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I didn’t know much about Bangladesh before I read this novel. There were scattered images in my head of children running from flooding, poverty, mud, cloth serving as clothing… deposited but not processed in memory from television news programmes I presume I watched all those years ago. When Bangladesh was finally granted independence in 1971, I was six. And in 1970, Bangladesh (which was then East Pakistan) had suffered severe flooding. I certainly had no idea Bangladesh was previously divided into two parts, the ‘horns of India’, West Pakistan on the the top left hand side, and East Bangladesh on the right, with a thousand miles and no common border between them.  

Why were they ever conceived of as one country? 

Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age doesn’t spell these thing out for you: it is not a history book. But it does fill you with the curiosity to know and understand the non-fictions behind the fiction. Now, looking back, I find the historical indicators that I skimmed over on a first reading, so eager was I to find out more about the characters and their stories:

Ever since ’48, the Pakistani authorities had ruled the eastern wing of the country like a colony. First they tried to force everyone to speak Urdu instead of Bengali. They took the jute money from Bengal and spent it on factories in Karachi and Islamabad. One general after another made promises they had no intention of keeping. (p.33) 

Of course, this is the story of independence told from a Bengali perspective – Anam was born  just 3 years after independence, in the city of Dhaka (the centre of events in the novel: the largest city of the east wing that should by rights have been the capital of Pakistan, since the majority of the population lived there)  and has inherited the story from her parents who, she tells us in the acknowledgments (a place I always look to for insights) told her ‘so many stories about the war that I couldn’t help but become a writer’. 

She chooses though to tell the story from the point-of-view of a character normally sidelined from such stories, Rehana, a mother of two whose husband dies suddenly, leaving her with nothing except a large patch of swampy land. Her two young children (whose fate reflects the national struggle rather like Saleem Sinai’s in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) are literally annexed by her rich brother-in-law and his wife, and taken to live in the west horn (West Pakistan) where, they argue at  a court hearing, the children would be safer. Their mother can not cope they say, and Rehana can not find the strength to disagree. After a year’s hard graft she builds a large house on her land and rents it out to a Hindu family: it is with this money she convinces the judge to give her children back. And it is the house she built (‘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) that becomes the centre of her family’s struggle for independence – at first, it simply houses the Hindi refugees, escaping from an infamous night of massacre, then later,  when her son joins the rebels, he returns to bury the resistance weapons in the garden. It is where Rehana will later agree to nurse back to health the wounded major who will save her son’s life a second time…

Rehana’s passions come unbidden and unexpected.  ‘She had married a man she had not expected to love; loved a man she had not expected to lose; lived a life of moderation, a life of few surprises.’ (p.7)  Her love for her country is reluctant and confused. Listening to Nina Simone singing, ‘she had a melting feeling in her mouth, as though she had bitten down on a pink, overripe guava’ (144) and ‘In the midst of all the madness I found the world seemed right for the first time in a very long time’ (274).

But more than this, A Golden Age is an open, unprejudiced  story about the wonders of unconditional love: the lengths we will go to to protect our children; the life we will sacrifice for our lover; the torture we will endure for our country. In this, it is a tale of extreme but universal passion and one that continues to resonate with me days after reading.

This is a complex, honest novel and I wish you would read it.

 

 

 

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