STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's talk next about an event that shapes the mindset of many people in Pakistan. People in that country, which is so important to the war on terror, often say they're embattled, and that's partly because they're next door to India. It's also partly because they once lost a huge section of what they consider their country.
Bangladesh used to be called East Pakistan. That ended during a war for independence in 1971. And that war is the subject of the first novel by Tahmima Anam. The book tells the story of a family led by a widow named Rehana. And the inspiration for that character was Anam's grandmother and the small but remarkable role she played in the war.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: The child of a diplomat, Anam grew up far away from her native Bangladesh. But she heard about the war for independence from her parents and their friends.
Ms. TAHMIMA ANAM (Author, "A Golden Age"): Even though we lived outside of Bangladesh, they told me so many stories about the war and I found it incredibly exciting.
NEARY: When she decided to write a novel about Bangladesh, Anam says she could not imagine writing about anything else except the war. But, initially, she had a different kind of book in mind.
Ms. T. ANAM: I thought I would write a sort of epic, 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.
NEARY: To research the story, Anam interviewed people who had lived through the war. In 1971, the long-simmering hostility between East and West Pakistan began boiling over. Separated from West Pakistan by language, culture and the expanse of India, East Pakistan - home of the Bengalis - 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.
Tahmima Anam's mother, Shaheen, was 19 years old at the time.
Ms. SHAHEEN ANAM: We had no inkling that we'll go into a war. But we thought that if we demonstrate, if we protest, if we have rallies, if we have all these non-cooperation movement that we were doing, 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, you know, having meetings, and it was very, very exciting.
NEARY: In early March of 1971, at a massive rally in Dhaka, the leader of East Pakistan's majority party delivered a fiery speech, calling on Bengalese to fight for their independence.
(Soundbite of crowd demonstration)
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
(Soundbite of cheering)
NEARY: In response to the unrest, the Pakistani army moved in on the 25th of March and began killing people indiscriminately.
Zahedul Khan(ph), a young man at the time, was stunned and angered by the massacre.
Mr. ZAHEDUL KHAN: I saw dead bodies and blood all over Dhaka. And we decided to go out, four of us - four friends together. We went out, and there was only one motto at that time: We have to liberate this country.
NEARY: One of those four friends determined to liberate the country was Tahmima Anam's uncle, Shaheen's older brother. He asked his mother if the resistance fighters could stay at her house, and also asked if they could hide weapons in her garden.
Khan says Tahmima's grandmother was an unlikely candidate for the resistance.
Mr. KHAN: I still remember when they first brought the arms, and it was - we didn't tell her everything. But she sensed it, but at the same time she allowed us to do because she was having the same - you can call it patriotism, you can call it the same ideas and everything, and she allowed us to do that. I thought it's incredible.
NEARY: Tahmima's grandmother provided food and shelter for these young fighters. While the young men went off on missions, Shaheen Anam stayed home. The atmosphere in the house, says Shaheen, was more exhilarating than terrifying. But one morning, the Pakistani army came, looking for her brother.
Ms. S. ANAM: I woke up to a man standing just over me with a gun. I woke up, I opened my eyes and I saw this man standing with a gun and I said, you know -and it was amazing how calm I was. I said, please leave the room, I need to dress. So he left.
NEARY: The family managed to survive that incident, but it is stories such as this that inspired Tahmima Anam to write her book. The character, Rehana, based on her grandmother, is a widow with two children. In this section, read by Tahmima, Rehana's son, Sohail, comes to her to ask if she will allow a house she owns to be used for the resistance.
(Soundbite of Novel, "A Golden Age")
Ms. T. ANAM: (Reading) She wanted to be more angry and less proud, but she found herself wanting to say yes, not just so that she would have so Sohail's confidence, but because she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge. This was who she had hoped he would become even if she had never imagined that her son or the world would come to this.
NEARY: 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 she got them back, her devotion to them was boundless. That devotion is tested, when in the midst of war, Rehana falls in love.
In the character of Rehana, Tahmima says, she found a way to show what happens when war intrudes unexpectedly on the normal rhythms of life.
Ms. T. ANAM: I suppose the idea that I had was that people brought their histories, their personal histories, their personal struggles, their familial struggles into that war. So it's not just that their political ideals motivate their participation in the war. 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.
NEARY: Tahmima Anam's grandmother is still alive, and Tahmima asked a friend to read the book to her. Tahmima says it was slow going at first because her grandmother kept stopping to correct the facts.
Ms. T. ANAM: She says, oh, I had four children not two during the war, and why has she changed my husband's name? But, of course, when the love story came about, she was quickly - she quickly distanced herself from the character and said oh, no, this is a work of fiction. That's really not me.
NEARY: Anam says she worried about getting the story of the Bangladesh war right, both for those who lived through it and for 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.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: You'll find an excerpt from "A Golden Age" at npr.org/books.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.