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The Rehabilitation Of Faith

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Sheherazade Maya Haque, worked at the Women's Rehabilitation Centre as a volunteer during the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh. The women were pouring into the city for weeks. Some had been raped in their villages, in front of their husbands and fathers, others kidnapped and held in the army barracks for the duration of the war. Maya was tasked with telling these women that their lives would soon return to normal, that they would go home and their families would embrace them as heroes of the war. After all, Bangabandhu had promised to take care of the women; he had even given them a name —Birangona, heroines — and asked their husbands and fathers to welcome them home, as they would their sons. But the children, he had said he didn't want the children of war. But the victims were clear. They did not want to be heroines and to "forgive and forget", as they were ashamed. They wanted their honour and dignity. For many, a possible way of achieving this was to leave for Pakistan with their rapists, the recently released prisoners of war.  The closest Maya experienced this was when she met her brother, Sohail's friend, Piya who appeared one day at their doorstep, only to leave as mysteriously. Soon Maya left Dhaka to work in Rajshahi, a remote village in Bangladesh, as a physician.

Six years later, she returns home to discover changes in the family. Her mother, Rehana is sick with cancer. Her brother, Sohail, who is a war veteran, has transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist. He prays faithfully every day as is evident from the "bruise that blossomed on his forehead, pearly and blue-black", but that is not as worrying as the establishment of Tablighi Jamaat or The Congregation of Islam. Sohail, his wife, Silvi, preach to their followers at home or at the mosque about everything there was to know about being a Muslim. God, men, morality, purdah and sex; the life of the Prophet; his wives, Ayesha and Kahdija and Zaynab; the raising of children. How to be one of the faithful.  Sohail is considered "a holy man". He has converted the roof of his mother's bungalow into a space for his family and followers. It looks as if a shanty town has been established, with only black burkhas hanging on the washing line. He is so absorbed in spreading the message of the Book that he neglects his son, Zaid. When Maya tries discussing it with Sohail, he responds with, "A boy needs to find his way in the world." It was as if "he was laying down the law, she could see that, but he made it appear as if he had no choice, as though there were something natural about the rule he was imposing."

The narrator, Sheherazade Maya, like her literary namesake, the Persian queen and storyteller, tells a riveting tale. The structure of her stories in the novel is as deceptively simple as in the  Arabian Nights. Yet at the same time the framework of the novel, interspersing the present with flashbacks to the past, reflects the disturbing and fractured content of the story and at times, the moods of Maya.

The Good Muslim is historical fiction at its best. Tahmima Anam raises questions by tactfully and beautifully showing how a family has to navigate and make their tough choices in the aftermath of a war; a period in which a society recovering from conflict is most fragile. Playing on the title, the author paints different shades of Islam, leaving the reader with the big question, so who exactly is the good Muslim? Is it the holy man, Sohail or the mother, Jahanara Imam, popularly known as Shaheed Janani, who had lost her son in the war and written about it in Mother of Martyrs, or Lieutenant Sarkar who edits a newspaper, or the many killed and wounded in the war, or the Dictator who continues to say Allah between every word. The common thread yoking these disparate individuals is that they all latch on to the same words of "the Book".

In this tightly written, fast paced story, Tahmima Anam has also managed to sensitively tackle several aspects related to conflicts that have a significant impact on a society recovering and trying to rebuild itself in the wake of turmoil. For instance, the lack of basic medical facilities; the devastating effect of war upon women, especially the horrendous manner in which they are raped repeatedly and then abandoned; the first peacemakers are inevitably the women, usually the mothers and finally, the growing influence of religious preachers. The conclusion of The Good Muslim seems as if the loose ends have been hastily tied up. Yet it is a moving account of the impact that the 1971 war had on modern Bangladesh.
 
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant editor