Variety

A broken wishbone

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on December 14, 2011

The Good Muslim, By Tahmima Anam, Publisher: Penguin, Price: Rs 499

Growing up with four brothers might be one of the reasons, but books with a strong brother-sister relationship theme have always fascinated me. George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss is a book that never fails to break the heart each time I read it.

The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam's powerful novel on the aftermath of the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and the turmoil it creates in the Haque household, of course does more than grip your heart for the parting of ways of two siblings — Maya Haque and her brother Shoaib.

A powerful narrative on the deep disappointment many educated and enlightened Bangladeshis, such as Maya, a doctor, felt on the direction the newly-formed country of coups and counter-coups had taken, the sentiment is conveyed aptly in Maya's musings: “Thirteen (years since independence). Her broken wishbone of a country was thirteen years old. Didn't sound like very long, but in that time the nation had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Modhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.”

Maya flees home after Shoaib, her once dapper brother with liberal views, turns to the Koran after burning up all the literary works he had once adored. For a long time she believes she'll get back the brother who had laughed and joked about religion, or been angry at it for its cruelty…. “the boys butchered because they were Hindus, the university teachers shot and piled into graves because they weren't considered Islamic enough.”

But she soon finds that Sohail's conversion is not, as she had thought, “fragile, like the dew that settled between the grasses at the start of the day, gone by the time the afternoon sun vanished into dark.” It is a result of the overpowering guilt, sorrow and grief that engulfed him during his involvement in the war and his unfulfilled love for Piya, one of the thousands of Bangladeshi women raped during the conflict.

The feminist in Maya flinches at the attempt to declare these women traumatised by the Pakistan army as “war heroines”. As a doctor working in the camps, she has aborted several foetuses from the wombs of raped women and knows first-hand they didn't feel like heroines. She also has to watch the horror of Nazia, who works with her in a rural area, getting 101 lashes for giving birth to a baby with Down's syndrome. Her husband accuses her of having sex with a Chinese man! And Maya herself is chased out of the village by goons because she had once gone swimming in the village pond with Nazia.

The book is essentially Maya's story… her struggles with her brother's choice. She is willing to give him a chance, at least in the first part of his religious journey when his sermons include words from the Torah, Gita and the Bible too. “He praised the prophets of old, Ram and Odysseus, Jesus and Arjun, the Buddha and Guru Nanak. They were all messengers of God, in their way. Separate in time, diverse in their teaching, yet equal in their desire for human betterment.”

But before long her brother's sermons cease to talk about the many faces of God. “There was only one. One message. One Book. The world narrowed. Curtains between men and women. Lines drawn in the sand.”

And yet The Good Muslim is not really about a desperate kind of fundamentalism or radical Islam that might lead to terrorism. Sohail turns to his religion to get away from the horror he committed in the war. She is able to understand, but not empathise with how “the Book spoke to his every sorrow, to every bruise of his life.” But she cannot come to terms with the price the rest of the family, particularly his little son Zaid, has to pay for this. The little boy is not sent to an ordinary school, ends up stealing money, lying, cheating, and so on, and is finally taken by his father to a Madrasa, where the child is sexually abused by the Huzoor or head Mullah, with tragic consequences.

Tahmima's characters are sketched deftly, with fine details; Maya comes alive bearing the double cross of her slow but definite separation from her brother, as well as the horror of the new nation buried under the avalanche of lies, hypocrisy and greed of leaders who break all the promises made to their people.

But the book's most distinctive feature is its prose — now powerful and searing, now as gentle as the whisper of the mild evening breeze. For instance, when Joy, who loves her, asks her about the ‘right man', Maya replies: “They start out all right, but then, somewhere along the way, their egos turn to glass and you have to spend your whole life with your arms around them, making them feel better while your own life turns to shit.”

Jahanara Imam is “tiny, in a white cotton sari, she looked insubstantial, like a froth of smoke.” She thinks children are not for her. She sees them “coming into the world every day, selfish and lonely and powerful; she watched as they devoured those around them, and then witnessed the slow sapping of their strength as the world showed itself to be far poorer than it had once promised to be.”

When Maya regrets that she could not save Zaid, Sohail says: “He was not yours to save.” And she wonders: “To whom had he belonged, then? This robed father who lived behind a high wall, behind a string of verses?”

The book ends with this passage; Maya names her daughter Zubaida, in the memory of her nephew Zaid. “A name locked in a name. Every time her daughter laughs with the delight, the miracle-joy of it, there is a fingerprint of pain, the memory of a little linguist, a card-shark and a thief. She misses him. Zaid and Sohail (who goes away to Saudi Arabia). She feels it here, under her ribs and right next to her beating heart. And here, at her temples, and every time she closes her eyes and sees the picture of who Sohail has become.”

Read this book to understand how ordinary, religious Muslim women are traumatised when their men turn to the Holy Book with a vengeance. But read it much more for the sheer ease and lucidity with which words slither out from Tahmima's pen. She is bound to remind you of one of your favourite literary masters from the glorious past.

Published on July 28, 2011

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