By Chet Yarbrough
“A Golden Age” is Tahmima Anam’s first novel. Ms. Anam was born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Anam, though born after independence, writes of Bangladesh’s revolution.
Anam’s 2007 publication is the first of a planned trilogy. The trilogy is to reveal the trauma of independence and the struggle of Bangladesh before, during, and after the revolution; i.e., “A Golden Age” reflects on early days of battle with West Pakistan for Bangladesh’ independence.
East Pakistan, before it became Bangladesh, seceded from India as a part of Pakistan in 1947. However, the two halves of Pakistan were separated by the land mass of India. Though both West and East Pakistan are united by Islamic religion, East Pakistan was a part of the Bengal nation, with its own tradition and language. East Pakistan felt cheated by West Pakistan’s domination; West Pakistan denied equal partnership of East Pakistan in the fruits of foreign investment that created West Pakistan’s ruling military.
East Pakistan sought independence from West Pakistan in 1971. West Pakistan invades East Pakistan and murders an estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 East Pakistanis. Rape was common during the conflict; rape became sexual reward to West Pakistani’ soldiers for platoon’ operations. This nine month war is backdrop to Anam’s novel.
Through the eyes of a widowed mother and her two adult children, Bangledesh’s fight for independence reveals the hardship of Bangladeshi’ life. It reflects on the morality of choices made by human beings when poverty or death threatens those who are loved.
Rehana Haque, the widowed mother, loses her husband to a heart attack before the war begins. With consequent poverty, from the loss of her husband and East Pakistan’s court system, Ms. Haque loses her children. Her daughter and son are ordered sent to West Pakistan to live with a married brother that can afford to raise her children.
Ms. Haque is faced with abject poverty. She is near capitulating to an undesired marriage to provide enough wealth and security for the return of her children. However, through accident, the elderly suitor rejects Ms. Haque. Ms. Haque, by accident–that becomes intent, steals from the rejecting suitor. The theft offers Rehana the wealth she needs to get her children back and build a house in which they can live in East Pakistan. The children are still young. This is some years before the war for independence.
Rehana is riven with guilt for her theft. It seems a hint of what is to come when civil war knocks at her door. Her children grow to adulthood before war strikes. Both children become revolutionaries. Rehana becomes a reluctant revolutionary. Rehana’s journey to self-understanding tells the story of Bangledesh’s independence and the impact revolution has on the moral integrity of presumably good people.
Bangledesh’s story is familiar. It is told in France’s revolution by Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities”. It may be told again in Russia as Putin moves to quell Ukraine’ unrest in February of 2014.
Anam’s story makes one wonder what choices would be made by anyone in a revolution; e.g. choices of the French in 1789 and now, the Russians in 2014. The beauty of “A Golden Age” is in its lyricism and thematic consistency. The added benefit is information about a young South Asian country little known by most Americans.