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Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim
Anam’s second novel is about Maya Haque, a Bangladeshi doctor, though it is just as much about what is wrong with her country. It is told in alternating chapters, the first covering the period immediately after Bangladesh obtained independence from Pakistan in 1971, while the second deals with the mid-1980s. The novel starts with her brother, Sohail, returning from the war. He is not surprisingly a changed man. Beforehand brother and sister had got on well but now Sohail has been affected by the war, not least because he seems to have killed someone not because he was an enemy but merely because he said something, though we do not know what till much later. Sohail feels guilty about this and turns to religion in a big way. He has always been attracted to Silvi, a neighbour, but she had married. However, her husband had been killed in the war and she and Sohail now marry. She, too, is very religious. She is also one of the reasons that Maya had left home.
Maya had studied medicine and had hoped to be a surgeon. However, after one year of residence, she realises that she is needed more as an ordinary doctor, particularly to help women away from Dhaka where there were few medical facilities. Initially, during the war, she had helped those women who had been victims of the war, particularly those who had been raped, often carrying out abortions. The government had declared these women heroines but the men had rejected them, particularly those who were pregnant, and many had had to leave and go to Pakistan, as there was no hope of their finding a husband in Bangladesh. Maya is a feminist and she will come up against the entrenched, male-dominated culture on more than one occasion during the course of this novel. She has worked as a doctor away from Dhaka, more recently in Rajshahi, where she came up against considerable opposition. At the beginning of the 1980s set of stories, she leaves Rajshahi. She had encouraged a pregnant woman to bathe in a pond, contrary to custom. The woman had later given birth to a Down syndrome child. The elders blamed the bathing, while her husband felt that she had cheated on him. She was sentenced to one hundred and one lashes. Soon after, Maya is threatened. Learning that Silvi, whom she disliked, has died, Maya decides to return home.
Back home, things have changed. Sohail is still very much involved in his religious activities, preaching and helping his fellow Muslims, so much so that Maya hardly ever sees him. His son, Zaid, seems to be neglected. He steals from Maya but wants to learn and go to school. Sohail is very much opposed to it, feeling that Zaid only needs religious teaching. Meanwhile their mother has a tumour, which causes some concern, particularly when she has to have chemotherapy. Maya meets old friends and becomes involved in an anti-government newspaper. She sees and hears of numerous cases of corruption, police brutality and ill-treatment while, at the same time, worried about the influence of religion, as exemplified by her brother. Things get worse when her mother gets cancer, Sohail sends Zaid away to a madrasa and her newspaper articles start attracting attention.
Anam does not hide her feelings in this book. She is clearly a committed feminist and clearly aims to show how badly women were and are treated in Bangladesh. She also wants to show that, while independence was welcome, it has brought a host of problems and that the government is corrupt and much of the religious apparatus is holding the country back. Is there a solution? As this is a work of fiction and not a political polemic, she can certainly hint at solutions (less religion, more rights for women) but she does leave it clear that there is a lot more to do to make Bangladesh a viable country.
First published 2007 by John Murray