipitous decline in its fortunes and who is subsequently married off to Abid, who holds center stage in the book. It is her story--a woman and a mother, fittingly enough, since it is a nation's bloody birth that is being narrated--that the book tells, as she, her children, her neighbours, the city they live in, the country they are inhabitants of, experience and absorb the horrific shock of genocide and army occupation. It is an agonizing experience, and parallel to the story of the tortured road to national independence runs the equally painful tale of Rehana's own liberation from her previous small, constricted life. The novel admittedly starts slowly, but once these two histories start to weave together a couple of chapters into the book, it is hard to put it down. 1971 is here wholly in the book: the rhetoric, the politics and privations, fear, death, the Pakistani Army, Mukti Bahini, refugee camps in West Bengal, wartime Dhaka and Calcutta, and since life must go on even in the most extreme of conditions it is also about humid dampness, fleeting love, eating, falling sick, tending flowers, visiting neighbours.
A Golden Age is superb in its depiction of the land, its rivers and rains, in evoking its sounds and colours, which moodily, unforgettably, unsurpassably anchors the novel's action in Bengal's timespace:
"The Padma spread out before them like the sea, its banks so far apart they were visible only as grey lines on the horizon, and in hints offered by the distant shore--a clutch of seagulls, the dotted wave of a fisherman."
Or:"The land was divided into rectangular plots of rice, framed by a raised mud bank the width of a footprint. Different stages of growth were segregated in the plots: there were the pale, tiny shoots the colour of limes, which would be pulled and replanted when they grew waist high; and then the established shoots, denser and slightly darker; and finally the milk-toned paddy, ready to be harvested. The plots were miniature islands, each in its own flooded pool; together they were a chequered palette of green and gold."
But surprisingly, and admirably, in a first novel, the effects are used sparingly. Love, for example, its half-suppressed tremors, is rendered simply, and effectively, in a very Bengali way: "How very close it is to illness. The loose, restless limbs. The feverish cheeks. The burning salt of the heart. The prickle of sweat."
The novel's gaze is detailed, unflinching, capable of establishing character in a single paragraph: "...the building was a rainbow of decay: the outside walls were streaked with bright green moss where the rainwater had collected...the verandahs were covered in wet laundry, lungis and blouses and soggy pyjama bottoms...(she) saw a grey pair of men's underwear, next to which was an equally tired brassiere, and beside that a small child's nightie. She felt an old swell of longing for the unit, the family:
man, woman, child. This was the formula for happiness, the proper order of things. All other equations suffered in its shadow."
Though the novel is about a Bengali Muslim woman and her household, the novel's vision is inclusive, generously acknowledging historical debts. Here Rehana is in Calcutta as part of the refugee exodus, buying groceries from a Calcutta shopkeeper:
" 'Where are you from--are you Joy Bangla?'
'Are you from Dhaka? Bangladesh? Joy Bangla?'
No, actually, she thought, I'm from Calcutta. But she said, 'Yes, I'm Joy Bangla.'
'Ten per cent discount,' he said, smiling. 'Ten per cent refugee discount.'…And then he looked at her with such fatherly tenderness. 'You come back here when you need anything. Anything at all.'
Suddenly the man was a blur. He waved his hand at her. 'Please, don't cry! You want a choc bar? Milon, get my daughter here a choc bar. Don't cry, Ma, don't cry.'"
The book, of course, is not without its hiccups. For example, Rehana, living in her house on one bigha of land in the prime real estate of Dhanmondi, is described as 'poor' (sudden widowhood and financial insolvency), yet, in the context of Bangladesh that may be stretching the definition of poverty to impossible lengths. Again, she seems to have no household help-- no ancient family retainer, no maid, not even a boy servant--a dubious proposition in Dhaka. But these things aside, if there is one overarching critique of the book, paradoxically enough, it may be that the very beauty of the writing can serve to at times distance the terrors of that year, to hold it at bay. There are descriptions of suffering, of great and terrible pain, in the novel, but it is never quite the thousand-pound gorilla sitting on one's neck taking huge bites of flesh that was 1971, the absolutely unreal pitch of fear that is so evident in the first person narrations, recollections, diaries and memoirs of that period. There are a couple of instances in the book--in, say, Rehana's conversations with her brother-in-law, a wartime collaborator, or during her visit to a police thana--when a tangible menace hovers in the hollow spaces between words, and the reader's neck hairs rise listening to the "orange saliva laugh" of a police official in a windowless room, but they are exceptions to the general rule.
The above points, however, are negligible in the face of Tahmima Anam's achievement. She has not only written the first true novel of 1971 but also decisively altered the landscape of Bangladeshi English-language writing. With A Golden Age, it has come of age. Tahmima Anam has raised the bar, and from now on the Bangladeshi English-language novel will be counted as an equal in the greater republic of South Asian letters. For this we should be proud of her.
Khademul Islam is literary editor, The Daily Star. A Golden Age will be available in Dhaka bookstores soon.