Saturday, May 05, 2007

On Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age

The British empire in India was never so careless and cynical as when it left. The arbitrary redrawing of borders on the Indian subcontinent in 1947 left it broken into two states, necessitating the largest migration of people in history. And one of those countries was itself divided from birth, poised peculiarly - so thinks Rehana Haque, the protagonist of Tahmima Anam's debut novel A Golden Age - "on either side of India like a pair of horns". As territories from north-west and east India became Pakistan, so, in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The absurdity and futility of these dislocations is realised in a remark by Rehana who, when asked about which side she supports in East Pakistan's war of independence, says, "I'm not sure I'm a nationalist".

Rehana is born in Calcutta, sees her sisters married off and sent to Karachi, and is herself married - neither by choice, nor against her wishes - to a businessman, Iqbal, in Dhaka. When Iqbal succumbs suddenly to a heart attack, Rehana is left with two small children to bring up. Her brother-in-law and his wife, who are childless, argue that her children are better off living with them in Karachi. She loses her children for a few years before her circumstances improve, and she is able to bribe a judge to decree that her children be returned. Anam's narration then leaps forward from the nineteen-fifties to 1971, showing us Rehana in middle age and her children, Sohail and Maya, in their teens.

Rehana's children identify with the Bengali language and landscape: Sohail, we are told, loved "the swimming mud of the delta; the translucent, bony river fish; the shocking green palette of the paddy, and the open, aching blue of the sky over flat land". But Rehana always feels slightly out of place in Dhaka, for more than anything else language is constitutive of human identity, and "She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat". Here, and on many other occasions, Anam's writing summons a polished lyricism to give expression to human allegiance and longing. When conflict breaks out between the two halves of Pakistan after the elections of 1970 (in which the party of Mujibur Rahman, from the east, won a majority), Rehana realises that her mother tongue is now "the Urdu of the enemy".

Yet the turbulence in Rehana's world is not all political; some of it is also domestic. Sohail is in love with Silvi, the daughter of their neighbour Mrs. Chowdhury, but Silvi is abruptly betrothed to a lieutenant in the army, and breaks Sohail's heart by complying without protest. At a celebration to mark the engagement, when the bride's mother raises a toast to the couple, Sohail, reconciled to his defeat, pitches in with a toast to the country: "May it emerge from this trial and stand strong". In this one moment we see romantic ardour giving way to revolutionary fervour, and sense that Sohail has joined the resistance not just to fight but also to forget.

Anam's narration bears witness to the brutalities of West Pakistan's assault, the ravages borne and the resistance shown by the nascent state of Bangladesh, and the pathos of lakhs of refugees spilling over the border into India (Rehana herself is shown escaping to Calcutta, becoming a refugee in the very city where she was born). What imperfections her novel has have to do with the occasional contrivances of her plotting and the odd patch of wooden dialogue. But even as it registers the drum-roll of history, her novel does not lose sight of the individual. Anam presents an attentive and satisfying portrait of her protagonist.

Rehana still mourns for her husband and holds imaginary conversations with him, is both exasperated by and proud of Sohail ("she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge"), and feels guilt that she does not care so deeply for her headstrong daughter. On a visit to Sohail's hideout, Rehana enters a dilapidated building:

Rehana saw a grey pair of men's underwear, next to which was an equally tired brassiere, and beside that a small child's nightie. She felt an old swell of longing for the unit, the family: man, woman, child. This was the formula for happiness, the proper order of things. All other equations suffered in its shadow.

This image of wholeness conveyed by the sight of washing is fitting not just because Rehana remembers her own broken family, but because she is worried that Sohail is living all alone, and that she may lose him in the war - different kinds of uncertainty build upon each other.

And at another juncture Rehana feels that Sohail may have dropped in to visit Silvi, who has taken to a cribbed and joyless view of religion, and visits the girl to ask her, only to hear:

"No, I haven't seen him. I'm in pordah. I don't appear before strangers."
Strangers? What had happened to Silvi? What religion had possessed her? Certainly not the familiar kind. Rehana was not religious herself. She prayed every day, at least once, at Magreb, the most important prayer-time of the day. When Iqbal died, she had used the prayer to give her something to do, something that didn't immediately remind her of the cruel hand she'd just been dealt, and she was unashamed about the solace it had given her. Life had punished her enough; the God she prayed to was not a punishing, not a vengeful, brutal God; He was a God of comfort, a God of consolation. She accepted the relief with entitlement, with confidence, and in turn demanded very little from Him - no absolution, no change of destiny. She knew, from experience, that this could not be achieved.

She knew, from experience, that this could not be achieved - that is a clear-eyed account of how, for Rehana, (and unlike Silvi) the consolations of religion do not draw her away from life, but instead stand alongside and support a more realistic appraisal of life.

Rehana longs for peace and stability but, "sifting her memories" one day amidst the chaos, she realises there never was a then to contrast to the now. "No, there had never been any other time…there was only this time, this life, this fraught and crowded era, to which they were bound without choice, without knowledge, only their passions, their loves, to lead and sustain them." Although the novel describes great suffering, Anam's title paradoxically suggests that, where individuals have lived fully and deeply in awareness of life's fragility, any age is a golden age.

And some links: "Birth Pangs" by Ashis Nandy (We refuse to recognise that the birth certificates of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are written in blood and the memories of that first genocide constitute the dark underside of the cultures of state in South Asia."), "The Forgotten Womb" by Patrick French, "What If We Were Together?" by Amitava Kumar and "What If India Hadn't Been Partitioned?" by Ainslee T. Embree, and "Poems of Partition" by Ramachandra Guha.

[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.]


Anonymous said...

sounds like a must read.

Sujyothi said...

Wonderful piece of writing indeed!!
Whilst looking for material on the author,I found your review.
I decided to stop the thought of writing a review on it on my blog as I realised, I would never give my reader such an elaborate view!!
Hats off to you,Sir!
I personally fell in love with the novel, the smoothness of fate's tyranny, the intricacies of grocery storage,a struggle of a woman to do justice to her motherhood besides keeping in good faith her own being a woman!
Please do let me know of any other such similar novels!

Chandrahas said...

Sujoythi - Thank you for your kind words. Two other very good novels with woman protagonists struggling to comprehend their place in the world(although the first has a male narrator) are Willa Cather's My Antonia and Attia Hosain's Sunlight On A Broken Column.