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“You’re Just a Housewife. What on Earth Could You Possibly Do?”: The History of the Bangladesh War of Independence Told by Women in Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Sabine Lauret-Taft

Abstract

British-Bangladeshi Tahmima Anam’s debut novel A Golden Age (2007) is a mother-daughter tale of the Bangladesh War of Independence, and is set during an exceptional period of martial law. It is a story of resistance told from the margins, from a domestic space known as “Shona.” This paper explores how the struggle for independence is embodied by the actions of women, and analyzes how weaving violence and resistance into the fabric of mundane lives enables Anam to shed light on the 1971 Bangladesh genocide.

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1On March 25, 1971, with Operation Searchlight led by Tikka Khan under the command of President Yahya Khan, East Pakistan was swept into a bloody genocide that US consul general, Archer Blood, reported to Washington, but that remained on the margins of history, a footnote in the Cold War. A few months before, East Pakistan had won significant political representation at the National Assembly of Pakistan with the Awami League and the leadership of Sheikh Mujib. But as the results of the elections were canceled, the country found itself in an exceptional situation, governed by martial law, the Pakistani army at war with its own people. Tahmima Anam is not of the generation of writers who experienced the nine months of conflict that followed Operation Searchlight and led to the proclamation of Bangladesh. In A Golden Age (2007), the first installment of a trilogy that encompasses the Bangladesh War of Independence and its aftermath, Anam pays homage to her maternal grandmother’s involvement in the war. The narrative draws inspiration from the story of the rifles she let soldiers hide in her garden and from survivors’ stories. A Golden Age is a novel that brings women to the fore, exploring what it means for them to be in a country at war, without reducing them to victims, but focusing on “the unexpected ways that women are heroic” (Anam 2011b). Going against the grain of a nationalist narrative that has made rape survivors birangona (a coined feminine version of bir, meaning hero), A Golden Age sheds light on the other ways women participated in the war effort, as well as on the violence they encountered. As Anam gives voice to ordinary women, to invisible heroes of the war, to the women who were told after the war was over “to forgive and forget” (Anam 2011a, 90), the narrative embodies how “women are the bearers of national culture.” (Boehmer 2005, 4; original emphasis).

2The novel opens with a prologue in which the reader encounters Rehana, a young widow who lives in Dhaka. In the wake of her husband’s death, she finds herself overcome by grief and unable to provide for her family. As a result, she loses custody of her two children, Sohail and Maya, who go to live with her brother in-law and his wife in Lahore. In chapter one, Rehana has gotten her children back. They are now students at Dhaka University where political turmoil is increasing. Against the backdrop of macropolitics, Anam’s narrative unravels minor stories. Political historical events such as Operation Searchlight, the election of Sheikh Mujib and the Indo-Soviet treaty make their way into the narrative. They act as titles for chapters and are mentioned in conversations, but the reader always sees politics and the war from an intimate perspective. Inviting her readers into the lives of women, Anam filters exceptional political conditions – cancelled elections; religious, ethnic and gendered violence – through the mundane, retrieving people’s memories of a time when history and politics disappeared in the haze of collective frenzy.

3With Rehana at its center, the narrative relies on what Louise Harrington has called a “gendered perspective which gives a voice to the plight of women in this war” (2011, 241). Drawing on this, A Golden Age may be read as a mother’s tale, told from a domestic space, from the sidelines. In this article, I will study how weaving violence and resistance into the fabric of ordinary lives, Anam sheds light on the 1971 Bangladesh genocide through the voice of a mother and through the particular bond she develops with her daughter. Although at times the novel seems to revolve on a mother-son axis, it is balanced out by Maya’s perspective, by the predicament of a daughter. I will focus particularly on how women help redefine domestic spaces and roles, and how the female body is reclaimed, both using and challenging national narrative images. As war invades homes, the novel will be approached from a feminist angle, as a way to recover history as herstory.

