‘What sense did it make to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?’
When I first picked up A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam, it struck me that I knew next to nothing about the history of Bangladesh. Being a British-born Pakistani, the partitioning of India and Pakistan is a subject that is never far from discussion in the Pakistani community, whether by your own family or on TV or even in literature. Of course I knew that Bangladesh, sitting on the other side of India, was once called East Pakistan, but I realised I had never looked into the partitioning of East and West Pakistan because no one ever seems to talk about it. I was shocked to discover, after reading The Golden Age, that East Pakistan fought a war of independence and that is was such a brutal and shameful affair. Perhaps that is why it is never talked about much.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first novel to be written about the subject in the English language, which I think is quite telling about the subject matter. I have to admit, reading A Golden Age made me extremely uncomfortable; it’s not easy to be shown the darker side of ‘your own people’, especially when they have for so long been the victims of oppression themselves. As the story progressed, I understood that it isn’t a story about ethnicity – it’s about power and the fight between the oppressed and the oppressor, the poor against the wealthy, freedom against dictatorship.
A Golden Age is the first book in a trilogy telling the history of Bangladesh from the war on independence onwards. Although the story is not completely based on true-life events, Anam was inspired by her grandmother’s story who housed freedom fighters in her house during the war. Anam’s father and uncle were also freedom fighters in the same war.
Rehana, the protagonist of this novel, is an Urdu-speaking woman born in West Pakistan who married and moved to East Pakistan where she was widowed and left with a son and daughter. The story opens with Rehana standing at her husband’s grave informing him that she lost the custody of her children to her brother-in-law and his wife, who take the children back to West Pakistan with them. The sense of loss and division that Rehana feels and the determination to claim justice pervades the story and becomes metaphorical of the state of East Pakistan.
Rehana succeeds in winning her children back, but as they grow up the tensions between the divided country mounts. When her son Sohail and daughter Maya become involved with politics, Rehana becomes caught between wanting to give her children everything they could ever want and wanting to keep them home where it’s safe. She realises that she cannot stop them from joining the war efforts and accepts that the only way to keep them close to her is by helping them. Sohail becomes a freedom fighter, whilst Maya perseveres with her political activism through journalism. Rehana finds herself heavily involved with the war when Sohail asks her to hide artillery supplies for the guerrilla movement in her house. When Sohail brings home the Major who is wounded in battle, begging his mother to nurse him back to health, Rehana’s life changes in a way she hadn’t expected.
A Golden Age is a moving story, and quite an eye-opening one for me. The characterisation in this story is good: although Sohail and Maya fight the war in their own ways, the real hero of the story is definitely Rehana; her unconditional love for her children and her bravery allow her children the success they deserve. Both Sohail and Maya are passionate about fighting for freedom, but emotionally Sohail is the weaker of the two, demonstrated by his unwavering love for not only his mother, but especially by his love for his childhood friend Silvi. Maya is a less likeable character than Sohail – her relationship with Rehana is tense and she seems very much like a repressed teenager. But as the novel progresses and Maya finds her way, the reader learns that Maya is frustrated that she cannot fight for her country in the same way that her brothers does and must find her own way to fight for her country. Although most loose ends are tied up by the close of the novel, we never find out what becomes of the Major.
I enjoyed Anam’s writing – it’s fluid and at times almost poetical. If I was to judge this novel alone rather than as part of a trilogy, I find it quite unconvincing that, unlike her friends and neighbours, Rehana suffers no real loss during the war. This might, of course, be because their tests are to come in the next instalment of the story. A Golden Age is very much a celebration of victory over oppression. The story does, nevertheless, end on a slightly unsure note, preparing the reader for the aftermath of the war in the next part of the trilogy, A Good Muslim.
This is a novel I’d definitely recommend to anyone who knows little about the history of Bangladesh.