In 1947, the British Empire messed up its exit while dividing territories. The Indo-Pak partition is a classic example of how the British knew what to do but desisted from doing so, as though in silent revenge of an Empire that had been brought down on its knees. The Partition of India and Pakistan is one of the world's bloodiest and tragic events in world history. At the time, Pakistan comprised of East and West, separated by India in its middle. Many writers and poets have written in detail about the partition and the bloodshed following the same, mostly from the perspective of either India or Pakistan. However, a middle path of interpretation has rarely been documented or appreciated by the world at large. However, here is one such book that is a literary gem because it is accurate yet it is a story teller’s carefully woven world of real life and events in interpreting the making of Bangladesh.
In Tahmima Anam's award winning debut novel, A Golden Age, she describes Pakistan as “poised on either side of India like a pair of horns.” For over two decades, the two parts of Pakistan remained separate in terms of culture, politics and geography. The eastern side of Pakistan spoke and thought mostly in Bengali whereas in the West, it was Urdu. People from the East felt increasingly isolated and vulnerable to exploitation by the West. These simmering tensions are captured with brutal honesty in this novel as it delves into how the full scale uprising led to the creation of a new country called Bangladesh.
The protagonist in this novel is a Muslim widow named Rehana Haque, who loses custody of her children, Maya and Sohail, to her husband’s brother and wife who take the children to Lahore in west Pakistan. The separation from her children leaves Rehana in a state of trauma and psychological breakdown and she holds onto the belief that she will get her children back no matter what happens.
The novel begins its first chapter, stating, “Dear Husband, I lost our children today.”
As the story is told, we find that Rehana builds a bungalow called Shona and she rents it out to a Hindu Bengali family, thereby restoring her children back into her custody and she begins to celebrate the day she got them back as an annual celebration. The revolutionary fervor that grips her children disturbs her but she finds herself incapable of standing in the way of their political aspirations because she knows the pain of losing them. When her children persuade her to convert Shona into a guerilla hideout, she agrees because she wants to hold them closer to her than risk losing them forever. Her wish is beautifully captured by the author in the following words, 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.”
The novel is deeply touching and disturbing because it speaks from the perspective of a widowed mother who has experienced loss and knows what it feels like to lose her husband and children.
A Golden Age is a journey into the making of Bengal, but a highly terrifying and disturbing sojourn because you will confront unspeakable terror. In its quest for freedom, countless lives are lost, violated and destroyed. The writer’s attempt to capture the details is commendable though in certain places, it is predictable. The conflict between a mother and daughter, the reversal of roles as the war progresses and the end of these conflicts make the novel truly worth reading and reflecting on.
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