Telling the war from the margins: domestic spaces and roles

4In Anam’s narrative, although the main issue is war, most of the plot unravels in domestic settings, such as Rehana’s house, Mrs Chowdhury’s house, and Maya’s room in Calcutta. The violence of the Pakistani army forces its way into neighborhoods and homes as illustrated here: “mounted on their jeeps they had fired through shutters and doorways and shirts and hearts” (Anam 2008a, 65). The enumeration conjures up the trajectory of a bullet and underlines the intimate nature of this war, in which two parts of the same country fight one another. A Golden Age is not about epic battles but sheds light instead on how the Liberation war affected people. As Amy Finnerty underlines it, “Anam places her readers in her characters’ parlours and kitchens, bedrooms and residential enclaves – and inside their heads” (2015, 43). The first words of the prologue, “Dear husband, I lost our children today” (Anam 2008a, 3), echo throughout the text, reverberating like a Greek chorus. They invite the reader into an intimate setting, and break away from the main narrative; Rehana’s voice comes from the fringes of society, from the cemetery where her husband is buried. Domestic spaces in the novel are thus not always connected to a house, but mainly defined by intimacy and by family interactions.

5The title of the first chapter, “March 1971, Shona with her back against the sun” (Anam 2008a, 13), immediately signals the importance of domestic spaces. Shona is the house Rehana built to get her children back. It stands for her efforts, her sacrifices as a mother. But more importantly, Shona, which means gold, can be read as a synecdoche for the golden Bangladesh celebrated in “Amar Shonar Bangla,” the Bangladesh anthem written by Rabindranath Tagore that Maya sings to herself on the night of Operation Searchlight (55). So, even before events start unraveling, domestic and national spaces are juxtaposed: “Proud, vacant Shona of the many dreams” (102). The pathetic fallacy not only underlines motherly pride, it also indicates the spirit of the freedom fighters. When Rehana gives Shona to Sohail so that he can have a base for his guerilla operations, she becomes one with the house and the country. Rehana watching her son leave for the war conjures up the image of Mother Bengal watching her sons go into battle.

6Additionally, Shona seems to project a utopian promise of reconciliation; it appears at first as neutral ground. It is characterized by amicable relationships between Hindu and Muslim neighbors. Rehana rents Shona to the Senguptas, a Hindu couple with whom she becomes friends. But other characters like Rehana’s sister and her sister-in-law voice a feeling of spite and disgust for Bengalis. Rehana’s sister tells her: “Your Urdu is not as good as it used to be; must be all that Bengali you’re speaking” (Anam 2008a, 18). East Pakistan fought back when West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the national language. The sister’s remark points out a lingering sense of contamination, a feeling further expressed by Faiz, Rehanna’s brother-in-law, as he claims: “national integrity, religious integrity, this is what we are fighting for” (179). Faiz lives in Lahore and works for the Pakistani army. He represents the official voice of Pakistan, a voice that sustains that they are freedom fighters not invaders. The focus on Shona thus sharply contrasts with the divisions that come with occupied Dhaka. But Rehana is a complex character, straddling cultures and languages, with “ambiguous feelings about the country she had adopted” (47). When the land is ablaze with communal violence, she turns Shona’s garden into a shelter for the Hindu families of the neighborhood (62).

7Political stakes are exposed in chapter one, but the narrative then moves to ordinary lives. As Anam explained it herself in an interview, she likes to “ask people the little details, about what they wore, what brand of cigarettes they smoked, what music they listened to, maybe the car they drove” (2011b). For instance, Anam’s prose invites the reader into the Gymkhana club, where the women gather to play cards. Rehana and her gin-rummy friends have tea, gossip, and occasionally look for a bit of mischief, as when they put whisky in their tea (Anam 2008a, 22). But these women are not just housewives. Anam brings them to the fore as ordinary, everyday members of the resistance against the Pakistani army, highlighting the supporting role of women to the cause. Their weapon of choice is the needle as they sew blankets for the refugees: “Mrs Rahman and Mrs Akram took the sewing with the same enthusiasm they’d displayed for cards. They gathered at the bungalow every week, ready with their sewing kits” (97). The regularity with which they meet, combined with Mrs Rahman’s endeavor to enlist everyone she knows, evokes a military operation. Their war effort contribution invests their domestic talents with nationalism. They become “Project Rooftop,” activists at home. When Shona is turned into a guerrilla headquarters, Rehana starts making mango pickles to make sure her sewing friends do not find out about the guerrillas. Mrs Rahman and Mrs Akram are so indisposed by the stench from the pickle jars that they are happy to find a new location for their sewing operation. Anam’s female characters turn their domestic skills into war strategies. They express their political and religious ideas using their domestic role as an advantage to assert themselves as individuals. Silvi, Mrs Chowdhuri’s daughter, dutifully accepts the match her mother has chosen for her. But as the narrative unfolds, she becomes more self-assertive. Turning progressively to the scriptures and to her faith, she starts covering her head with a scarf with complete disregard for what her mother thinks. Her choice to be in purdah – covering her head and not appearing before men outside the family circle – is her own, separating her from men but also from the influence of her mother. As she embraces a more fundamental Islam, she is able to confront Maya and support her idea that “Pakistan should stay together” (248).

