Friday, March 07, 2008

Review: Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age"

A friend gave me a copy of A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam, as a present a couple of months ago, and I finally got around to reading it this week. A Golden Age, it turns out, is a very strong first novel, written in a direct, natural style, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Anam's is the first novel put out by a western publisher that I know of to have Bangladesh's war for independence as its main theme, and for that reason alone, I suspect A Golden Age will become the kind of book that is often taught in college classes on "South Asian Literature" (like the courses I myself get to teach every couple of years). The War is important in Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey, but only at a great distance (Mistry's novel is set in Bombay). And a section of Rushdie's Midnight's Children deals with this event, but it comes near the end, and Rushdie addresses it in rather lyrical terms -- you don't really get a solid explanation of how the war started or what it was about.

Here, you do. The center of the novel is, of course, the family drama -- involving a widow named Rehana and her two grown children, Sohail and Maya. Both of the children are politically oriented, and take a strongly pro-Bangla, pro-Sheikh Mujib position on the events that transpired in 1971. By contrast, their mother Rehana is at first reluctant to make a commitment -- though the needs of her children soon force her to inject herself into the conflict. She also begins to come out of her shell emotionally, which is of course what most readers want to see.

Here is an early passage in A Golden Age, one of the first direct discussions of the political situation:

He'll never make a good husband, she heard Mrs Chowdhury say. Too much politics.

The comment had stung because it was probably true. Lately the children had little time for anything but the struggle. It had started when Sohail entered the university. Ever since '48, the Pakistani authorities had ruled the eastern wing of the country like a colony. First they tried to force everyone to speak Urdu instead of Bengali. They took the jute money from Bengal and spent it on factories in Karachi and Islamabad. One general after another made promises they had no intention of keeping. The Dhaka University students had been involved in the protests from the very beginning, so it was no surprise Sohail had got caught up, and Maya too. Even Rehana could see the logic; what sense did it make to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?

But in 1970, when the cyclone hit, it was as though everything came into focus. Rehana remembered the day Sohail and Maya had returned from the rescue operation: the red in their eyes as they told her how they had waited for the food trucks to come and watched as the water rose and the bodies washed up on the shore; how they had realized, with mounting panic, that the would wouldn't come because it had never been sent.

The next day Maya had joined the Communist Party.

Clearly from the above, one can see that Anam sees the war of liberation firmly from a Bangladeshi perspective, where the Pakistani Army is the villain. (Here I should say that I fully agree with her; Yahya Khan is thought to have said, "Kill 3 million of them, and the rest will be eating out of our hands"...) Operation Searchlight is described, as are the attacks on East-Pakistani/Bangladeshi Hindus. The Indian intervention is seen as a positive development, preventing what might have turned into an all-out genocidal suppression. (Estimates on the number of Bangladeshis killed by the Pakistani army in 1971 vary -- from 200,000 to 3,000,000 -- so it seems perfectly fair to suggest, as Anam does at one point, that Operation Searchlight was itself an act of genocide against the Bangladeshi people.)

Though she is undoubtedly a Bangladeshi partisan, Anam treats the gruesome acts of the war from a respectful distance; the story is told primarily from Rehana's point of view, and as a non-combatant she wouldn't have seen acts of torture or rape first-hand (though she does certainly encounter the results of those barbarities). Here I think Anam made the right choice. Extensively documenting the details of what the Pakistani army did in fact do that year would have overwhelmed the novel -- and that kind of documentation is, anyway, the job of a historian. One shouldn't think of A Golden Age as some kind of definitive account of 1971, but rather as an accessible, novelistic introduction to that story.

There's a little bit of Bengali literary culture alluded to in Anam's novel, but not a huge amount. You have references to Sultana's Dream and the songs of Tagore, but not Bibhutbushan Bandopadhyay, Saratchandra, or Bankim. But then, though their children study in the university, the Haque family is not really a literary family, so extended discourse on the Bengali Renaissance would be out of place.

