‘The Good Muslim’ by Tahmima Anam is one of only a handful of books in my life which has left me in real pain. I felt something akin to grief when the book came to an end as wave after wave of emotions flooded my every pore.
The story deals with the aftermath of the War of Independence in 1971 and Anam beautifully characterises the problems which still face Bangladesh today without ever resorting to preaching. The tale – which tells of a brother and sister and how they come to terms with what happened in the war, their part in it and in the years following it – is a sequel to Tahmima Anam’s ‘A Golden Age’ but, to my mind, it is the better of the two.
Reading the book brought back so many memories for me – memories of many years living in Bangladesh. I knew the places the author writes of, loved them and I have witnessed the beauty and the cruelty of the land and its people. These memories were wonderful yet painful enough but Anam brings her characters alive so well that you’re left feeling you know them – especially the sister, Maya – and you don’t want them to leave you. The sadness is that many of the questions the book asks are still left unanswered today. The very identity of Bangladesh hasn’t moved on since 1971 itself. What does it mean to be Bangladeshi? What does it mean to be a ‘good Muslim’ and Bangladeshi? Where does forgiveness begin and justice end? Anam leaves you grasping at shadows of answers but, in the end, you’re left wondering even who the ‘Good Muslim’ of the title really is. Nothing is certain; nothing is presented as black and white. Heroes are victims and victims are heroes leaving your very being tattered and frayed, a car-wreck of emotions.
In researching details for this post, I’ve since discovered that Tahmima Anam intends a third book to complete the set as a trilogy. I’m filled with relief to know that the relationship I began with these characters has not yet come to an end. At the same time I’m beset with trepidation as I wonder just what new depths of sorrow Anam can delve into. It is not that I don’t think there is more that she can say; quite the opposite in fact. I know what happens to Bangladesh after the last page of The Good Muslim – indeed, I’ve lived much of its history and bear witness to it. I know there is much more pain and anguish to come. But I’ve also seen the indomitable spirit of the country, the desire of the people to be heard, to be felt, no matter how much corrupt governments and authorities try to stamp them out. This is the reason why I will read the next book, why I will allow my heart to be opened once more and why I will allow Anam to tear at it once again – not vindictively but because it must be done.
This is a must-read for anyone coming to visit Bangladesh or intending to work here and hoping to understand something of the complex mire which is Bangladesh. It is also a must-read for any of the millions of Bangladeshis around the world who were not born in the country of their parents and perhaps have never really known it other than for a few fleeting visits to relatives. There are too many for whom 1971 is nothing more than a piece of history, half-remembered and wholly misunderstood. Anam cuts to the core of the feelings, the confusion, the angst which still grips a nation trying to work out who it is and what it wants to be. Come ready to understand but come ready to be wounded too.