A Golden Age
by Tahmima Anam
Fiction — Historical
Harper Perennial, 2009
In March of 1971, a civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan–the Bangladesh War of Independence. For nine months, West Pakistan waged war on East Pakistan, killing, maiming, raping, and destroying as much as they could. It was genocide. East Pakistan fought back with a guerrilla army called the Mukti Bahini. When India finally got involved, the Pakistan Army was cast out in December of 1971 and East Pakistan declared independence, becoming Bangladesh.
A Golden Age is the story of the Haque family, set against the backdrop of that war. In the Prologue to the story, it is March of 1959 in East Pakistan. Rehana Haque’s husband has just died and a court has ordered her to turn her two children over to her late husband’s brother who lives in West Pakistan. Fast forward to March of 1971, and as the story begins, it has been ten years since Rehana has taken back custody of her children. A democratic election has been held in East Pakistan, and rumor has it that the leaders in West Pakistan are not going to honor the results. Sohail and Maya, Rehana’s children, are students at the university in Dhaka who are both involved in the movement to gain independence for their country. A Golden Age tells the story of the Haque family’s experiences during the war from the perspective of Rehana.
Tahmima Anam, the author of A Golden Age, was born in Bangladesh in 1975, four years after the war. Her family told her lots of stories about the war, and Anam originally set out to write a war epic based on the stories she was told. Rehana’s story is based on the true story about how Anam’s maternal grandmother became a revolutionary during the war, and her story eventually took over the novel and turned it into a book about one family’s experience during the war and how they survived. This gives the reader a personal feel for what it was like for the people of Bangladesh during the war and makes the reader feel more connected to the characters involved. More than just a story about war, A Golden Age is a very human story about survival, faith, revolution, heroism, and family. We can never truly know how we will feel about or react to certain situations until we’re faced with them, but this book gave me a pretty good idea of what it must have been like for the people of Bangladesh, and I went through a wide range of feelings while reading Rehana’s story.
One of the things that struck me about A Golden Age is the lack of graphic description about the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army. Because the story is about Rehana and her experiences, Anam avoided detailing the death and torture that was happening everywhere–Rehana wasn’t personally subjected to most of it during the majority of the novel. When Anam did have to write about a particular atrocity, she gave just enough detail for the reader to figure out what had happened, and then let the reader’s imagination do the rest. This worked very well, I think, not only because our imaginations can do so much more than written descriptions, but also because not really knowing is a far more horrific feeling. Without a bunch of descriptions about what the Pakistan Army was doing to the people of Bangladesh, the reader was put in the same tense situation as Rehana concerning the unknown.
I have to admit that I didn’t know (or didn’t remember) that Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan, and I knew nothing about the Bangladesh War of Independence before reading A Golden Age. This book is very well written–in both the storyline and the characters–and I learned so much from it. Far too often I think we separate in our minds the wars that are being (or have been) waged and the people whom those wars are affecting (or have affected). A Golden Age merges the two and makes the reader understand the real costs of war and what the people of occupied countries go through. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about Bangladesh’s history, and to anyone who likes reading good historical fiction.
(To learn more about Tahmima Anam, please visit her website.)
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