My wife also found A Golden Age to be a satisfying read, and she is a software engineer (who finds writers like Rushdie too ornamental); perhaps her stamp of approval might actually mean more to non-academic readers than my own. That said, she did wonder whether there might be some points of culinary inaccuracy regarding the Bengali dishes described in the novel. For instance, is it likely that an upper middle-class Bangladeshi family would eat a meal of roast lamb, as the Haque family do early in the book, before the war starts? My wife isn't a Bengali, and neither of us have ever been to Bangladesh, but she thought it didn't ring true.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Free Market NGOs in Bangladesh

There's an article in the January/February issue of The Atlantic about Bangladesh. Authored by Robert D. Kaplan, it's called "Waterworld," and it starts out with a long, perhaps sensationalist account of what Bangladesh might have to look forward to because of global warming -- a scenario which wasn't very surprising to me at least. (This much we knew from Al Gore.) There is also a bit about the growth of Islamic extremism -- and that too wasn't at all surprising for those of us who have followed Bangladesh even off-and-on.

What was interesting, however, was Kaplan's account of the role NGOs play in making an otherwise dysfunctional country work. To begin with, Kaplan argues, central government has always been rather weak in Bangladesh because of the geography and climate:

Yet Bangladesh is less interesting as a hydrologic horror show than as a model of how humankind copes with an extreme natural environment. Weather and geography have historically worked here to cut one village off from another. Central government arrived only with the Turkic Moguls in the 16th century, but neither they nor their British successors truly penetrated the countryside. The major roads were all built after independence in 1971. This is a society that never waited for a higher authority to provide it with anything. The isolation effected by floodwaters and monsoon rains has encouraged institutions to develop at the local level. As a result, the political culture of rural Bangladesh is more communal than hierarchical, and women play a significant role.

Four hours’ drive northwest of Dhaka, the capital, I found a village in a Muslim-Hindu area where the women had organized themselves into separate committees to produce baskets and textiles and invest the profits in new wells and latrines. They had it all figured out, showing me on a crude cardboard map where the new facilities would be installed. They received help from a local nongovernmental organization that, in turn, had a relationship with CARE. But the organizational heft was homegrown. (link)

Later Kaplan goes on to mention Grameen Bank and BRAC, both of which blend the idea of social uplift with free market principles, and have had widespread success in Bangladesh as a result:

The credit for coping so well rests ultimately with NGOs. As familiar as their work now is, NGOs in Bangladesh represent a whole new organizational life-form; thousands of them fill the void between village committees and a remote, badly functioning central government.

Of course, this enhanced role raises ethical questions, not least because many of these Bangladeshi humanitarian enterprises have for-profit elements. Take Muhammad Yunus, who, along with his Grameen Bank, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering micro-credit schemes for poor women: Grameen also operates a cell-phone and Internet service. Then there is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, which, besides doing bounteous relief and development work, operates dairy, poultry, and clothing businesses. Its head offices, like those of Grameen, are in a skyscraper that is some of Dhaka’s most expensive real estate. Yet to focus on the impurities of these NGOs is to ignore their transformative powers.

“One thing led to another,” explains Mushtaque Chowdhury, BRAC’s deputy executive director. “In order not to be dependent on Western charities, we set up our own for-profit printing press in the 1970s. Then we built a plant to pasteurize milk from the cattle bought by poor women with the loans we had provided them.” Now they’ve become a kind of parallel government, with a presence in 60,000 villages. (link)

We've had several posts on the Grameen Bank over the years, particularly after Muhammed Yunus won the Nobel Prize for his work, but there's been less about BRAC.

I went to the BRAC homepage, and found a link to a YouTube video, with one young woman's answer to the "Davos Question." An interesting idea -- though I have to admit I wasn't overwhelmed by BRAC's entry.

Just as I was interested in what readers had to say about Pratham in a post on education in India last week, today I'm interested to know what people have heard about BRAC.