August Issue 2011
Book Review: The Good Muslim
The Good Muslim. The novel is a meditation on religion, family life and the promise of Bangladeshi independence. But it is also shot through with a marked sense of pessimism that was largely absent from Anam’s first book, A Golden Age.
The latter dealt with the period before and during the Bangladesh War of Independence. It explored the repeated brutality of the Pakistani state against Bengalis in the late 1960s, the contradictions of the freedom struggle and the terrible violence of the 1971 war. Through the life of one family, Anam gave us one of the first fictional accounts of the period in the English language.
Drawing on her experiences as an anthropologist and her intimate familiarity with Bangladesh’s literary elite, she drew on a lifetime of oral history and literature in Bengali to weave a tale of loss, violence and hope. Not surprisingly, the book was widely praised by critics in the West for its honest portrayal of a period that is little known outside Bangladesh.
In my review in Newsline in 2007, I also suggested that A Golden Age might begin to open up a discussion in Pakistan about the memory of this second traumatic partition that was left behind in the country’s attempts to shore up its national and Islamic identity in the 1970s and, 80s. What did it mean to divide an indivisible ‘Muslim homeland?’ And how did the treatment of Bengalis after 1947 reflect a deeper uncertainty about what to do with the question of ‘minorities’ in Pakistan?
Above all, Anam’s first book reminded us that one of the most potent forms of abuse levelled at Bengalis, both before and during the war, was that they were insufficiently Muslim — that their ‘syncretistic’ Islam made them ‘inferior’ to their supposedly more ‘pure’ West Pakistani brethren. It was an accusation that was felt as deeply by Bengalis as the imposition of Urdu as the national language.
This did not, of course, mean that Islam was subsequently marginalised in Bangladesh. While it is true that the newly independent nation at first resisted some of the temptations of Islamisation, it was nevertheless touched by the wave of Islamist revivalism that was, by the 1970s, sweeping across the Islamic world. Islamist groups had emerged everywhere from Egypt to Pakistan looking to use religion in a battle against growing state corruption, militarisation and the declining appeal of nationalist movements.
It is this shifting and uncertain context that provides the backdrop for The Good Muslim. Moving on from the pain and euphoria of liberation, Anam’s second book grapples with the two decades following Bangladesh’s independence. Many of the characters from her first book feature in this new effort, but they are now older and, most of all, changed by the experience of war.
The central tension that gives the book its structure is the interaction between the siblings Maya and Sohail Haque. Both products of the war and ‘freedom fighters’ in their own way, they participated passionately in the struggle to liberate Bangladesh. But the post-independence period is rich in disappointment. Sohail, who has been deeply scarred by some of his wartime experiences, becomes quiet and reclusive — a far cry from the buoyant, progressive student leader he was before the war.
Over time, he becomes increasingly drawn to religion. He starts to attend the mosque regularly and eventually begins to preach himself. In a highly symbolic break with his former self, one day he burns all his old books — casting away his battered copies of E. M. Forster and Kipling in favour of a life of piety and prayer.
In the meantime, his sister Maya despairs the loss of the jovial brother she knew. Bitterly disappointed by his (re)conversion and his marriage to an equally pious neighbour Silvi, she leaves her home and her mother Rehana (a major protagonist of A Golden Age) to become a surgeon in rural Bangladesh. Isolated far from the city, Maya too discovers the scars of war in the women she treats, many of whom have carried ‘war babies’ that are the consequences of systematic rape by Pakistani soldiers during the war.
Maya only returns home to Dhaka in 1984, after Silvi’s death. She discovers that her brother has become a full-time preacher, sermonising to admiring men and burqa-clad women on the roof of the family home. He now has a child, Zaid, who rarely sees his father and is suffocated by the strictures of Islamic pietism.
Undaunted, Maya rebuilds a life for herself in the city by writing articles in newspapers. She rediscovers a world of politically engaged activism and finds herself once again drawn into political battles. At the same time, she tries to give the young Zaid some kind of non-Islamic education and cares devotedly for her mother, who is diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing destructive chemotherapy.
Yet, despite these attempts to find a place in a changing society, she yearns for her brother to gain self-knowledge, and acknowledge that he has transformed himself for (what she sees as) the worse due to the traumas he experienced in wartime. Inevitably, it is this that proves most elusive. She is hardly able to secure his attention, much less an apology; her brother seems lost to Islam forever.
The gulf between the two siblings grows ever wider. By the time the brother and sister finally understand the nature of each other’s scars, it is too late: there have been too many tragedies and their paths diverge too sharply. Born at the same historical moment, they no longer belong to the same worlds.
It would be easy to read Maya and Sohail as metaphors for the competing political forces in independent Bangladesh: one secular, progressive and engaged and the other pious, moralising and apparently disconnected from the corruption of politics. But this would be an oversimplification of Anam’s new novel.
What she has really achieved is a portrait of a society through one family. Its emotions, strains, tensions and tragedies offer a vivid picture of what it means when politics and religion penetrate to the very heart of a household. More so than in her previous book, the author takes us into the inner workings of her characters’ minds, something that is highlighted by the frequent jumps backwards and forwards in time.
It is her increased technical mastery that has allowed Anam to delve deeper into her characters than ever before. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness thought — particularly from Zaid — and a conscious effort to explore the claustrophobia of religion. And, even though there are fewer moments of violence than in A Golden Age, these take on a new potency because they somehow seem less justified in peacetime. What was heroic martyrdom in war becomes needless loss of life after the war is over.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a stronger authorial voice in The Good Muslim. It is as if Anam has been released from the strictures and responsibilities of telling the story of the War of Independence. One might even say that her anthropologist’s sensitivity to different voices has been replaced by a more direct (and, of course, less objective) commitment to her characters.
There was already ample evidence in her first book that Anam had promise: her prose was lucid and her narratives carefully controlled. As she has matured as a writer, she has begun to find her own style. Somewhere between historical testimony and psychological exploration, it provides a convincing vehicle for her investigation of the pathologies of a newly independent country and its “irreparable wound.” For those unfamiliar with its history, this is a golden opportunity to learn more about modern-day Bangladesh and the spread of Islamic revivalism in South Asia.
But Anam’s book deserves a wide readership in Pakistan too, for it quite literally holds up a mirror across the subcontinent. What could be more pertinent in an age of sectarian violence than a literary attempt to deconstruct what it means to be a “good Muslim”? What could be more relevant than the relationship between religion, repression and political power? There are countless insights here for a country that has largely been unable to come to terms with the “wound” it inflicted on the Bengali people three decades ago.
Ultimately, one can only hope that this engaging new book finds a receptive audience at home and abroad — not only because of the author’s obvious talent but also because the issues with which she grapples are likely to define the future of the Islamic world.
This book review originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “The Errant Muslim.”