Bangladesh - The Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

In January 1971 , listening to the radio on a Sunday morning I intercepted a frantic conversation between a woman in erstwhile East Pakistan and her husband who was out of the country . The woman wept screaming that the militia had come around asking for their papers and questioned her about the man's whereabouts . The panic and terror in the woman's voice has stayed with me all these years . Papers, journals and radio broadcasts created an aura of fear about a danger that throbbed so close to the border with Bengal. The savagery which inspired the genocide was born out of an intrinsic hatred and such severe loathing as to attempt the extermination of a race . To quote :
"General Tikka Khan earned the nickname 'Butcher of Bengal' due to the widespread atrocities he committed.[7] General Niazi commenting on his actions noted 'On the night between 25/26 March 1971 General Tikka struck. Peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying and burning. General Tikka let loose everything at his disposal as if raiding an enemy, not dealing with his own misguided and misled people. The military action was a display of stark cruelty more merciless than the massacres at Bukhara and Baghdad by Chengiz Khan and Halaku Khan... General Tikka... resorted to the killing of civilians and a scorched earth policy. His orders to his troops were: 'I want the land not the people...' Major General Farman had written in his table diary, "Green land of East Pakistan will be painted red"."

Still later news of the genocide came in - bayoneted babies , slaughtered children , women with their nipples bitten off , imprisoned in barracks and killed mercilessly after being raped in unspeakable manners , men killed by the thousands - intellectuals , academics,doctors , professionals ,ordinary citizens .
Refugees started trickling in , black with grime , starved , with children hanging from their arms , pleading for a bowl of rice or milk for their children .
Radio Bangladesh beaming from Calcutta - the strident voice of Mujibur Rehman and the song "Amaar sonar bangla" that reverberated through Calcutta , infusing and inspiring young students with the spirit of revolt , the war of liberation in Bangladesh . Days spent in fear of the Pakistani bomber jets , curfew and blackout , glass window panes with crosses of newspaper and black duct tape , diligently pasted by Ruby and Mukul in our house , studying for exams in a shuttered room , by the light of 2 tablelamps carefully covered around the sides with dark chart paper . And through it all the fever thrill of anticipation as the war progressed and the Mukti bahinis and Indian soldiers led by Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora routed the Pakistani army and General Niazi . To an imaginative 11 year old this was history in the making , brought that much closer , made that much real by the limited media exposure of newspapers , The Illustrated Weekly , All India Radio and the BBC.

Reading Tahmima Anam's book The Golden Age brought back memories of those days . There is nothing delicate in the story of Rehana and her two children Maya and Sohail . The history of the time is fraught with uncertainties Rehana challenges life at every turn , never accepting her destiny . it is almost as she must push forward - and overcome each challenge and obstacle to achieve what she wants, starting with her children from whom she is estranged forcibly after her husband's death .

Her character is etched sharply against the turbulent times the novel is set in - her grim determination to sustain her children's participation in the freedom struggle although she as a mother ,is beset with trepidation and anxiety . She is Mother Earth to the young people who land on her doorstep , she is also the tender lover to the injured Colonel, a worried mother who cannot strike the right note in her relationship with her daughter Maya, feeling the girl slip further away, until ultimately they bond much later.

Although there is enough scope for high drama and emotional interludes , nowhere does Anam lapse into anything remotely maudlin - throughout the book there is a terse containment and an economy of words , space and emotions . The characters and the situations are entirely three dimensional,wholly justifying their existence and Rehana towers over the entire spectrum .

The book itself has to be read at a single sitting because it is impossible to put down . And when one has finished it , it is almost as if a storm has swept by , leaving one drained but strangely refreshed .


sukanya said...

wow, great review M. Must pick it up. Thanks.

Hip Grandma said...

Your post took me back in time when we would sit glued to the transistor for updates on the war for Bangla Desh liberation. I would have a group of kiddos listening along with me. I would translate Hindi news for them. Must get hold of the book.

dipali said...

I have a different memory of those turbulent times. My father was working with the Chief of Army Staff, General Manekshaw. Air raid sirens, war time shortages, black-out paper on the windows, all were part of those days.
I just finished Anam's second book. I have to get back to The Golden Age.

Unknown said...

Padma / Dipali - that was a very important part of our young lives and have left an indelible patch on our memories .
Dipali - you ust read the book . Its phenomenal .

madconventie80! said...

Great review of the book , must read it and you have written an acccount of your memories so well. Can not imagine what you felt as you heard the woman's cries. I remember too the black paper on the windows , the daily evacuation drills at school , they said our town was under danger of an attack because of the Steel plant and many other industries , The army presence was huge, suddenly everyone was more disciplined, scared. A soldier and an army too must have Dharma SOME code of ethics otherwise they are no better than the tyrants the oppressors.