The Good Muslim
By Tahmima Anam
The year is 1971; Rehana Haque awaits the return of her son Sohail. So does Rehana’s daughter Maya; two of them bask in the optimism that the new nation, Bangladesh, offers. We find them in Tahmima Anam’s recent novel, The Good Muslim. Set in the 1970s and 1980s, it traces the after effects of the Liberation War, the hope, disillusionment and cynicism of citizens, and the two faces of religion, through the Haques.
The book begins in 1984 when ‘Muktijoddha’ Maya embarks on a train-ferry-train journey to return to Dhaka, to her Ammoo and brother Sohail. The changes in her beloved Bhaiyya, and in the country on the whole — which drove her to leave home and settle in Rajshahi up in the north to practise medicine — have now become the established norms in the household.
The book depicts on a personal level the two different paths chosen by the two siblings, which is also a reflection on the struggle of going back to the pre-war dreams of building a secular and democratic nation.
Upon learning that Bhaiyya has now become Huzoor, or a leader of a religious community, Maya’s mind goes back to the early days of the independence when Sohail had returned from the war. The novel, which uses the tool of flashback in one chapter and returns to the present in the next, slowly allows the readers a peek into Sohail’s troubled state and Maya’s inability to understand the anguish of her brother.
Written simply, the language succeeds in highlighting the biting anger and helplessness of Maya, the brooding Sohail and his mischievous son, Zaid. However, it is the character of Ammoo — intense, accepting and understanding, who chooses to air her views in few words and small gestures — that stays on with us after having finished reading the book.
Ammoo is the first one to realise that the war has taken its toll on Sohail and hence gives her son the ‘Book’ (Quran) to help him regain his peace of mind. But, when Sohail veers towards the path of religion, Ammoo unwillingly accepts the fact that her son is lost to her forever.
Maya, however, cannot digest the fact that her modern, liberal, secular and fun-loving Bhaiyya has chosen the path of religion. She tries her best to dissuade Sohail despite Ammoo’s warnings that she won’t succeed. It’s only when Maya encounters death does she realise Bhaiyya’s dilemma, guilt and pain. Although she continues on the path of idealism, Maya knows what drove Sohail to change and comes to term with his outlook.
Perhaps that’s what the author would like to suggest with the title of the book: a good Muslim is the one who tries to understand and be tolerant of someone who has made a different choice.