Tahmima Anam had been warned. Do not go to Mumbai, she was told. The traffic is terrible.
So the 30-something Bangladeshi author whose second book, The Good Muslim, has just been released, wants an explanation for the emptiness of the roads when she arrives at 022, the all-day dining restaurant at the Trident Bandra Kurla for breakfast with Brunch.
Well, you tell her. It’s Sunday. On Sundays, the city that never sleeps prefers not to wake up early in the morning. But, you add, if she were to go out in the evening, then she’d see the terrible traffic of Mumbai. Even on a Sunday.
But alas, Anam has a flight to catch and needs to be at the airport by 12.30 pm. Thus missing not only Mumbai’s famous terrible traffic, but also 022’s famous Sunday lunch, the one several people had recommended to her at dinner last night. "It only starts at 12.30?" she asks our server. "Aww. I was looking forward to it."
Over chamomile tea then, followed by an excellent masala dosa ("I love dosas"), Tahmima Anam chats about Bangladesh, books, writing and saris.
Your first book, The Golden Age, was set around the Bangladesh war of 1971. What about it fascinates you so?
I grew up listening to stories about the war and I was always fascinated by them. My father worked for the UN and we lived abroad, but whenever I went home, I’d hear the stories of my parents’ generation – the student politics, leftists and so on.
Then I learned that my grandmother had sheltered people during the war. Her house was used as a safehouse and was raided by the police. It tied in with a research project I was doing, and that’s why my book was about the war.
Also, it’s very difficult for people to get past 1971. It was violent, but, it was also a moment of possibility – a new country was born, a place that had never existed before. There was a sense of ownership and of creating something new.
Had you always wanted to be a writer?
I studied anthropology in college and I remember thinking that I wanted to write a novel. I decided I’d only do that if I had a story to tell. I do remember feeling, though, that it was unlikely I’d be an academic. I wrote one little short story that was collected in an anthology published in London. An editor read it and suggested that I write a novel, so that short story became the first chapter of my first novel.
What’s it like writing a second novel?
It’s always easier the first time because you really have no idea of what you’re doing. The second time round, you’re more self-conscious about how you’re writing. I don’t know what the third time is going to be like.
Does it bother you to be classified as a sub-continental writer?
I’m proud to be part of the sub-continent. Of course, in western bookshops, your books are placed in the Asian section rather than the fiction section, but readers are also aware that there are good books in the Asian section. And if you go to a publisher with a book about the sub-continent, it tends to be more easily accepted.
There isn’t much writing out of Bangladesh in English. So we don’t really know what the country is like. What is it like?
Dhaka is a very bustling, exciting, growing city. When you land there, you feel a kind of energy, a buzz. Of course, the city is bursting at the seams, but you’d be surprised by the sense of possibility you feel. You may think of Bangladesh as a poor country, but you also feel that with good leadership, that could change. There are changes already. Did you know that Bangladesh is the third largest manufacturer of garments in the world? And the micro-credit schemes are making a difference. The only question remains, will we get good leadership?
From HT Brunch, August 7
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