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A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam — a nation is born

Silhouettes of People Holding Flag of Bangladesh

Cover of A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam that shows the effect of war on one family in Bangladesh. Photo shows a woman in a red sari

I hadn’t heard of A Golden Age before it was chosen for The Big Jubilee Read: a list of books from across the Commonwealth selected to mark The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022.  A little research revealed that it’s Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, apparently inspired by the experience of her politician grandfather and journalist father during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

This is not a novel about politics however; it’s about one family’s experience of nationalist fervour that gives rise to a war and the eventual birth of a new nation.

Rehana Haque, a young Urdu-speaking widow, is fiercely protective of her son Sohail and daughter Maya. She lost them once when a court declared her unfit to care for the children and sent them to live with her family back in East Pakistan.

Though she managed to get them back, the experience has made her vow never to lose them again. As the campaign for Bangla’s freedom gathers momentum, that determination is put to the test. Both children are swept up in the fervour. Sohail joins the guerrila resistance forces, taking part in risky sabotage and ambush campaigns. Maya places her talents as a writer at the services of the rebels’ propaganda machinery.

An Unusual Revolutionary

Rehana’s own attitude to the war — and particularly to her children’s involvement — is ambivalent. Part of her wants to indulge her children’s passionate belief in the cause of freedom, allowing them to do anything that makes them happy. Another part of her wants them to have nothing to do with the conflict because, that way, they could be safe.

Gradually Rehana realises that she cannot keep her children away from the protests and the fighting. The only way to keep her family intact is to support the cause they believe in so deeply.

She’s a low key revolutionary. She doesn’t protest, or march or read propaganda. Instead she opens up her trunks of saris, cutting them up to make bedding for the guerrillas and persuading her friends to do the same. Much merriment ensues when the sewing party meets on the roof of her home.

What begins as low risk involvement steadily becomes more dangerous. A bungalow she owns is used to stash explosives and weapons and to hide an injured guerilla commander. What keeps her going, what enables her to survive is her love for her children.

This war that has taken so many sons has spared mine. This age that has burned so many daughters. Has not burned mine. I have not let it. 

A Golden Age doesn’t give a detailed account of the campaign for independence or the war itself. We see instead the passage of time and the increasing danger, through the eyes of people directly impacted.

The students like Maya and Sohail who take to the streets when a military junta overturns election results and sets about imprisoning and killing of nationalist supporters. Ordinary citizens like Rehana’s neighbour Mrs Chowdhury and her gin-rummy friends whose lives are disrupted by curfews and food shortages. And the Hindu families who flee the country to end up in destitute in refugee camps in West Bengal.

What was once unthinkable becomes part of the everyday experience of life in the city of Dhaka.

What was strange had become unstrange. They were used to seeing the green uniforms wherever they went; they were used to returning obediently to their homes at the peal of the curfew siren and they were used to the dusty, empty streets, the closed shops, the hospitals with locked gates, the half full baskets of the fruit vendors. The landscape of war was becoming familiar and they had all found their ways tolive with it.

I didn’t think I was going to enjoy A Golden Age just based on the first few chapters. But it grew on me the further I got into the emotional tension at the heart of Rehana’s character.

Questions of Authenticity

I’ve seen a number of reviewers on Goodreads question the accuracy of some parts of the novel. References to the Bengali dishes prepared for various meals seem to be a particular issue. The point is made more than once that Anam lived in Bangladesh for only the first two years of her life — the rest of it took in Paris, New York and Bangkok — so doesn’t have the required depth of knowledge to write authentically about the country’s lifestyle.

That seems a little harsh. Many members of Anam’s family still live in Bangladesh and her father is editor of the country’s largest circulating English daily newspaper so I think we can imagine that she’s familiar with the cuisine and that relatives would have picked her up on any mistakes.

That said, there were a few plot points which didn’t ring true. I could swallow the idea that Sohall’s guerrila comrades could move around the city after curfew, undetected for months. But did no-one think it odd to hear trucks outside the bungalow owned by Rehanna (empty since its tenants fled the city) or hear sounds of digging in the garden.

These quibbles fortunately didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of this fascinating novel about a woman forced to make decisions that will affect her future and those of her precious children.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anan: Footnotes

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975 but left when she was a child. She gained a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University in 2005.

A Golden Age was first published in 2007 then re-pulished in 2009 by Harper Collins. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and was winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.

Her follow up, The Good Muslim, was shortlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. She has been published in the Guardian, the Financial Times, and Freeman’s, and is a Contributing Opinion Writer for The New York Times. In 2013, she was named one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists. 

She now lives in London.

A Golden Age is book number 49 in my world of literature project where I’m trying to read novels written by authors from 50 different countries in the world.

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