“And Sufia was right: if her mother died, she could never be the one to replace her — the bougainvillea would die and the fruit would fall from the guava tree, unpicked.”
It is unclear how many Bangladeshis are interested in reading of bougainvillea and guavas. The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam’s novel about a group of people who survived the 1971 Pakistan-Bangladesh war and about the place of Islam in their post-war lives, does not seem to have been written for them.
Writers will tell you, if asked, that they have no audience in mind when they write. This is usually not true. And it is especially untrue of most South Asians writing in English.
The Good Muslim is one example of a book not written for the people it is written about. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. There is no reason a writer from this part of the world should not write for a foreign — read Western — audience if she chooses to do so.
It is also true that bougainvillea and guavas, along with roadside chaat, religious zealots and abusive madrassahs do, in fact, exist in Bangladesh, where the novel is set.
The problem is that these uncomplicated tropes make it difficult to take the novel seriously, detracting from the complexity of the very important questions it has taken up the challenge of addressing — the human-rights abuses of the 1971 war; the permanent havoc it wreaked on the lives of those who managed to return home from the front; how religion, in this case Islam, can become a dangerous refuge for those damaged by political conflict; the expansion of Islam’s role in postcolonial Muslim societies.
Maya’s family is a liberal, politically conscious one, and both she and her brother Sohail serve in the war, he on the frontlines. He is changed deeply by the experience, and eventually turns to Islam for comfort. For Maya his increasing religiosity transforms the brother she has always known into a man she does not recognise, one who turns away from friends, shuns music and burns books. In disgust she runs away from home for several years — although, it should be noted, her brother’s piety is personal, not coercive — but returns only to find that Sohail’s son, neglected by his missionary father, is growing up illiterate, dishonest and unkempt, and that part of their house has been turned into a home and religious centre for other missionaries.
And so continues progressive, sensitive, patriotic Maya’s battle against the horrific encroachment into her family life of religious conservatism, here depicted by all the expected signifiers — faceless, abused women, human-rights violations, illiteracy — and some unexpected exaggerations, like lack of interest in the lives of one’s own children.
In what reads like a forced effort at complexity, Maya does briefly lean on the missionaries when her mother is ill, and her attempt to try to save her nephew from the evil forces of Islam leads to tragedy. But these feel like contrived warnings about the kind of simplicity that marks much of the book itself. Despite them, relationships and characters in The Good Muslim remain symbols and political statements, not managing to evoke the kind of sympathy their situations could. What doesn’t help is the lyrical, repetitive rhythm of the language or its melodramatic quality, both reminiscent of other South Asian writing that fails to stir emotion and create atmosphere precisely because it tries too hard to do so.
It has been interesting to read reviews of the novel in Western publications. They are almost universally gushing, praising The Good Muslim for its portrayal of human and national tragedy and the personal-and-the-political paradigm that writers from developing countries and politically troubled nations are expected to fit themselves into. Sadly, though, the truly personal is sacrificed here, lost in the effort to meet these expectations.
This review first appeared in the October 2011 issue of Herald