A Golden Age : Book Review

A Golden Age : Book Review

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As Rehana Haque awakes one March morning, she may be forgiven for feeling happy. Today she will throw a party for her son and daughter. In the garden of the house she has built, her roses are blooming; her children are almost grown up; and beyond their doorstep, the city is buzzing with excitement after recent elections. Change is in the air. But none of the guests at Rehana's party can foresee what will happen in the days and months that follow. For this is East Pakistan in 1971, a country on the brink of war. And this family's life is about to change for ever.
Set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence, A Golden Age is a story of passion and revolution, of hope, faith, and unexpected heroism. In the chaos of this era, everyone--from student leader protesters to the country's leaders, from rickshaw-wallahs to the army's soldiers--must make choices. And as she struggles to keep her family safe, Rehana will find herself faced with a heartbreaking dilemma.

“About the book.” tahmima.com.08 June, 2008 < http://www.tahmima.com/book.html >.
Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age is an empathic piece of writing. Although she is not an eye-witness to the war yet she crafted a convincing tale from the accounts narrated by people as well as her own research. This fiction brings a story about the Bangladesh Liberation War to an English-speaking audience, but at what expense? Whether she succeeded or not is the point under consideration.
It can’t be denied that the Bangladesh war for independence depicted good against evil, the arch rivals. The security forces especially military of West Pakistan occupied and ransacked the East Pakistan wing (presently Bangladesh) with such an insane devastation and religious chauvinism that it vindicated the forceful cries for liberty in the ruined streets of Dhaka. This desire for liberation grew day by day.
Here, some critical questions strike one’s mind. Haven't we passed biased plot-making? Haven't we decided that the "innocent" device of depicting "evil bad guys" as disgusting, malevolent, and one-sided is inaccurate, unjust as well as immoral? The trichotomy of the good, the bad and the ugly certainly exists in Tahmima Anam's subject matter, but in her novel, A Golden Age, realistic characters and human villains do not. It is worthwhile to mention that in her effort, she certainly hit the bull’s eye.
Based on her grandmother's life and miscellaneous narration of events during the war, the novel tells a tale of Rehana Haque who was a widow and a mother of two.