8The women in the novel depict the many reactions to the war; they are brought forth not as silent victims, but as vocal supporters of either cause. Anam dwells on how their sense of home is redefined by the war. Rehana spearheaded “Project Rooftop” as a response to her daughter who questioned her loyalty to Bangladesh. Born in Calcutta, with her sisters in Karachi, Rehana does not consider herself a nationalist. Her diasporic position, speaking “with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy” (Anam 2008a, 47), is reminiscent of the Bose’s house in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (1988). Increasing quarrels among the joint family lead to an absurd division of their house. The Bose brothers erect a wooden wall inside the house blocking doorways, cutting furniture, including their father’s nameplate, in half. The house reads as a foreshadowing symbol of the Partition of India and draws attention to the chaos that civil wars wreak on families. For the children in the Bose family, the house becomes an “upside-down house” (Ghosh 2005, 123), where meals start with sweets and books go backwards; the carnivalesque trope emphasizes the daze the country is in. Partition draws new lines on the map of people’s lives. Rehana does not live in an upside-down house, but she has an upside-down family. Her sisters in Karachi look down on her and her life in Dhaka. As the war is waging, Rehana fears that they may consider her a “traitor” (Anam 2008a, 125). Faiz, her brother-in-law, works for the Pakistani army, while her children have embraced the cause of freedom. Although she does not feel “entirely severed” (19) from her sisters, her home is not with them. Her relationship with her brother-in-law is based on pretense, with her lying about supporting Pakistan. Family and nation overlap, and in this context, the enemy is not just an anonymous collective, it is someone close.

9The narrative zooms in on Faiz, Rehana’s brother-in-law. He is the enemy. Everywhere else, the army is presented as a dehumanized collective. It is made of “green jeeps with green men waving the green Pakistan flag” (Anam 2008a, 55), of “young men in green uniforms spill[ing] out of their trucks, dozens of them at once, each with identical savage eyes and boots that moved like hammers” (258). The soldiers seem dehumanized, reduced to their boots. The repetition of green as a metonymic reference to the enemy also paves the way for the scene in which Sabeer looks at his uniform as he realizes what the army is doing: “The green was dark, almost invisible, but the sickle, the grin, shone whitely against his chest, the crimson sky, the blinking horizon” (56). He has become one with the rest of the army, his uniform blending in with the dark of the night; he no longer seems to be an individual but has merged with the collective force, representing only the nation he is supposed to serve. Violence is seldom depicted in gory detail, however the strength of it is conveyed by the absence of reference to individuals. Violence is perpetrated by an anonymous mass, suggesting mass violence throughout the text:

The boots stomped heavily through the bungalow; they tore books out of shelves, smashed dinner plates, knocked over the brass lamp, ravaged the cupboards. They ripped the posters from Sohail’s bedroom, Mao against a red background, Che with a cap and jaunty smile. A pillow was bayoneted. Yellow cotton scattered like dandelion. (258)

10The recurring synecdoche is reminiscent of war propaganda posters in which the soldiers are often represented by their boots, suggesting here that the political identity of East Pakistan, hinted at by the posters in Sohail’s room, is trampled by West Pakistan as they canceled the elections. The soldiers are grammatically erased in the use of the passive form: “A pillow was bayoneted,” reinforcing the idea that they are the invisible agents of the West Pakistani government. This episode echoes the opening of chapter five: “They looted homes and burned roofs. They raped. They murdered” (129). The proliferation of collective pronouns suggests that the identities of the soldiers coalesce in acts committed as a group. It seems that the collective supersedes the individual; yet, it is Faiz who, for Rehana, crystallizes the enemy in action. He compromises her domestic peace when he obtains custody of her children. The court episode paves the way for the escalation of the conflict, as he becomes a leader of the Pakistani army, threatening the lives of Sohail and Maya.

