At Home, at War: Tahmima Anam's 'Golden Age'

Tahmima Anam (tall crop)

Born in Bangladesh, Tahmima Anam grew up mostly in the West. But she wove family stories of her native land and its independence war into the fabric of her novel A Golden Age. Zahedul I. Khan hide caption

itoggle caption Zahedul I. Khan

The child of a diplomat, Tahmima Anam grew up far away from her native Bangladesh. But all her life, she heard about that country's war for independence — which took place before she was born — from her Bengali parents and their friends. And when she decided to write a novel about Bangladesh, Anam says, she couldn't imagine writing about anything else except the war.

Anam's first novel, A Golden Age, revolves around a family headed by a widow named Rehana — a character inspired by Anam's grandmother and the small but remarkable role she played in that war.

Initially, though, Anam had a different kind of book in mind.

When the Everyday Is Epic

"I thought I would write a sort of epic," she says — "a very muscular narrative that had battle scenes and political rallies and all the sorts of big moments that you see in war novels. But actually, when I sat down to write, I ended up really thinking about what it was like for ordinary people to survive that war."

To research the story, Anam interviewed people who had lived through the war. In 1971, long-simmering hostilities between East and West Pakistan began boiling over. Separated from West Pakistan by language, culture and the expanse of India, East Pakistan chafed under the dominance of the West. When East Pakistan's Awami party won an overwhelming victory in national elections, leaders in the West refused to allow a new parliament to convene. East Pakistani nationalists took to the streets to protest.

Anam's mother, Shaheen, was 19 years old at the time.

"We had no inkling that we were going to war," Shaheen Anam says. "But we thought if we demonstrate, if we protest, if we have rallies ... we are going to be able to convince them. So every day we were out in the street, we were talking, we were singing, we were having meetings, and it was very, very exciting."

Then, on the 25th day of March, the Pakistani army moved in and began indiscriminately killing protestors.

Shahidullah Khan, a young man at the time, was stunned and angered by the massacre.

'We Have to Liberate This Country'

"I saw dead bodies and blood all over Dhaka," says Khan, a friend of the Anam family. "And we decided, four friends to go out — four friends together. We went out, and there was only one motto at that time: We have to liberate this country."

One of those four friends was Tahmima Anam's uncle, Shaheen's older brother. He asked his mother if the resistance fighters could stay at her house, and if they could hide weapons in her garden.

And so Tahmima Anam's grandmother provided food and shelter for the young fighters. While the young men went off on missions, Shaheen Anam stayed home. The atmosphere in the house, she says, was more exhilarating than terrifying. But one morning, the Pakistani army came, looking for her brother.

It was those events, and the stories her relatives told, that inspired Tahmima Anam to write her book. Anam says that in the character of Rehana, she found a way to show what happens when war intrudes unexpectedly on the normal rhythms of life.

"I suppose the idea I had was that people brought their histories, their personal histories, their struggles, their familial struggles into that war," she says.

(In the book, Rehana's reasons for giving over her house are more complex than mere commitment to a cause: Early in the book, we learn that she once lost custody of her children. After their return, her devotion to them was boundless, but that devotion is tested when, in the midst of war, Rehana falls in love.)

"So it's not just that their political ideals motivate their participation in the war," Anam says. "They have all kinds of personal histories, especially Rehana, when she becomes a nationalist. All of these things kind of play into her actions, and ultimately affect very deeply the decision that she takes at the end of the war, and at the end of the book."

Anam says she worried about getting the story of the Bangladesh war right, both for those who lived through it and for those of her own generation who may not know much about it.

And she says she hopes the book will be a way for other people to learn about Bangladesh. This native daughter, who writes in English because she is not comfortable writing in the language of her own country, is nonetheless determined to tell its story. A Golden Age is the first book in a trilogy Anam plans to write about her homeland.

Excerpt: 'A Golden Age'

Book Cover: 'A Golden Age'

Chapter One

March 1971

Every year, Rehana held a party at Road 5 to mark the day she had returned to Dhaka with the children. She saved her meat rations and made biryani. She rented chairs and called the jilapi-wallah to fry the hot, looping sweets in the garden. There was a red-and-yellow tent in case of rain, lemonade in case of heat, cucumber salad, spicy yoghurt. The guests were always the same: her neighbour Mrs Chowdhury and her daughter Silvi; her tenants, the Senguptas, and their son, Mithun; and Mrs Rahman and Mrs Akram, better known as the gin-rummy ladies.

