The Good Muslim

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The Good Muslim - Tahmima Anam, book reviewWhen India won its independence from Britain in 1947, the giant India of the empire days was split into three parts with the creation of two new states – India and Pakistan. Pakistan was the name given to two large pieces of land to the north west and north east of the new India which were called West and East Pakistan. Separated geographically, economically and politically this uneasy split country lasted less than a quarter of a century with East Pakistan winning its independence from the west to become the country we now know as Bangladesh in 1971. Lasting less than a year, the Bangladesh War of Independence isn’t one that you tend to hear much about – most likely it was overshadowed by the war in Vietnam – or one about which many books have been written. The Good Muslim is the third book I’ve read about the war and its impact on civilians and like the others (Noor by Sorraya Khan and A Golden Age, also by Tahmina Anam) I was shocked and utterly fascinated by the abuses of the war and the impact of their aftermath.

The Good Muslim is a tale of two siblings – brother Sohail Haque and sister Maya Haque – and to a lesser extent, their widowed mother Rehana. The book leads us to question what constitutes ‘goodness’ both in a time of war and during the peace that follows and to question whether doing the wrong thing for the right reasons can be acceptable. The book jumps back and forth between the early 1970s and the mid 1980s with the tales of both periods running in parallel. Having just finished it I already have a sense of the inevitability that I will need to read it again to really understand the subtleties that I’m sure are there to uncover. At times it can be confusing to know already what hasn’t yet happened (if you see what I mean) but the structure of revelations and retreat is a necessary part of the story. As an example of this, quite early in the book Maya meets Joy, a friend of her brother’s who has returned from war minus one of his fingers. He tells her that the ‘army took it’. It’s only many chapters later we learn how and why he lost his finger and it’s all the more moving for the wait. The revelation of what happened to the girl who followed Sohail back home when she had nowhere else to go is also revealed, layer by layer over many years and many chapters.

We open in December 1971, just a few days after the end of the war. Sohail the young revolutionary is making his way home to the new country of Bangladesh when he stops off at a building and sees something inside so horrifying that his life is changed forever. As readers we can guess at what was inside those walls but we won’t know for sure for many more pages but we know the impact it’s had on him long before we know what ‘it’ was. His sister Maya, the doctor, is introduced a few pages later in 1985, apparently returning home for the funeral of her sanctimonious sister-in-law, Silvi, Sohail’s wife’s. The funeral is not a reason, it’s just an excuse because she’s actually fleeing the country village where her safety has become unsustainable after the husband of local woman who had a Down’s Syndrome child has laid the blame at Maya’s door.

“I’m already wondering about what Tahmina Anam may pull out of the bag for her next novel.”

Sohail has become a charismatic preacher, holding Islamic prayers in his rooms on the roof of their mother’s house. Maya is fighting the establishment through anonymous political writings in a local newspaper. Neither is mainstream but both are principled and determined people making a mark on their society – one through religion and the other through medicine and writing. During the war Maya worked in the refugee camps, treating women beaten and raped by Pakistani soldiers. In the first months of the new country, her moral and political duty was to abort the foetuses that resulted from those attacks in line with the new leader’s instructions to excise the memories of the evil done against the nations ‘heroines’. It’s a horrible duty but one she bears with fewer scars, it seems, than her brother.

When Silvi dies she leaves her son Zaid in his father’s care but Sohail is too busy to bring up a child. When he decides to send the boy far away to a religious school or Madrasa, Maya fights the decision, and eventually goes looking for the boy with the most tragic of consequences.

I struggle to pull together a coherent description of what happens because of the way the storied jumps around but at the time of reading I was completely hooked. I was completely behind Maya, questioning her brother’s religious fervour all the way. I hurt with her when her mother got cancer, laughed with her when she flirted with Joy, smelt her fear and suffering when things went badly awry. She is a remarkable heroine for a book set in a country where a good Muslim woman is expected to be modest, unassuming, to keep her eyes lowered and to be a good wife and not to be educated, brave, ballsy and determined.

Through Sohail and Maya we learn about the war and the violence against civilians but it’s the reaction of each to what they’ve seen, what they’ve had to do and how they have to change in order to survive which is what we remember.

Readers of Anam’s first novel, A Golden Age, may be reading this with the slight sense of deja vu which accompanied me through the book. A Golden Age has Rehana Haque as its heroine, a widowed mother of two children called Sohail and Maya. I need to read both again to understand if the stories are continuous. Some reviewers have said that the only thing in common is the names of the characters though I assumed they must be the same people. I’m intrigued and I want to know more, and I’m already wondering about what Tahmina Anam may pull out of the bag for her next novel – I’m not entirely convinced that she’s finished with the Haque family just yet.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
Published by Canongate Books, May 2011
With thanks to Canongate for providing a review copy.

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Good Muslim, The
by Tahmima Anam

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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