11Right from the prologue, a binary structure emerges that mirrors the geographical contradiction of a country split into two separate territories, a “country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns” (Anam 2008a, 33). A strong sense of dichotomy pervades the narrative, laying emphasis on divisions such as West/East, Lahore/Dhaka, Us vs. Them, daughter/son and father/mother. In fact, the first chapters pave the way for the opposition between the paternalistic description of Sheik Mujib, “a tiny white figure in the distance” (49), and motherhood, embodied by Rehana and Mother Bengal: “[she] watched as he waved his arms to quiet and reassure his people. His. They belonged to him now; they were his charge, his children. They called him father” (49). There is a domopolitical stance in Sheik Mujib’s address, in which the house/the country turns into a “fortress to be defended” (49). In Selina Hossain and Pascal Zinck’s River of my Blood (2016), the main character, Boori, a simple woman, a mother, when hearing the same address, feels transported, electrified, as she feels that he cares for her village. Sheikh Mujib’s charisma and words bring to mind the notion of “state fatherhood,” the promise of a solid safe government (Ivekovic and Mostov 2002, 11). After the war, Mujib’s paternalistic approach addressed the issue of rape victims as he urged people to look at birangona as his own daughters. But Anam’s narrative, even as it acknowledges Mujib’s stance, presents the reader with a counterpoint.

12While the allegorical substitute father calls for barricades to secure the motherland, Rehana, the symbolical mother, feels it is her duty to feed her children, a trope that runs through Hossain’s River of My Blood as well, and which emphasizes the supporting role of women during the war. She is often described assessing her food supplies, cooking, and feeding people; the refugees who gathered around her home in the wake of Operation Searchlight as well as her neighbors. She feels it is her duty to send “[her] son to war with a full stomach” (Anam 2008a, 84). The military undertones of the word duty make the domestic role of mothers intersect with the the idea of supporting the cause. Mothers throughout the novel want to feed their sons, and food also becomes a pretext for them to stay involved. For example, Joy’s mother, Mrs Bashir, brings morag polao, her son’s favorite dish to Rehana, whom she suspects is in touch with her sons. The way the food is presented throughout their exchange, carried on a silver tray, makes it seem like an offering to obtain information about her son. (139–41). However, this nurturing image of mothers is nuanced by the episode of the dinner at Mrs Chowdhuri’s house. War makes its way into the narrative in the crudest way as the hostess “plunges her knife into the” (one could say sacrificial) “lamb” (54). The juxtaposition of the meal with Operation Searchlight evokes a vampire-like West Pakistan exhausting the resources of East Pakistan, an image that resonates with the argument made by Sohail at the beginning of the novel: “We grow the rice, we make the jute, and yet we get nothing – no schools, no hospitals, no army” (29; emphasis added). The anaphoric structure underlines the lack of public services, and at the same time foregrounds the overwhelming presence of the Pakistani army after March 1971. The dinner scene, in which the characters “devour[ed] the roast lamb, smacking their lips and sucking on the bones” (55), conjures up the Christmas turkey dinner in Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef (1994).

