It’s the story of Maya Haque, a young woman seeking an identity which fulfils both her intellectual and emotional needs. But, set in Bangladesh in two alternating time periods, 1972, just after the war of independence and 12 years later in 1984 when political disillusionment had set in, the novel does not only depict the conflicts that beset Maya in the early days of feminism in a traditional culture. The Good Muslim also explores the emotional and intellectual chasm between Maya, a secular religious sceptic, and her brother Sohail, newly converted to hardline Islamic Fundamentalism. And while the focus of the novel is on the clash between secularism and faith, it also raises that critical question of how – when both sides have committed war crimes – can a country achieve justice and reconciliation in a postwar period? What solace can there be, at a personal and a national level?
The story begins with Sohail, walking home after the war, in 1972. He comes across an atrocity at a barracks deserted by the retreating Punjabi soldiers. What had happened there is not revealed until the very end of the story, but Sohail comes home to his family a damaged man. He finds no peace until he surrenders himself to the Islamic faith. For Maya, with whom Sohail and their university and freedom-fighter friends had joked about the excesses of faith, this is hard to bear. Women shrouded in black invade the house and her life, and when Sohail burns his hard-won library of books because there is only The One (the Koran) she is distraught. She leaves, to find solace in working as a doctor in a remote village. She stays away for twelve years.
Things are no better when she comes home. Her brother, now a ‘holy man’, is remote, and she can’t communicate with him about things that matter, especially the fate of his motherless child, Zaid. Sohail won’t let him go to school, he is underfed, and he is running wild. Maya gets nits from him, and when she takes him to buy new sandals a stall-holder congratulates her on her generosity in buying sandals ‘for her servant’. Outraged, she demands the child’s outgrown sandals back, to take her business elsewhere, but the sandals were so pitifully worn that the stall-holder has thrown them away as unfit for use. Maya can’t understand – or tolerate – her mother Rehana’s apparent acquiescence in the child’s neglect and in Sohail’s abandonment of his family and his former identity as a free-thinking, secular liberal.
Rehana becomes unwell, and Maya finds herself torn between taking comfort from the prayers of the religious community that has formed upstairs and her secular faith in medicine. At the same time, her city has changed: two presidents have been assassinated, a dictator is in charge, a field sacred to the fight for independence has been desecrated with a crass children’s playground, and collaborators walk free. Introduced to other activists by Joy, another freedom fighter who has returned to Dhaka after many years away, Maya believes that it is a betrayal of the ideals they fought for not to prosecute war crimes, an issue that has vexed societies since Nuremberg, since the end of apartheid, since the demise of the Khmer Rouge, and in the aftermath of many contemporary conflicts. But she is uneasy about a campaign for justice which is selective:
A woman was talking about documenting all the atrocities of the war. ‘We should make a list,’ she was saying, ‘and identify all the killers.’
Maya found herself raising her hand. Mohona pointed to her. ‘I think – I believe – that the first thing we must do is admit our own faults, our own sins. So much happened during the war – we were not just victims.’
The room suddenly grew quiet.
Lieutenant Sarkar turned to her and said gently, ‘You are speaking to a room full of wounded souls, my dear.’
For Maya, a doctor with important work to do, a relationship with Joy is problematic. There is a droll scene where he comes visiting so that his mother can meet Maya’s, to get her ‘on side’ in his as-yet-undeclared campaign to marry Maya. Maya is furious but when she gets him outside and tackles him about it, she has to suppress ‘the tiny cheer that went up unbidden’ when he confesses his intentions. In total confusion about her own needs and desires, she argues with Joy:
‘You can’t marry me. You can’t marry me and turn me into one of those women, with the jewellery and making perfectly round parathas and doing everything my mother-in-law says and only letting nice words out of my mouth’. (p230)
But Joy, who shares her intellectual and political interests, doesn’t understand her emotional turmoil:
‘You have something against marriage?’
She turned to face him. ‘How old am I?’
‘I don’t know, twenty-six?’
‘Thirty-bloody-two. You think I would be thirty-bloody-two without a husband if I didn’t have a problem with marriage?’
‘Here I was, thinking it was just a matter of the right man.’
‘There is no such thing.’
‘No such thing as the right man?’
‘They start out all right, but then, somewhere along the way, their egos turn to glass and you have to spend your whole life with your arms around them, making them feel better while your own life turns to sh-.’ (p232)
The personal and political collide with great intensity in the climax of the novel, revealing Tahmima Anam to be a writer in perfect control of her craft. This is a many-layered story that raises complex issues to think about, long after the last page is turned. Highly recommended.
Matt from a Novel Approach and another member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize review team has reviewed this novel too, he’s not as keen as I am!
Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Good Muslim
Publisher: Text Publishing 2011
Source: Personal Library
PS Congratulations to Text for bringing this title to Australian readers in a local edition. There are reading group notes and other links available at their website, and you can buy it direct from them too.