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Ballad of the maulana-soldier

A pair of siblings look for closure in the aftermath of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle.

books Updated: Jun 24, 2011 22:25 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

Freedom song
The Good Muslim
Tahmima Anam
Hamish Hamilton
Rs 499 pp 297

Scratch a Bangladeshi writer and you’ll reopen a wound, and out will pour a liberation war story. A desperate need for catharsis has spawned a vast body of war writing in Bangladeshi literature. But the tradition reached the world’s readers only four years ago through Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age (2007), the first Bangladeshi war novel in English to be distributed worldwide.

The liberation war of 1971, in which perhaps a million people were killed and another 10 million displaced, left few lives untouched. It cast a shadow even over writers like Anam, who were born years after the horror and lived their lives mostly outside Bangladesh.

A Golden Age was set in the war year, when Pakistani President Yahya Khan unleashed Operation Searchlight to put down the identity politics of East Pakistan and keep Mujibur Rahman, who had won the general election, out of office. The story’s backdrop was the military genocide and the armed resistance led by students who fled their homes, which became safe houses for guerrillas. It was a political story told through a family drama, as the newly widowed Rehana Haque fought to get custody of her children Sohail and Maya, who had been taken to West Pakistan by her husband’s family, and to bring them up safe from the war — even when it came home.

A Good Muslim fast-forwards to Bangladesh in 1984, under General Ershad’s martial law, reels back to the 70s, to the day of Mujib’s triumphal return to a new country, and closes in 1992, with the restoration of democracy and the trials by people’s tribunals of the Razakars, Quislings responsible for wartime atrocities. A Golden Age was about finding a place called home. The Good Muslim is about making a home there.

This post-war story is told from the perspective of Maya, who serves as a sutradhar. But it is about Sohail, who treasured his collection of Elvis LPs and went to the war as a rock and roll revolutionary in American jeans. Back home, he turns to faith. Denim gives way to a djelleba and rock to religious discourse. On the terrace of the family home, he preaches to a congregation about Ibrahim, Buddha, Nanak, Jesus and Arjun.

Then he turns maulana. He burns his books — Rilke, Lawrence and Tagore, who had illuminated his youth. Because now, there is only one Book. He turns the terrace into a Stone Age slum of shacks without electric light and toilets. His son is filthy and is taken for a servant in the market. He does not mind. He is using religion to forget the horrors of the battlefield, and a horror he had authored himself. And to forget the final horror — that in free Bangladesh, a dictator is again in power.

Sohail’s former friends also want to forget, in clandestine whisky parties in Gulshan, Dhaka’s answer to Karachi’s posh neighbourhood of Clifton. But Maya can’t forget, and cannot forgive those who do. She is the conscientious, intolerant liberal estranged from the postwar nation, “someone still clinging to her war wounds”. And finally, the intolerance of brother and sister, fundamentalist and liberal, unwittingly conspire to kill someone they both love.

Tahmima Anam’s story is a rattling good read. It is told lucidly and evocatively, but it is politically complex. This is a novel about closure after a socially and morally devastating war. But under the skin, the wound is still raw.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine