Tahmina Anam’s The Good Muslim is a subtly told story about a brother and a sister in the aftermath of the Bangladeshi freedom struggle.
Review by Anjana Basu
Set in Dhaka, at the heart of Tahmina Anam’s The Good Muslim are two homecomings. That of Maya, who comes home from a stint as a ‘crusading doctor’ in rural Rajshahi in 1984, and the return of her brother Sohail after nine months of struggle in the Bangladesh War in 1972. The two different times, the jubilation and hope in the aftermath of war and the sense of disillusionment twelve years later, are linked through scenes that mirror each other, brother and sister seen at different parties where both feel out of place. Barring these however, the two strands of story are allowed to run independently so that occasionally the reader is forced to glance at the chapter headings for a sense of time and context.
The title of course, at a time when fundamentalism has set the world on fire, is a provocative one. Who is the Good Muslim in the book? The obvious answer would of course be Sohail, who since his return from the war and his marriage has turned more and more to the stricter tenets of Islam. However there is Maya, struggling to look after the women of her new born country, women who have suffered torture and violence and who carry in their wombs the seed of enemy soldiers, planted by force. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, seen in the 1972 sequences, refers to these women as ‘birangana’ or heroines, but is determined that the children conceived during the War should not be born. Maya sees it as her duty to help the women of rape, so in a sense because of her principles she could equally well be called the good Muslim.
However, Maya is not strictly a believer because she feels that Islam is too “knotted among all the other things” and she objects when a vegetable vendor insists on converting the traditional ‘Khuda Hafiz’ to ‘Allah Hafiz’. In a world they fought to free, she finds the new Dictator – Mujib of course having been assassinated – intent on taking the name of Allah ‘between every other word’.
Sohail’s fundamentalism is believable because he is seen through the eyes of his mother and sister, who note the ways in which he has changed. And the greatest fallout of the change is the unhappiness of his six year old son Zaid, condemned to neglect and ultimately abuse in a madrassa.
In the end, the book is more about Maya then Sohail. It is the story of a woman who comes back to Dhaka to discover a Dictator in place –– and an insidious fundamentalism creeping into the lives of people. Add to that the fact that her mother Rehana is ill – she has a tumour eating away inside her. For Maya, life is a struggle to reconcile the joyous idealism of the past with the grim reality of the present. Everyone she meets is either recovering from the War or reacting to what it has done to the lives of people they know. And in performing all those abortions, Maya herself has lost her innocence.
The second book of a proposed trilogy that began with The Golden Age, in which Maya and Sohail were seen as teenagers, The Good Muslim is a subtly told story about the aftermath of a freedom struggle with the violence left understated to make a greater impact.
Publishers: Penguin India
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