Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Golden Age - Tahmima Anam

Dear Husband,
I lost our children today

Rehana tells her husband at his grave stone, when she looses the possession of her children, on a court rule. She has been widowed recently, and court and her brother-in-law (who is childless) decides that she does not have the means to look after the kids. They are flown out of Dhaka to Karachi to be with Faiz and Parveen until she has enough money to bribe the judge and for the tickets.

Years passed. For the past 10 years, Rehana celebrates the day of their return among her close circle of friends. Little did she know that the 10th year is going to be the one that change their lives for ever. Within few days, the tanks roll into Dhaka and the 9 month long ordeal of war, separation and suffering begin.

The long struggle for the independence of Bangladesh has begun. Mujibur Rahman has been elected as the prime minister, but the powerful West Pakistan rulers refuses to accept the victory. Mujibur Rahman declares the independence of Bangladesh, and thus the war begin.
'to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?' East and West spoke different languages, followed different religions, lived different lives. West enjoyed political and economic supremacy; East was a poor relation, neglected even during the cyclones and floods that plagued its delta planes. Some kind of fissure was almost inevitable."
The ruling army is on a rampage. Tanks on the streets of Dhaka, destroying and damaging civilians and properties. Her children ( Sohail 19, and Maya 18 ) could not keep themselves away from the happening. The University where they study is the nerve centre of the resistance. There was widespread attack and hindus , especially was targetted ( operation searchlight ). Rehena's tenants ( her only income) Sengupta's decides to leave Dhaka and take refuge in their ancestral village. The vacated house, now become the place of revelutionary activities. Sohail declares his intention to join the resistance, and leave house with his friends to join 'Mukthibahini'. Rehana, too get pulled into the midst of activities in a small way by stitching clothes for the people , storing medicine, providing shelter to the rebels. Sohail comes back one night and let his mother know about his plan to bomb one of the International Hotel, to get the global attention to their struggle. After an unsuccessful attempt, the team return with an injured 'major' whom they leave under Rehana's care. Reluctant at first, Rehana soon develop a bond with the silent 'major' , turning into mutual affection and love. Rehana has some one with whom she can reveals her most hidden secret.
Maya leave for Calcutta to write article and participate in refugee relief. Rehana was also involved in getting the release of the neighbors son-in-law ( a defected military man), to the praise and accolade of the resistance force. All these activities cast shadow on her life and there was constant threat looming over her. He had to flee Dhaka and join her daughter at Calcutta ( returning to her birthplace and to her childhood memories). Spending two months with her daughter in near poverty with a comfort of a refugee, she was actively participated in the relief efforts of the Bangladeshi refugees, where she meets her old tenant Mrs.Sengupta.

The family return to Dhaka as India declares support to the Independent Bangladesh and engaged in a fully blown war with Pakistan, defeating it ending the 9 month long struggle.
"The war will end today. Niazi will sign the treaty and I will walk into the streets. Your daughter will hold my hand. There will be a pressing crowd on the pavement but Maya will elbow us to the front. A boy will sell flags for two taka and every one will wave and crane their necks to see the road. Coloured paper will sail from buildings; fists will wave in the air ; there will be dancing, a man on flute , a woman beating the dhol slung across her shoulder. Someone will think to plug a megaphone to the radio. The roads are flat and dusty ; we are spellbound , love-bound , home-bound , singing 'How I love you , my golden Bengal'. The sky is pale and iridescent and today the war has ended, and today I clutch my flag, hold my breath and wait for our son."
Often, the human side of any struggle are brought out by the fiction. What we hear in the news and what we read written by the historians are only the political truth. There are truths beyond these letters which are often misrepresented or ignored. It is through the literary works one get acquainted with the real issues. To me, this is one of the few literary works I have come across on the independence of Bangladesh ( There might be many written in the local language, which I am not aware of). To her credit, Tahmima Anam, manages to bring the human side of the struggle during the war without getting carried away with historical facts and the war itself.
This is the story of a mother trying to retain her children against all odds. She had lost them once (even if it is for two years) , and she carry the hurt in her for not being able to protect her children. But this time she is not going to let that happen. She had sacrificed many of her personal needs for her children. She has committed many unforgivable deeds for the sake of her children. Her participation in the struggle was also for her children. Her acts of heroics, were driven by the love of her children that the war and independence.
"The war that has taken so many sons has spared mine. This age that has burned so many daughters has not burned mine. I have not let it."

Impressively written book, despite getting carried away on the emotional side occasionally. I haven't read any book by a Bangladesh author, and this may not be the best representation of Bengali Literary tradition. However, this book is worth reading for its attempt to bring about the human side of the war, through the eyes of a mother.

A Golden Age
Tahmima Anam
John Murray Publishers
276 Pages
Rs 295
Further read : Guardian

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