A Golden Age
by Tahmima Anam
John Murray, HK$324
Bangladesh is a flat, wet, overcrowded country astride the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, with a population of some 144 million of the poorest people on Earth. It scarcely qualifies as an exotic locale and occupies so small a space in the imagination it could be a fiction. Then a writer like Tahmima Anam comes along with a debut novel, A Golden Age, so dazzlingly brilliant that the reader is left at the final page near speechless with awe.
Anam's novel is about the birth of Bangladesh and its 1971 war of independence. The story is told from the perspective of the widowed mother of two children drawn into the war between West and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh).
A Golden Age, in a gorgeous jacket of gold leaves, is a historical novel. Born in Dhaka in 1975, the Harvard PhD in social anthropology and now resident of London thanks her parents and their friends for remembering what happened in the civil war.
It is perhaps without a hint of irony that, four coups and 14 governments later, a civil war that left an estimated one million people dead should be deemed a golden age at all.
Central is Rehana Haque, whose husband drops dead from a heart attack, leaving her with a grave marker she talks to, their bungalow, a plot of land, and their two small children, Sohail and Maya. It's 1959.
Rehana loses the children to her brother, Faiz, and his childless wife, Parveen, who live in Karachi. She regains custody two years later, but is conscious of her vulnerability in Islamic society, moderate though East Pakistan is compared with West Pakistan. The key to her security is a rent-generating mansion called Shona, or gold, so named 'for all the precious things she wanted never to lose again'.
Fast forward to 1971, the first morning of March. It's been 10 years since the children's return and Rehana is celebrating with neighbours, gin-rummy pals, student friends of Sohail and Maya, her Hindu tenants. It's a middle-class affair filled with chatter, the kitchen bustling with food.
But politics intrude. President Yahya Khan in West Pakistan has refused to recognise the landslide victory of East Pakistan's Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and won't allow the National Assembly to convene. Sheikh Mujib, as he's popularly known, talks of greater autonomy for the East, even independence. Sohail, a convert to the cause, argues: 'West Pakistan is bleeding us out. We earn most of the foreign exchange. We grow the rice, we make the jute, and yet we get nothing - no schools, no hospitals, no army.'
Rehana recalls Sohail and Maya's return from rescue efforts after the 1970 cyclone that killed 300,000, 'the red in their eyes as they told her how they had waited for the food trucks to come and watched as the water rose and the bodies washed up on the shore; how they had realised with mounting panic that the food wouldn't come because it had never been sent'.
No nationalist revolutionary, Rehana is sure that 'in no time at all the world would right itself', but by March 25 events are out of control as Yahya launches Operation Searchlight. An estimated one million people will die. Rehana's emotional engagement with the war is fragmented. She worries for the safety of her children, but accounts of barbarity are largely second-hand. She glimpses the refugee crisis of 10 million people on the move when a small group pauses for food and rest in her yard.
But the war is closing in. Sohail and Maya are both active in the movement, and Shona becomes
Her rescue of a former army officer married to the life-long love of Sohail, and who joined the independence fight, is harrowing, as is the description of what has been done to him by Pakistani soldiers.
It's disturbing that the reader some 30 years on will find nothing surprising about the individual and collective brutality of Pakistan towards its own people.
Bangladesh has been tossed over several times by its own generals and is still politically turbulent.
With A Golden Age, Anam is reminding Bangladeshis born, like her, after the war just what independence was all about and what the hopes and aspirations of their parents were before corruption ate them away.