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Initially, she allowed and appreciated her children to take part in the movement of independence of Bangladesh while staying dormant. Later, she was so influenced and inspired by the movement that she joined the noble cause herself.
The title refers to a golden age; the period after which the country fell into corrupt governments, assassinations, and military coups. Gone were the good old days when its people had high dreams and ideals. It also might refer to a national innocence, simplicity of purpose i.e. liberation - that was gone when the battle was won. Was it really lost? Or was it just a trade off? Is this bad? Is it nostalgia of ignorance? Not necessarily. The sense of freedom made people vigilant, determined, thoughtful and contented.
The book is meant, if analyzed critically, to be a vivid novel encapsulating history. Yet the atmosphere is Westernized, the style is either indistinct or predictable, and the characters are so like ceramic masks that the book rather resembles a group of exotically translated geishas marching down a Western boulevard, as if it were a parade.
But before I hammer away, it should be said that Anam targeted and wrote about a war which is not known to most of he intended audience. She highlighted a country which receives less representation than it deserves.
At times she adorned the page with a native touch of her childhood Bangladesh, and we perceive something more complex rising to the subtext. For instance, in one passage, the lead character Rehana imagines the April rain falling on her "hungry cracked" country, the "human exodus on the Jessore Road," and her son and his friends "as they searched for the war with only their wet-toothed smiles, their poems, their death-defying youth." Rehana is the rain, the maternal presence in her country -- a point subtly communicated in this passage, but utterly overwrought at some other places.
Descriptions of the customs, locations, habits and traditions of the country Bangladesh are so brief and vague that one might picture Western houses with Western sofas and Western tables. Coupled with a lack of cultural history, which is considered mandatory for a non-Bengali audience, the book defines a division between Western conventions and actual Bangladesh. In the 1947 division of Indo-Pak subcontinent, the new Islamic country Pakistan was itself divided by more than a thousand miles of Indian land. The divisions can be named East Pakistan & West Pakistan.
The west wing controlled more of the politics, enjoyed more of the money, and thought of itself to be a ruler over the west wing. Political representation for the east wing could never brimm to a majority until 1970. This year marks the time when the Bengali Awami League, a secular political party, won the majority in the Parliament and elected Mujibur Rahman to office. It was a good luck of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) but a bad luck of Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan) because this laid the foundation stone of a road which lead to the formation of Bangladesh.
Nature influenced history when monsoon rains hit Bangladesh just prior to Rahman taking office. The central government in West Pakistan barely responded to the bad situation in East Pakistan, and tried to hinder Rahman’s way to be the prime minister. Hell broke loose when his party was banned, martial law was declared, and "Operation Searchlight" started. The political conflict between two parts of the same country surfaced. Bengal universities crumbled under tank fire, innocent people were murdered, women raped, families separated, and a country already crippled fought united against their oppressors. All this is described in the novel with the help of a suitable chain of events.
Anam's representation of people of West Pakistan is troubling and largely unjustified. Her first description of one, her sister-in-law, is "pouty-lipped and barren." In Rehana's observation of that marriage, we learn that it is childless, lacking in love, snobbish, and subtly violent. A lazy West Pakistani policeman was unwilling to help Rehana. He was bald. Orange betel-juice was stained on his lips. She had to bribe him. Another man had spittle on his lips. He licked them, looked at Rehana's daughter "up, down -- and licked them again." This vaguely showed what his intentions were. He was not necessarily getting stupid.
Anam didn’t depict West Pakistanis as completely evil. She shallowly painted a gruesome mask for every West Pakistani Rehana comes across, without any explanation or further exploration of that character. Rehana called her brother-in-law human at one point, though she couldn’t forgive him in the end due to the injuries he inflicted upon her.
When West Pakistan surrendered, not only did Bangladesh face famine, dislocation, and a ruined economy but faced their own prejudice toward non-Bengalis. In yet another refugee movement, these people fled to Pakistan, and Bengalis in Pakistan fled to Bangladesh. Still many were left behind. Hopeless and helpless, they breathed their last in their refugee camps, absent of affiliation. They were too unlucky to seek asylum somewhere.
Anam's responsibility isn't to represent post-war Bangladesh, so we cannot expect her to expand outside that boundary, but can we trust even that? Did she covered history exactly or did she twisted facts to fit the plot? History is never authentic. It carries loop holes. Although those who write history describe what happened yet their description is influenced by their feelings. This is true in case of Anam also. She crafted her novel as close to history as possible.
Another question arises that in which language do the characters really speak? It cannot be Bengali, clearly, as they accentuate their feelings and intentions by implanting
Bengali words amidst an English sentence. But it can't be English, either. Like the Japanese artwork and symbols on American address books, these scattered Bengali words only reveal the surface of a culture, without being expanded to represent it. Instead of representation, we're served the dish of foreign fetishism.
Even the narrative style is Western, in a clichéd Hollywood way. During the final hour for Rehana, before she embarks on her hardest journey, she had an exchange of words with a Bangladeshi army Major, where he pleaded with her not to go. How conventional is it that the man refuses to leave until he knows that the woman is alright? How expected is it that he vows to "come after her" into the dangerous territory? Throughout her novel, Anam used various Bengali cum English sentences. These short sentence stunners are all over the book; including, of course, the very end. It would make decent satire -- if Anam wasn't serious. The fact remains that the non-Bagladeshi readers, making the majority of the intended audience, fail to grasp the essence of such sentences because of language conflict. Bengali words and terms are not translated anywhere. This could be a back draw of the compilation of book but not that of the story.
Although these stunners aren't bad narrative devices yet her language and selection of words is frequently vague and it becomes unclear what was happening. Probably Anam wanted a realistic, subtle style, but this is often strained and pushes on incoherent writing.
On the whole, this was a good novel; the first one of its own kind to discuss the Bangladesh independence. Beginning to end, the author controlled the story. Like other books of the same category and topic, she described history indirectly by describing a series of created events. Although no such Rehana ever lived yet a typical war struck Bangladeshi woman can be easily seen in the mirror named Rehana. If a book is to be judged, it is supposed to be fact based, concise, comprehensive, well structured, well compiled, a coherent piece of writing, not having fallacies and chiefly empathic. A Golden Age, if provided with some insight into Bangladeshi culture and an index of translations of Bengali language specific terms, shall be considered possessing all the aforementioned qualities and features.
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