Sunday, 31 July 2011
Time changes everything. Maya Haque realises that on returning to Dhaka after her stint as a medical practitioner in a remote village in northern Bangladesh. Maya finds her friends being seduced by the lure of money; her brother, Sohail, has given up his liberal views to become a strict religious leader. Tahmima Anam’s recent novel, The Good Muslim, forces Maya to try and understand what it means to be a good daughter, sister, friend, citizen and a good Muslim.
“This is one of the questions that the novel asks. For Maya, being a good human being does not include religion, but for Sohail, religion and morality are intrinsically linked,” Anam says. “The novel is about the clash in these two worldviews — it does not aim to resolve this conflict and provide the answer, but rather to raise the issue within the sphere of these two characters.”
The Good Muslim is set in the period when religious fundamentalism was on the rise in Bangladesh that was suffering the aftermath of the Liberation War of 1971. A dictator rules the country and democracy is stifled. Sohail was a freedom fighter who witnessed savagery committed on his country by the Pakistani Army and their agents. I wonder if Sohail’s refuge into religion underscores a religion’s ability to heal the negativities of life or did the author want to show that religion can be used to cover a guilt. Anam replies: “I wanted to show that for some people, surviving a traumatic event like a war means that there must inevitably be a search for goodness, and for a higher power. Sohail desperately needs a moral anchor after the horrors he witnesses during the war, and religion provides him with the answers. But, of course, these things are never simple, and the result of his conversion is morally complex.”
Having said that, Anam cautions that she is “not an expert on religion.” So, it won’t be easy for her to deliberate on why religion has become a monstrous tool for many. “It would be best, of course, if people of different faiths could engage in a coherent dialogue and reach an understanding with one another,” she adds. Maya and her brother represent the two opposites still relevant in Bangladesh. How will that country balance between the two extremes — of liberal values and religious extremism, I ask. Anam sounds optimistic. “I believe very strongly in the importance of secular, democratic institutions. In Bangladesh, we have had a fairly functional democracy for the past 21 years, and this particular government (under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) has done its part in reducing the role that religion plays in political life,” she affirms.
I draw Anam’s attention to the hyphenated identities that we often carry and ask her how different is a Bengalee-Muslim from a Muslim. “Islam is one part of a Bengalee-Muslim’s identity. There is no such thing as a person who is just Muslim. Every Muslim from every part of the world will have their own cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identity, and religion will form a part of that. A Bengalee-Muslim is both Bengalee, and Muslim, and a host of other things.”
People make up a nation. But at times, the nation overwhelms them. I ask Anam how would she describe the novel — as a story of a nation or a story of people who get affected by war. “The Good Muslim is intended to be the story of Bangladesh, starting with independence, and moving on to the challenges of nation-building,” she replies. “However, it is also the story of a family, and of these two characters, Maya and Sohail, who face the complex problems of moral choice, identity, faith. It is important to keep the characters at the heart of the story, rather than the larger political issues,” she adds.
Anam is now working on her next novel which focuses on climate change in Bangladesh.