13Against the backdrop of political turmoil in Sri Lanka, Triton, the main character, is asked to cook a turkey for Christmas. In spite of his fear of the meat rotting in the heat, the turkey turns out to be a success, and after the dinner, Triton bones the bird, thinking of himself as “an animal devouring its prey” (Anam 2008a, 94). Both of these scenes involving meat can be seen as allusions to an imperial mode of governance and to the fight for power. The dinner at Mrs Chowdhuri’s house creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that heightens the tensions and underlines the intersection of the collective and the individual, of nation and family. The sense of huis-clos is first conveyed by the silence that surrounds the attack and then heightened by Mrs Sengputa’s demand, “I want to go home” (55–56). The dinner table where “Mrs Chowdhuri’s lamb was a half-eaten corpse with naked ribs and picked-over leg” (56) becomes a synecdoche for Dhaka. A similar trope is used in River of My Blood, with the juxtaposition of a gutted fish and the looming presence of the Pakistani army: “Boori felt as if the blood from Ramija’s hands and knife would flow out to the river, which would eventually run red into the sea” (Hossain and Zinck 2016, 135). The unease caused by the sight of blood, as when Rehana buys meat from the butcher, makes it clear that “this isn’t war. It’s genocide” (Anam 2008a, 79). Only then, as she is interacting with the Urdu-speaking butcher, surrounded by “cuts of meat hanging […] like wet jewels,” does Rehana identify her own native Urdu as the “language of her enemy” (119). Domestic spaces, domestic roles and tasks, like preparing a meal and buying food supplies, map out the political conflict and make it possible for the reader to look at war from a different angle. As Amy Finnerty puts it, Anam “places us in a time and place that, for most readers outside of Bangladesh, is grippingly foreign yet, somehow, familiarly human” (2015, 43).

Reclaiming the female body: from nation to woman

14The image of a nurturing mother, with Rehana’s cooking and Bangladesh’s lush landscapes, is also supported throughout the novel by the recurring motif of fertility. West Pakistan, where Faiz’s “barren” (Anam 2008a, 6) wife takes Rehana’s children, is described as “parched” (19), and contrasts strongly with the vegetation in East Pakistan. The country is depicted in a sensuous tableau:

She dipped her fingers into the rosebush, heavy with dew and plucked a flower. She held it in her hand as she wandered through the rest of the garden, ducking between the wall-hugging jasmine and the hibiscus, crossing the tiny vegetable patch that was giving them the last of the season’s cauliflower, zigzagging past the mango tree, the lemon tree, the shouting-green banana tree. (15–16)

In this description, Rehana’s body seems intertwined with the land. Basking in her fertile garden, she seems to already be the mother of the nation in the making. The mother figure that catalyzes filial love may also represent a desired woman. Rehana is in fact both. In From Gender to Nation, Rada Ivekovic and Julie Mostov evoke the traditional idea of the female body becoming a “national collective” (2002, 11). Anam seems to rely on this, as she weaves images of fertility and motherhood into the political struggle for independence. Yet, what could serve a nationalist narrative, where “mothers, wives, and daughters [designate] the space of the nation and are, at the same time, the property of the nation” (11), turns out to actually destabilize such a positioning. In fact, women are not portrayed as a national collective; they are represented individually, with their own challenges and desires. The need to protect women as a symbol of virtue for the nation, which is a tenet of patriarchal politics, is alluded to in Mrs Chowdhuri’s urge to marry off her daughter. But as she fears for her daughter’s safety, the scene also emphasizes how absurd it is for her to believe that marriage will keep her safe. To a certain extent, her character, like her house filled with relics of the past, represents the traditional narrative of partition wars. But her voice fades in a narrative that revolves around Rehana, Maya, and other women whose agency challenges the commodification of women in war novels.

15Rehana never remarried and appears as a single mother archetype (Biswas and Tripathi 2017, 524) – and even in her marriage, she seemed to be independent. She did not give in to the advances of the bank employee when she went to ask for a loan. She claims her body as her own. It is interesting to underline that one of the reasons she was deemed an unfit mother by the judge was that she let her children watch Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963). This reference, although anachronistic given that the children are sent to Lahore in 1959 (Gorra 2008), actually reinforces Rehana’s agency and her independence. Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts foreshadow Rehana’s control over her sexuality. While the war is waging, Rehana falls in love with a wounded soldier, the Major, as she nurses him back to health. This romance leads them to share precious moments, listening to Nina Simone’s “I loves you, Porgy” and watching Asif’s film Mughal-e-Azam (Anam 2008a, 146). The fateful love story between Prince Salim and Anarkali, the servant girl, foreshadows the fateful outcome of the Major and Rehana’s romance, but more importantly, it reclassifies transgression as pleasure. The main narrative seems to pause at times, evoking Nina Simone’s holding her breath (143). The chapter entitled “I loves you, Porgy” introduces a new tempo in the storytelling; it starts with the unstoppable violence of the Pakistani army, moves to the swelling of discontent, mirrored in the text by the enumeration, “Lenin and Castro and Mujib and Anwar Sadaat” (130), and then pauses as Rehana rediscovers herself, alone in her house, without her children. The Major’s presence at Shona is a double transgression: not only is Rehana alone with a man, she is also hiding a freedom fighter, a deserter from the Pakistani Army. With him, she discovers Nina Simone: “Nina. Sounded like a Bengali name. Rehana had a melting feeling in her mouth, as though she had bitten down on a pink overripe guava” (144). The erotic undertone, which echoes the lush description of Rehana’s garden, paves the way for Rehana’s “hungry love” (215). She feels defined as a mother but rediscovers herself a woman in the arms of the Major.