So, on the first morning of March, as on the first morning of every March for a decade, Rehana rose before dawn and slipped into the garden. She shivered a little and rubbed her elbows as she made her way across the lawn. Winter still lingered on the leaves and in the wisps of fog that rolled over the delta and hung low over the bungalow.

She dipped her fingers into the rosebush, heavy with dew, and plucked a flower. She held it in her hand as she wandered through the rest of the garden, ducking between the wall-hugging jasmine and the hibiscus, crossing the tiny vegetable patch that was giving them the last of the season's cauliflower, zigzagging past the mango tree, the lemon tree, the shouting-green banana tree.

She looked up at the building that would slowly, over the course of the day, cast a long shadow over her little bungalow. Shona. She could still hear Mrs Chowdhury telling her to build the new house at the back of her property. 'Such a big plot,' she'd said, peering out of the window; 'you can't even see the boundary it's so far away. You don't need all that space.'

'Should I sell it?'

Mrs Chowdhury snapped her tongue. 'Na, don't sell it.'

'Then what?'

'Build another house.'

'What would I do with another house?'

'Rent, my dear. Rent it out.'

Now there were two gates, two driveways, two houses. The new driveway was a narrow passage that opened into the back of Rehana's plot. On the plot stood the house she had built to save her children. It towered above the bungalow, its two whitewashed storeys overlooking the smaller house. Like the bungalow, it had been built with its back to the sun. The house was nearly ten years old now, and a little faded. Ten monsoons had softened its edges and drawn meandering, old-age seams into the walls. But every day, as Rehana woke for the dawn Azaan, or when she went to put the washing in the garden, or when, after bathing, she fanned out her long hair on the back of a veranda chair, Rehana looked at the house with pride and a little ache. It was there to remind her of what she had lost, and what she had won. And how much the victory had cost. That is why she had named it Shona, gold. It wasn't just because of what it had taken to build the house, but for all the precious things she wanted never to lose again.

Rehana turned back to the bungalow and entered the drawing room. She ran her palm across the flat fur of the velvet sofa, the dimpled wood of the dining table. The scratched, loved, faded whitewash of the veranda wall.

She unfurled her prayer mat, pointed it westwards and sank to her knees.

This was the start of the ritual: wake before sunrise, feel her way around the house; pray; wake the children.

They were not children any more. She had to keep reminding herself of this fact. At nineteen and seventeen, they were almost grown up. She clung greedily to the almost, but she knew it would not last long, this hovering, flirting with adulthood. Already they were beings apart, fast on their way to shedding the fierce, hungry mother-need.

Rehana lifted the mosquito net and nudged Maya's shoulder. 'Wake up, jaan,' she said. 'It's our anniversary!'

She went to Sohail's room and knocked, but he was already awake. 'For you,' she said, holding out the rose.

While the children took turns in the bath, Rehana ironed their new clothes. This year she had chosen an egg-blue sari for herself and a blue georgette with yellow polka dots for Maya. For Sohail there was a brown kurta-pyjama. She had embroidered the purple flowers on the collar herself.

'Ammoo,' Maya said, 'I have to go to campus after the party—I can't wear this.'

'I'm sure your activist friends won't mind if you don't wear white for one day.'

'You wouldn't understand,' she retorted, tucking the sari under her elbow anyway.

After they had all bathed and put on their new clothes, the children took turns touching Rehana's feet. 'God bless you,' she said, hugging them tightly, their strong, tanned arms around her neck almost beyond her imagination.

They were both taller than her. Maya had passed Rehana by a few inches, and Sohail was a full head and shoulders above them both; Rehana was often reminded of the moment she'd met Iqbal, hunched over the wedding dais, how he had towered over her like a thunder cloud. But in fact Sohail had grown to resemble Rehana. He was pale and had her small nose and her slightly crooked teeth; his hair was fashioned into a wave at the top of his head, the crest threatening to tip over his eyelids. Sometimes, like today, he wore kurta-pyjamas, but usually he was seen in more fashionable attire: tight, long-collared shirts and even tighter trousers that hung over his shoes and drew tracks in the dust.

It was Maya who looked more like her father. She had his chestnut skin and deep-set eyes that made her look serious even when she was trying to say something funny or make a joke—which rarely happened—but Rehana had often seen her friends pause and look at each other, wondering whether to laugh.

The foregoing is excerpted from A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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