Bangladesh, the low-lying delta-country east of India, seems to enter the West’s consciousness only during Mother Nature’s regular wraths, when video is beamed worldwide of the newly flooded homeless.
For that reason alone, A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam is a welcome novel, one that tries to humanize the story of Bangladesh’s birth, a country born not of one, but two, civil wars in the last 60 years.
Anam starts out provocatively enough: “Dear Husband,” young widow Rehana Haque writes to her dead husband, “I lost our children today.”
The novel then flashes forward 12 years to 1971, in the months leading up to the civil war between Pakistan’s western and eastern halves, the split of which eventually created Bangladesh. This is where we find Rehana, who plans menus for Eid celebrations in a comfortable Dhaka neighborhood and attends card games with a polyreligious group of women.
Her children, Sohail and Maya, are university students. Like many of their classmates, they have eagerly embraced communism as a response to their society’s inequality and poverty.
The family’s existence is turned on its head when Islamabad sends soldiers to quiet the agitating students. Rehana finds herself caught up in her children’s cause, and allows the revolutionaries to bury weapons in her back yard and to use a former rental unit as a makeshift infirmary for a wounded Bangladeshi officer.
She finds herself falling in love with the officer, a new affection that will directly compete with her love for her son.
Golden Age is filled with passages that almost poetically describe the horror of civil war: a captured soldier’s torture and the nonhuman that returns home to his family, the desperation and hopelessness of the refugee camps along the border with India.
“They were explorers, pioneers of cruelty, every day outdoing their own brutality, every day feeling closer to divinity, because they were told they were saving Pakistan and Islam, maybe even the Almighty himself, from the depravity of the Bengalis,” Anam writes about the oxymoronic pairing of faith and violence.
But she has trouble making more of the descriptive passages she has created. Her characters seem one-dimensional, and Rehana is particularly superficial.
Is Rehana a devoted mother willing to sacrifice everything for the happiness of her children? Or is she a selfish woman with an Oedipal fixation on her son, which makes her cold toward her daughter? If she is both, “Golden Age” doesn’t make that clear.
And as dramatic as the opening line to Rehana’s dead husband is, it is little more than a great opener. The unspeakable act she committed to regain custody of her children from relatives in Pakistan is actually trivial. The reader is left feeling a little had.
Anam, a Bangladesh diplomat’s daughter, grew up in New York and Bangkok, away from the turmoil back on the subcontinent. But anthropological research for her doctorate at Harvard University put her in the path of many of those who witnessed Bangladesh’s violent creation. She plans for Golden Age to be a trilogy, which gives her and us a welcome opportunity to better understand the origins of her troubled homeland.