16Reclaiming women’s bodies also means reclaiming certain emblems of femininity. One striking instance of this is women’s use of their saris as signs of protest. To make blankets for the refugees, Rehana wants to donate her saris and use their fabric. Kept in a steel almirah, gathering dust, they are literally relics of a former life. However, they are described in a very empowering, sensual way:

the tight revolutions of material around her hips and legs limiting movement, the empty space between blouse and petticoat permitting unexpected sensations – the thrill of a breeze that has strayed low, through an open window, the knowledge of heat in strange places, the back, the exposed belly. (Anam 2008a, 91)

17Giving them a new purpose, Rehana not only reaffirms control of her own body, she is also able to take action. The saris become an emblem of resistance, of fighting back, and may evoke the way they became tools of agency for abducted women who chose to commit suicide. In many accounts given by survivors, in camps or in bunkers, women were stripped naked, their hair cut short, as a way to prevent them from hanging themselves (Saika, 115). Similarly, Maya’s white saris are a means to show her sense of justice and her political indignation. After the 1970 cyclone, Maya “joined the student Communist Party […] and began to wear only white saris” (Anam 2008a, 33–34). This sartorial political statement invites the reader to consider the different ways in which women participated in the nation making. As Naila Kabeer explains it, white saris, as well as colorful saris and bindis, became signs of political dissent for women (2011, 142).

18Rehana, who is from an older generation and a diasporic subject, does not understand her daughter Maya’s choices at first. In her eyes, the struggle has changed her. Her face has “sharpened” (Anam 2008a, 76), her body shouts determination as when she is at war practice, “raising her knees higher than all the others” (87). She is desperate to fight. Her character destabilizes the national discourse that focuses on male war heroes and on birangona. The hope inspired by the uprising is seen mostly through her eyes, although it is Sohail who joins the freedom fighters. She is the one shouting “Joy Bangla” at the stadium, the one who encourages her mother to embrace the cause “in solidarity” (50) and who challenges her allegiance. But it is neither the struggle nor the ideas that has changed her. It is the frustration she feels from being left aside.

She behaved as though no one had told her that once the war began there would be nothing for her to do but wait. No one had told her that she would only be allowed to imagine it from a distance. No one had told her how lonely, how hot, how tiresome, the days would be. And no one had told her that her friend would be the first to go. (85; emphasis added)

The anaphora seems to heighten her feeling of injustice. Yet, the use of the conditional points to her inability to accept what is prescribed, what she has been “told” by society. This desire to fight for her country was shared by many, but as Azra Rashid explains it, women were “pushed out of the battlefield and encouraged to offer support in secondary roles as care providers and nurses” (2019, 95). So, Maya finds a way to assert her agency in the war by writing articles and helping at a refugee camp in Calcutta. The reader gets more insight into her experience than into Sohail’s, while Anam focuses on women, on refugees, on silenced and forgotten voices.

Telling the war from the margins: recovering herstory

19In her article “The War that Time Forgot,” Anam underlines that “many young women were given informal military training; in the villages, especially among the Adivasi hill people, women smuggled arms to the front lines of the resistance” (2008b). Considering the way war is told through Maya’s and Rehana’s perspectives, I argue that the novel is a privileged writing form to address what in the text is called “wilful forgetting” (Anam 2008a, 225), and to bring to the fore the women Anam salutes in her article and who are left out of the prevalent patriarchal accounts.

