For this post I shall concentrate on one author and her trilogy of novels about Bangladesh. Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka and now lives in Hackney, London. She shares, with my daughter-in-law whom she knows, a love of history. For Tahmima it is the history of Bangladesh through the stories of its people, for my daughter-in-law it is the history of Pakistan through the story of its river, the Indus. [Empires of the Indus – Alice Albinia]
After Partition, there were two countries, India and Pakistan, the latter was by nature of its religion spread over two distinct and separated parts of the Indian Continent, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, which is now an independent nation, called Bangladesh.
Its independence was only won after a bitter civil war in which thousands of people died, and many became separated from loved ones and family through accident or choice. Many families sent children to the West when things in the East became dangerous.
So we begin the loosely connected trilogy which starts with A Golden Age, before Bangladesh is independent. In March, 1959, a young widow with two children is forced by her husband’s brother, to give away her daughter, Maya and her son, Sohail and he and his wife take them from her to Lahore – in West Pakistan.
Throughout these three novels, one has to keep reminding oneself that in this situation, women, especially wives and mothers, have absolutely no autonomy, once married a woman belongs to her in-laws, body and soul; widowed but with children, the children belong to her in-laws and even the court will uphold their right to make important decisions on the children’s behalf; widowed without children and you can be cast adrift, to return to your own family or worse still kept as near to slavery as it is possible to be in your in-laws home – and this can even be the better of two evils depending on the circumstances of your birth.
But Rohana is not defeated, with some money and a plot of land she builds a house to rent out and within ten years she has got her family back, a day of celebration that is a reason for a party every year. Still unmarried herself, she rejoices in her independence and in the company of her children, by now it is 1971.
The situation in East Pakistan, though, is less satisfactory. Elections have been held but there is still not a government, no national assembly has been called and the underlying tensions are building up. Produce had been flowing out of East Pakistan, but the money it made never came back into the country and was spent in West Pakistan, on projects in Karachi and Islamabad; in 1970 there was a cyclone, many East Pakistanis died and no aid came from the West.
So begins the war of independence, and we follow the fortunes of this family…
Tahmima Anam’s second book is called The Good Muslim and concentrates on Sohail, though we still follow the fortunes of his sister and mother.
The war of independence has affected Sohail so profoundly, that he becomes a more fervent Muslim. He tries to persuade young people to adopt a more serious attitude to religion.
His sister Maya, who has been away for many years, is shocked by her brother’s fundamentalist attitude and when he decides to send his son, Zaid, to a madrassa it causes ripples in the family which have consequences for all of them.
The third book of the trilogy which came out recently is The Bones of Grace. Maya’s husband had returned from the war physically damaged after being captured, they have adopted a daughter, Zubaida and it is her pursuit of identity that really defines this novel. It is, at its heart, a love story but underlying that is also the search for belonging, the lack of her own identity bleeds into her life choices, as a palaeontologist she has been looking at the terrestrial links of the ancestors of the whale, one of the only creatures to crawl from the land into the sea, rather than the other way round.
We start are Zubaida is preparing for an exhibition of the bones of Ambulocetus, the animal that decided to go to sea. The entire book is written as a love letter to a man, Elijah Strong, who is the thread that links all the events in the book, but who in the end has been lost. This is the expiation, the long apology and the final recognition of the truth, only possible because Zubaida has finally an identity.