Birangonas are a part of the war story
- Award-winning author from Bangladesh launches book on faith and fundamentalism
Calcutta would always have a place in her heart, author Tahmima Anam told Metro hours before her book, The Good Muslim, was launched in the city on Friday evening. “The people of Calcutta did so much to help the people of my country during the war of independence,” said the 36-year-old Bangladeshi author, who has a degree in social anthropology from Harvard University and currently lives in London.
The Good Muslim, published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, is the second novel by Anam, coming after the critically acclaimed The Golden Age, which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book .
Tell us a bit about your new novel...
The Good Muslim is a novel about the aftermath of war. It’s about how individuals and families cope with a big event like war. In this case, there are two main characters — Maya and her brother Sohail. They are both quite young when they come out of the 1971 war and now they have to go from being revolutionaries to being citizens. In this journey, they take very different paths….
The title of your book has kindled a lot of interest...
Yes, through my book, I wanted to raise the question, who is a good Muslim? Is it the religious character, Sohail, is it the secular character, Maya, or is it the mother, who kind of tries to balance between the two? People will come to their own conclusions, I hope.
But in today’s context, the term “good Muslim” takes on a new meaning…
You know, I purposely wrote a book about Muslims, about Islam and about fundamentalists. In my book, they are all Muslims, one of them is a fundamentalist, but none is a terrorist. And I think that’s a really important thing to bear in mind. Which is that the majority of Muslims around the world are somewhere along this spectrum, the from secular to the very devout. And terrorism is a totally separate thing, it is not linked to religion.
When you say “good” Muslim, are you not suggesting that there’s a “bad” Muslim too? How is that different from a bad “person”?
I’m not categorising anyone as good or bad. It’s just that these are the kinds of categories and the kind of questions that Muslims and non-Muslims around the world are asking — what does it mean to be a Muslim, what does it mean to be a good person?
For Sohail, Islam and morality are the same thing. For Maya, morality and secularism are the same thing. So, I think the book’s about all these moral questions that are thrown up, not just by faith but by citizenship, by war, by people putting their stakes in different places.
War heroes and heroines are treated very differently after a war is over. Do you think the Birangonas of Bangladesh were cheated by history? Your also talk at length about war babies and the dilemma of women left pregnant after the war...
As a nation we haven’t really fully addressed what happened in that war. And the Birangonas are certainly a part of that story — not just the raped women but the other women too, who participated in the war. I think their contribution hasn’t been acknowledged as much as it should have been.
I think the fact that women were encouraged to abort their babies, that’s also a part of the story..
The protagonist in The Good Muslim, Maya, is the daughter of the central character of your first novel. Why did you decide to continue with the same family?
Well, it was conceived of as a trilogy actually. It’s a story of Bangladesh through the eyes of this family. The third book is going to be about Maya’s daughter, set in the present day, against the backdrop of climate change.
Calcutta is very peaceful
[Writer and parliamentarian Krishna Bose released Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim at Oxford Bookstore on Friday. The evening started with a rendition of a Sufi kalam by Parvati Kumari, after which broadcaster and journalist Sandip Roy discussed the book with Anam, starting with a quip on how expensive the Padma Ilish was. In the audience sat a beaming Mahfuz Anam, Tahmima’s father, who is a newspaper editor in Dhaka, Harvard professor Sugata Bose and the deputy high commissioner of Bangladesh, Md. Mustafizur Rahman. Picture by Sayantan Ghosh]
Maya and Rehana enjoy Phuchka and shop at New Market. That’s just like in Calcutta. What other similarities have you noticed between Calcutta and Dhaka?
There are a lot of similarities between the Bengals. But today’s Dhaka is very different from Calcutta. It’s the capital city, it has all the energy and problems of a capital city — it’s chaotic, but it’s also exciting.
Calcutta is very peaceful, there’s a much more serene quality to it, which we in Dhaka sort of miss.
How much of you is in Rehana and Maya? Being born four years after 1971, how did you get into the psyche of the war generations?
Well, Maya is a character inspired by the women who came out of the war. Because they went to war, they did things that women were never allowed to do before. In The Golden Age, Maya works in a refugee camp, she drives an ambulance…she comes into her identity in this war, where boys and girls mix much more freely, they call each other “Comrade”....
For the book, I met these very strong women, who said that after the war, they decided they would be leaders, they would be social activists, they would be feminists. I wrote Maya inspired by those real women. But there’s also a little bit of me in Maya. She’s a much tougher character than me (laughs). She does things that I wouldn’t have the guts to do. So, I live that through my character.
How would you describe Bangladesh of 2011?
It’s a very exciting and contradictory place. There’s a lot of economic growth, there’s a lot of young people doing interesting things. Obviously, there are a lot of things that we hope will improve. There are challenges… so, I think it’s a mixed bag… but moving towards the positive.
Last, was it your fellow Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen’s experience that prompted you to choose to live in London?
No, no, I moved to London to be a writer (smiles). I really think it’s an exciting, cosmopolitan city. But I hope to live in Bangladesh some day.
I think it is very sad that Taslima Nasreen was exiled from Bangladesh. This culture of censorship, which you see a bit in India as well — there was a court injunction against parts of Siddhartha Deb’s wonderful book about India, The Beautiful and the Damned — is never a good thing.
As far as her writing goes, I don’t necessarily see eye to eye with her on a lot of things, I just really defend her right to have a voice.
Birangonas are a part of the war story
Gives an insight into the psyche.
Even the interview is an interesting take!