I bought the novel The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam without realizing that it was a part of the Bengal Trilogy and this was part two. Actually, I did not even realize this while I was reading it and only found out when I was already finished with the book. The story told in this beautiful book stands on its own because it hit me pretty hard without having read part one. I didn’t even have a rough start with this one, I just eased into it and some nights continued reading way past bedtime (haven’t we all?).
The story is about a sister, Maya, and a brother, Sohail, who both come back from the Bangladesh Liberation War with traumatising experiences that lead their paths in completely different directions. Even though they both had the same goals when they went into the war, both are disillusioned in different ways. Maya, a rebel doctor who wants Bangladesh to be independent, goes into the war and helps out rape victims with getting an abortion. She is disappointed that the noble goals of the war are betrayed by the new Bangladeshi government and starts writing for a freedom fighting newspaper. Sohail signs up to fight for Bangladesh’s independence but comes back from the war having been confronted with his own demons. These demons eventually lead him to become a Muslim fundamentalist. The story goes back and forth between 1974 when the war has just ended, and 1984 when Sohail’s wife has passed away and Maya has returned home.
What made me keep reading (even past 2 a.m.)? [Spoilers ahead]
It is evident that Maya and Sohail used to be very close but that their relationship has been broken ever since Sohail came back from the war. Maya wants to reconnect, but Sohail is detached and focused on his religion. However, it is also evident that Maya does not understand how or why Sohail has become a fundamentalist. Their differences are what stands between them and as a reader you want to know what exactly caused the drift and if they will eventually reconcile. But that is not the only crumb that keeps you reading. Maya has a secret reason for leaving home and Sohail’s demons are slowly revealed as well. But the most important reason why I kept reading was that the way the characters and their stance on religion have been portrayed connected with me. Neither Maya is completely right about being against Islam, nor is her brother about his fundamentalism.
Their mother Rehana, who turns out to be sick, is the voice of reason in this novel. Even though she understands why Sohail needs his religion so badly in order to make up for his dark past, she also does not support everything he does. On the other hand, she tries to show Maya that religion can create a balance and have a positive effect. Only when Rehana is about to die does Maya see the power of religion and starts to question her own doubts about it. However, Sohail makes the mistake of putting his son in a madrasa, a school which teaches about Islam, where he turns out not to be safe. This leads to a disastrous event which changes everything between Maya and Sohail. From this part of the novel all the way to the end, my heart was broken.
Tahmima Anam has managed to create three-dimensional characters who teach you about the Bangladesh Liberation War and the different ways in which it affected the people that participated and were affected by it. At the same time, she manages to let the reader form a balanced opinion of religion. What stuck with me especially and I would like to convey to the readers of our blog is that:
“God wrongs no one, Not even by the weight of an atom”