Speaking Volumes: Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim

(Published in the Business Standard, May 31, 2011)

Writing in the shadow of the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, Salman Rushdie commented: “The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex.”

There’s a reason why most literary attempts to enter into the mind of the fundamentalist fail. Writers live by their ability to imagine their way into the lives, minds and souls of strangers; to be a writer is to admit at least a curiosity about ways of thinking different from your own. It is hard to imagine what the closed mind of a fundamentalist might be like, and for most writers, this is truly alien territory. Most literary portraits of the true believer are either risible – John Updike’s cartoon terrorist – or not entirely convincing, as with Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, where so much of the book is spent trying to persuade us that the narrator’s shift into fundamentalist thinking is plausible.

This may be Tahmima Anam’s great achievement; to create a fundamentalist who is entirely plausible because she makes him so empathetic. Her second novel, The Good Muslim, is set in Bangladesh — a “broken wishbone of a country”, which in 13 years has seen war, cannibalised its ancient forests and murdered two presidents. “A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.”The Good Muslim is a sequel to The Golden Age, Ms Anam’s first novel, which followed the life of the widowed Rehana Haque, in the wake of the 1971 war. The protagonists are Rehana’s children, Maya and Sohail, who both carry deep scars from 1971.

Maya, a doctor, has worked with the “birangonas”, the women who were dubbed heroines and left to survive the abuse, violence and rape of the war; Sohail has his own memories of his revolutionary days and his time in the army. His transformation into the good Muslim of the title, a preacher whose growing faith in religion elbows out all else – his family, his old friends, his son – is gradual and inexorable. He had been, his sister thinks at one point, the opposite of a religious man. “He had laughed and joked about it, and he had been angry at a religion that could be so easily turned to cruelty.”

Ms Anam’s deft retelling of history, as she moves between the 1970s and the 1980s, is based on a threefold understanding: she draws on her own memories as a child born after the ’71 War whose family was unmistakably marked by it, by her skills as a researcher and the years she spent listening to the testimony of survivors, and she draws on her writer’s ability to slip inside the skin of her characters. She explains just as much of Bangladesh’s history as required, producing almost a journalistic account of a country’s slow slipping into religious fundamentalism through Maya and Sohail’s story.

For Maya, watching her brother pick up the mantle of a respected preacher who will use his powers as a man and a religious leader in disastrous ways, the shift in Sohail leaves her helpless. “The future was suddenly clear: he was going somewhere, somewhere remote and out of reach, somewhere that had nothing to do with her, and that even if he didn’t disappear altogether, she would, from now on, be left behind.” The Good Muslim is one of the most engaging and disquieting novels to come out of Bangladesh in years, in either English or Bengali.

Delhi’s close-knit publishing world has gone through a version of a Cabinet reshuffle. Former Penguin Canada CEO David Davidar announced his plans to start a new publishing house, Aleph, in collaboration with Rupa & Co, amid speculation that two – and possibly three – of Penguin India’s key players had quit to join him. Random House’s flamboyant editor, Chiki Sarkar, takes over the chief editor’s mantle from the very capable Ravi Singh at Penguin India; Mr Singh quit a month after Mr Davidar’s return to India.

Mr Davidar, once seen as a front runner for the top job at Penguin USA, quit as CEO, Penguin Canada after his colleague Lisa Rundle filed a sexual harassment suit against him. Mr Davidar maintained the relationship was consensual. In India, everyone’s watching to see if Aleph will allow him to replicate the kind of success he had when he set up Penguin India in 1987.

It’s a crowded field today. With at least seven major players in the English language trade publishing scene in Delhi, the question is whether the market is big enough to support all of them. The numbers, in terms of readership, distribution and market share, suggest that at least two publishing houses will go under in the next five years.

The bigger question for readers is whether any of them, from Aleph to HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin, Rupa or Westland, has developed a distinct identity. With houses sharing authors, and with editors switching frequently from one house to another, it’s only the independent publishing houses, not the mainstream players, who have much in the way of individuality any more. The challenge for Mr Davidar, Ms Sarkar and the rest won’t be profitability — it will really lie in whether they can create distinctive brands for their respective publishing houses.






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