A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
There are times when I reach the end of a good novel and wish I hadn’t read it yet – that the pleasure of reading it for the first time is yet to come. A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was that sort of book. It is a book that made me laugh and cry – and made me read more slowly toward the end as I so much wanted a good ending for these people – characters – who had become so real to me. Tahmima Anam speaks of “inheriting” this story from her grandmother. In 1971 toward the end of the Bangladesh War of Independence, Pakistani soldiers came to her grandmother’s home. The grandmother was believed to have sheltered “freedom fighters” and her son was known to be one of them. The soldiers were looking for the eldest son – now Tahmima’s uncle – but found only his mother and two younger children. Somehow the mother managed to convince the soldiers not to harm her children – the truth of what was said is unknown, but this woman managed to keep her children with her, safe as the soldiers left. Tahmima says that this family story “nagged” at her to be told.
Tahmima Anam also believes that “a place can be a character” and that the place is as important to the story as the actions of the characters. She has made Bangladesh a place we can feel and smell as we read her words. This novel won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – and no wonder.
Tahmima wrote in an article, a year ago that “The Bengali phrase desh-prem means ‘love for the country.’ “Like many expatriate Bangladeshis, my desh-prem makes me believe there will come a day when I pack my bags and leave London for good,” she wrote. “My desh-prem is a long-distance affair, full of passion and misunderstanding; often, my heart is broken. Many Bangladeshis never actually return home; it is more of an idea, something to turn over in our hearts before we go to sleep, but for me the prospect of returning is real. “In 1990, after 14 years abroad, my parents left their jobs with the United Nations and moved back to Bangladesh. So many of their friends told them they were foolish to return to a country that had so little to offer.”
The novel begins in March 1971, after a short prologue that introduces our heroine, Rehana Haque. Rehana is a widow, mother of a son, Sohail and a daughter, Maya. In 1971 the children are teenagers, university age – the age at which we are all most idealistic, most offended by “wrong,” most passionate about making change in the world. The war between Bangladesh, wanting independence, and Pakistan is all around them. Hindus are leaving the country for safety in India. There is friction between Rehana and her children as they become increasingly involved in the fight for freedom and she fears for their lives.
It has not been many months since the bombing of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai (Bombay), when 63 people were killed. I thought of this as Sohail and his compatriots plan to plant bombs – to “disrupt” the government – to keep their “cause” in the international press. Innocent people are killed in these situations no matter how noble the cause, or how brutal the enemy. We call these people terrorists. So I definitely had some mixed feelings about that aspect of this novel. But, that being said, it is a riveting story, beautifully written, characters I cared about, the history was fascinating, the geography enlightening. It is one of the most satisfying novels I have read in a long time.