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BOOK REVIEW: The Good Muslim

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Tahmima Anam

They call it a debacle for a reason.

Once the victory lap is over — the drumbeats of war lie silenced, the voices of protest are stifled — new questions arise. Can a landscape of fear be used to stage a new production of hope?

The sequel to A Golden Age is set in the immediate aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The map of the subcontinent has been hastily rearranged — a new country has staked its claim on the spot where once stood East Pakistan.

Thirteen years on there are no thanksgiving celebrations.

Tahmima Anam takes a brooding look at the horrors of war and the price of peace through the eyes of Maya and Sohail — siblings who played their part in carving out a fresh national identity. One is a crusading doctor newly returned home and the other, a former warrior, has replaced arms with the Book. The story is centred on a fraught homecoming and a fractured relationship.

It is the early 80s and they have been estranged for several years. While Sohail is slowly being consumed in a religious fire, Maya’s emotional journey takes a circuitous route through purgatory; one second she struggles with her faith trying to circumvent the new barriers that surround her home, next she embarks on a rescue mission parting the veil between liberal and fundamentalist forces. Tahmima furnishes the scene with rich characters to offset the bleak moment of creation and its tragic consequences.

The book jumps back and forth between different time frames to explore the murky aspects of religion, politics, and morality, drawing energy from the remnants of a 40-year-old secessionist movement that left deep imprints on the land. Survival, redemption, desperation, injustice are the centrepieces while unsettling images of the carnage hover in the background. The primary focus of this cultural tour is not on what they won but what they lost.

Bringing that era back to life posits many challenges. History will be recalled and depending on which side is being represented, it will be used to vindicate or incriminate the participants. The post-war period continues to suffer from the aftershocks — it harbours a deep resentment for a retreating army that cannot be assuaged. It bristles at its own inadequacies. It trembles for the fallen women. The sorrowful murmurs of its shameful past are amplified while places that continue to reverberate with their echoes are revisited.

The ending feels a little contrived but Tahmima skilfully keeps readers occupied with questions: what turned Sohail away from the world; is the nation ready to acknowledge their unwanted legacy of war; how much can be salvaged from the fiery cauldron of hate?

These sombre memories strike a chord because of the presence of characters carried away on dangerous tides of religion at a time when madrassas were not on the radar and fundamentalism had not attained a hold over the region. The ideological strife between Sohail and Maya reflects a deeper more pervasive problem that holds resonance in these troubled times. The radical Islam depicted here however has yet to develop the terrifying capabilities that could engulf the globe. In the early days, only those who stand too close get burned. The sole casualty of Sohail’s obsession will be his own kin.

'The Good Muslim' takes a winding road lined with shell-shocked freedom fighters who crusade against inner demons and a nation’s desperate struggle to reclaim lost souls — both converge in a countryside continually blighted by allusions to war. Maya labels her newly acquired land as a fast acting country — “quick to anger, quick to self-destruct”. There is talk of ‘prisoners of war’, about whom she thinks were “released, put back into their uniforms and sent home to Pakistan adding how no sorrys were exchanged. Anointed by the hand of forgiveness, they would grow old without shame”.

Her critical self-examination captures the misery at home but carefully sidesteps the troubling role its own played in the war crimes. Such elisions upset the balance. The book, which is the second part of a trilogy, is both an ode to the living left to tend the scorched earth and a wake for the dead.


Harper; Pp 304; Rs 995

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