"A Golden Age"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 18, 2008)
In 1947, the British Empire made its exit from the Indian subcontinent and did a sloppy job of dividing up territory. The Indo-Pak partition went down as one of the bloodiest events in world history and birthed a Pakistan which was comprised of East and West sides separated by a huge chunk of India in the middle. Or as Tahmima Anam puts it in her fairly impressive debut, A Golden Age, Pakistan was “poised on either side of India like a pair of horns.” For 20-odd years, the two parts of the country were separated not just by geography but also by culture -- the East spoke mostly Bengali and the West, Urdu. The East increasingly felt that they were sidelined and economically exploited by the West. This simmering resentment flared into a full-scale uprising in the early ‘70s and with a little help from India, East Pakistan became its own country: Bangladesh.
Tahmima Anam, daughter of a diplomat and a native of Bangladesh, has never lived in the country of her origin for too long but has been touched by stories of the war for as long as she can remember. Her moving novel, A Golden Age, is set in this simmering tableau in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Its protagonist, a widow named Rehana Haque, is loosely modeled after Anam’s own grandmother.
As the book opens, Rehana is newly widowed and loses custody of her children -- daughter Maya and son, Sohail -- to her husband’s brother and his wife who take the children away to Lahore, in West Pakistan. This forced separation forever traumatizes Rehana so when she eventually does get the children back when they are young teens, Rehana holds on to them with all her might.
Rehana builds a bungalow in the plot of land she owns and names it Shona or gold. She rents the house to a Hindu Bengali family, the Senguptas. Life goes on with a sense of normalcy -- Rehana’s annual celebrations that mark the day she got her kids back -- punctuating the years. Slowly the revolutionary fervor that starts sweeping the city in the early ‘70’s finds its way into the Haque household and Rehana finds herself incapable of protecting her children from it. Both Maya and Sohail get sucked into it and Rehana finds herself making all kinds of small allowances just to have her children safe and near her.
Eventually the violence escalates and the Senguptas leave for India. Sohail, Rehana’s son, persuades her to convert Shona into a guerilla hideout. This she does and in the process becomes a folk hero to the many student revolutionaries. During the midst of all the chaos, Rehana dreams a simple wish: that “the country would go on being her home, and the children would go on being her children. In no time at all the world would right itself, and they would go on living ordinary, unexceptional lives.” It is a deeply touching thought. For a mother who has seen loss and knows what it feels like, there is much comfort in the mundane.
Even if Anam writes with a brisk pace and makes the reader empathize with her characters, her writing often teeters on the brink of melodrama. There are a few situations in A Golden Age that come across as a little contrived. For example, the Senguptas, who rent Rehana’s bungalow, Shona, are Hindu and decide to leave for India when war breaks out. Much later, when Rehana serves a brief stint in the Indian refugee camps in Calcutta, she runs into Supriya Sengupta, who it is obvious, has been subjected to many untold horrors. Rehana tends to her with compassion and relates to her just as she did back home in Dhaka. The fact that Rehana would run into her old Hindu friend Supriya, when so many other thousands of refugees must have been clamoring for attention, seems a tad contrived. For the most part though, Anam’s writing is very assured and A Golden Age is a commendable debut effort.
It is no mere coincidence that Rehana names her bungalow “Shona,” meaning gold or much-loved. As it turns out, Bangladeshis also applied this epithet to their newly minted country. They embraced Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Amar Shonar Bangla,” our beloved Bengal, and made it their national anthem. Through her debut novel, Anam details how one family’s private struggles are inextricably linked with those of a country trying to find its footing in the world. Both are bruised along the way but both -- family and country -- emerge gloriously, to see the dawn of a new day. It truly was a Golden Age.
In the end, A Golden Age succeeds not merely because it is a war story well told but because it scales war down to a level that most readers can relate to. Anam succeeds in conveying war’s horror not through grisly scenes of mass murder but by showing its effects on one family. She brings the conflict home and in the process, makes it truly terrifying.
- Amazon readers rating: from 61 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Golden Age (January 2008)
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- Official website for Tahmima Anam
- NPR interview with Tahmima Anam
- Guardian Unlimited feature on Tahmima Anam
- Guardian Unlimited reviw of A Golden Age
- The Christian Science Monitor review of A Golden Age
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About the Author:
Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. She attended Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University, where she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology in 2005.
Although she was raised in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok, she maintains close ties with Bangladesh, and her father, Mahfuz Anam, edits the country's largest circulating English daily newspaper, The Daily Star.
Tahmima's writing has been published in Granta Magazine and The New Statesman. She lives in London.