20Seeing the story from the perspective of Rehana, whom Anam calls an “unintentional hero” (2011b), the reader is confronted with the reality of war for ordinary people. Rehana is a mother – but her story can easily be read as an allegory. The tone is set in the prologue. The war will be seen from within a family, from a mother’s perspective. The first words of the novel are haunting: “Dear husband, I lost our children today” (Anam 2008a, 3), and they reverberate throughout the rest of the narrative. The only fear Rehana has is to lose her children again, this time to the cause. In the intersection of the collective and the individual, many things are played out. Nationalism and activism are intertwined with a mother’s love. But the feeling that prevails in the first pages and throughout the text is loss. When Rehana says: “I lost our children,” her grief announces the loss of innocence experienced by an entire generation; this feeling is epitomized by Joy, Sohail’s friend, whose face shows “no trace of childhood” (133). Distraught after he hears of his brother’s death, Joy tells Rehana: “we are all dead” (133). Although they are surrounded by actual death, Joy’s statement also reads as a symbolic death, the end of youth, the end of the country as they know it. This idea of a sacrificed generation is reinforced by the fact that Joy, his brother and Sohail all wear each other’s shirts. They appear as one and the same, and as Rehana remembers “the blessing she had blown on Joy’s forehead […] and the tender way in which he had thanked her and touched her feet” (141), she embodies all the war-mothers. In fact, by the end of the novel, Rehana is portrayed as a different kind of mother, she is the mother of all the young Bengalis who fought in the war, and whose lives were broken. Through her, all of them can be remembered.

21But as Maya insists, these stories – Sabeer’s torture, Sharmeen’s death – need to be told, and Anam’s novel is an attempt at filling the gap, mirroring Rehana’s ritual that commemorates the return of her children, described as “a recounting of the past, an attempt at reckoning” (Anam 2008a, 35). Maya Scheherazade is her storyteller. With her typewriter as her weapon, which “sounds like a machine-gun” (103), she writes about the war. She presses her mother to tell her how Sabeer was tortured. And then, she confronts Silvi about not wanting to know what happened to her husband when he was detained. She represents the relentless need to tackle the “unspeakable things” (247) of the war. When she finds out the truth about Sharmeen – that she was raped and killed by Pakistani soldiers – she presses for more details: “I want to know their names […]. The ones who raped her. I want to know” (123), she demands. As she is asking for names, she is also the one to name the crime, and throughout the novel, and in this scene in particular, Maya voices the feeling of an entire generation of women who want the truth to be known. After this, Rehana sends her away telling her to “write some good stories” (126), and Maya starts writing for a newspaper. Her article “Chronicles of a Young Woman in Wartime” (189) makes her uncle furious. In The Good Muslim (2011), the second installment of the trilogy, Maya finds one of her old articles, “The World Looks on as Bangladesh Bleeds: A Cry for Help” (Anam 2011, 85), that was never published. She is the voice of a generation, telling the story of resistance from the sidelines, from the refugee camp, a voice that wants justice. She embodies the necessity to give voice to the victims of the war and to acknowledge war crimes. In the same way as Rehana can’t forgive Faiz (“I cannot forgive you, brother. For my daughter I cannot forgive you,” 273), the narrative seems to invite the reader not to forget.

22In “Gender and Nation: Some Reflections from India,” Urvashi Butalia points out that

when women narrate the nation they do so rather differently than men. In men’s narratives of the nation, women are often seen as symbols of national and family honor. In women’s narratives, the concerns are often different: the need to keep the family together, to contain grief, to put closures on unexplained deaths, to try and somehow contain the violence that such a situation inevitably unleashes. (2000, 111)

Anam’s narrative illustrates this approach perfectly. There is a syncopation in the story – a pause with the chapter “Operation Searchlight” (that is signaled by “later she would say,” 64); this pause not only embodies the trauma of war, it is also a way to contain violence, to keep it at a distance. In fact, violence mostly happens offstage. The “collective deafness” (Anam 2008a, 53) that strikes the characters seems to mirror the silence in the creative responses to the war, as there are few accounts of it. As Louise Harrington underlines it, the “thirdspaces of 1971 are revealed in the side storylines” (2011, 242). Sabeer is captured and tortured. The sight of his broken body and the screams of his broken mind haunt Rehana. She reveals the details of his captivity:

‘They beat him, broke his ribs.

