Country Focus: Bangladesh
The Good Muslim
By Tahmima Anam
Originally published in Great Britain by Cannongate Books, 2011. My edition: Harper Perennial, 2012.
Time period: 1971-77, 1984-85, 1992
The Bangladesh Liberation War was fought from March 1971 to December 1971. In those nine months, Bengali nationalists backed by India cleaved the new nation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. This relatively short conflict yielded extensive atrocities, including the rape of hundreds of thousands of women by Pakistani soldiers. The fledgling country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, dubbed these women Birangona, “heroines.” He commanded their families to accept them back into their homes. But, he added, war babies were not wanted. Abort “the seed of your enemy,” he told the Birangona.
The Good Muslim begins with a soldier’s life-changing encounter with a Birangona and then fast forwards the reader to 1984 and his sister’s return home.
After six years of running a women’s clinic in the rural village of Rajshahi, Maya Haque arrives at her mother’s house in Dhaka. She’s unsure of how her mother will receive her after her long absence, but most of all she is anxious about being reunited with her newly-widowed brother, Sohail.
Sohail was the reason she had left home. The two siblings had enjoyed a warm, open-hearted relationship until he returned from the war. Once a happy-go-lucky guy, the post-war version of Sohail all but wears a “Keep Away” sign on his chest. Maya feels deeply hurt that he refuses to confide in her.
Only the arrival of a mysterious woman named Piya lifts Sohail’s spirits. Although neither Sohail nor Piya explain how they know each other, it is obvious to Maya that they had met during the war and that Piya was one of the Birangona. Haunted by the war, Piya doesn’t stick around long. After Piya disappears Sohail withdraws even further into himself.
Their mother presents Sohail with the Koran, hoping that its words will console him. Neither she nor Maya could ever imagine that he would dive so deeply into its passages and turn into a devout Muslim. Maya grows so fed up with her brother’s religious transformation and his marriage to the pious girl next door that she abandons her mother to become a doctor in a small village. Ironically, an experience as a country doctor will leave her just as scarred as Sohail.
Tahmima Anam rocks her novel back and forth between Sohail’s return home in post-war 1970s and Maya’s return home in the 1980s. These juxtapositions show how Sohail and Maya are foils for one another. Each is racked with guilt from a thoughtless action that led to a tragic outcome. Religious fervor soothes Sohail’s emotional burdens; the same radicalism caused Maya’s. Sohail’s religiosity grows almost in direct proportion to Maya’s resistance to it. Sohail spreads the word of Islam; Maya publishes articles that spread the truth about the war.
The emotional distance between Maya and Sohail is greater than ever upon her return. They maintain a connection primarily through Sohail’s young son Zaid, who bonds with Maya. The repercussions of Sohail’s decision to send Zaid to a madrasa leads to a novel-ending, anticlimactic confrontation between brother and sister.
The Good Muslim starts off strong – the prologue hooked me – but loses momentum about a quarter of the way through. Part of the problem is character development; Sohail is as closed off to the reader as he is to Maya. His opaque persona made it impossible for me to feel Maya’s loss of him in the 1970s scenes, and his detached lethargy is so severe in the 1980s section that I wondered if he didn’t find heroin rather than religion. He’s downright boring.
On the plus side, I learned some Bangladeshi history and mulled over the book’s themes: the long-lasting repercussions of war, the possibility that everyone bears some measure of guilt, and the inadequacy of forgiveness. That’s some worthwhile mindchow. I have to give Anam props for her aspirations, but for me The Good Muslim fell short of its full potential.
Sohail finds, in the spring after he has returned from the war, that his hands will not stop shaking. He holds his hands to his chest. He wraps them around the teapot. He stands on the threshold of his mother’s room. Ma, he wants to say, my hands will not stop shaking. Will you say a prayer and blow on them? Will you twine your fingers through mine and bind them to yours? But he stops. He isn’t a child any more; he’s a man, a soldier back from the war. He asks himself if he can be right again, if he can be good. After Piya, after the killing.
This is how the war made its way into their house. Sohail, spilling water from his glass, flicking dal over the side of his plate. A vanishing woman. A shake of the hand. A silence between siblings.