‘They made him stare at the sun for hours, days.

‘They burned cigarette holes on his back.

‘They hung him upside down.

‘They made him drink salt water until his lips cracked.

‘And they tore out his fingernails.’ (Anam 2008a, 215)

In this list, Sabeer has disappeared, as if Rehana were acknowledging the damage done to his pulverized body. The way Rehana pauses, which translates on the page by a blank space, echoes the syncopation previously mentioned, a way to contain the violence. Moreover Anam chooses to address violence against women in an oblique way by creating gaps in the narrative. Both Mrs Sengupta and Sharmeen disappear, and although Mrs Sengupta survives, she becomes only the ghost of herself. In the first chapters, she is described as a determined woman. But in the commotion triggered by the news of the canceled elections, Mrs Sengupta loses her teep, her bindi (44). This minor accident in which her blouse and stomach are exposed hints at the religious aspect of the conflict. Her fallen sari (46) is a metonymic reference to violence against Hindu women, and at the same time it foreshadows the atrocities she will witness and endure. When Rehana finds her at the refugee camp, she can’t speak. Mrs Sengupta embodies the discursive silence of women evoked by Kajalie Shehreen Islam when she underlines that “women were neither the audience nor the subject of the news of 1971 and were largely absent from the entire discourse, except for Muslim ‘mothers and sisters’ as victims” (2018).

23In the narrative, violence against women lurks in the chapter entitled “Tikka Khan, the Butcher of Bengal!,” and it is contained in short paragraphs: “Throughout June, Tikka Khan’s soldiers made their way across the summer plains of Bangladesh. They looted homes and burned roofs. They raped. They murdered. They lined up the men and shot them into ponds. They practiced old and new forms of cruelty” (Anam 2008a, 129). Women are erased. The words rape and murder are used as intransitive verbs. Genocidal rape is only hinted at, framed with other forms of atrocities (which are more thoroughly documented in historical accounts). There is a parallel between the grammatical erasure of women and the way Sharmeen’s disappearance is dealt with. Maya’s best friend is first introduced as “famous on campus for her political posters” and practically living at Rehana’s (44). The night of Operation Searchlight she goes missing: “But Sharmeen. Sharmeen could not be found” (71). The nominal sentence suggests the difficulty of finding words. The elision of the verb juxtaposed with the passive form encapsulates the violence women had to face. Her name slowly disappears from the narrative too. She is only mentioned three times after that, before the reader becomes acquainted with her story: “And then (Sohail) told (Maya) everything” (123). Yet, as mentioned earlier, the truth of Sharmeen’s abduction comes from Maya. Unlike other works on the Bangladesh War of Independence, such as Nilima Ibrahim’s Ami Birangona Bolchi (A War Heroine, I Speak), first published in Bengali in 1994, which sheds light on the atrocities that came with the commodification of the bodies of women, A Golden Age does not dwell on the nature of the crime; but like these same works, the narrative expresses a need for accountability. When Faiz tries to dismiss Rehana’s accusation, she insists: “You listen to me. Her name was Sharmeen. They took her and they kept her at the cantonment – not a mile from your house. And the girl was tortured until she died. They did things – unspeakable things – to her. She was the same age as Maya. How do you explain that?” (191). Sharmeen’s disappearance mirrors the discursive erasure of women in the national narrative. But Rehana’s insistence that her name be known underlines that it is not enough to acknowledge that they were victims of war crimes; their names should be remembered too and they should obtain justice.

24Anam draws attention to the forgotten, overlooked archives that would balance the narrative of nation-making. The novel itself is turned into a platform to showcase such archives as it alludes to and thus pays homage to Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a fierce advocate for women’s education, and Jahanara Imam, the mother of martyrs, who campaigned to bring war criminals to justice. Early on, Mrs Sengupta has a dream of becoming a writer and mentions Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream, a short story that celebrates a utopian matriarchal society. In her introduction to Gender, Nationalism and Genocide in Bangladesh, Azra Rashid underlines the necessity to examine the sites where history is memorialized. Focusing on the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh, she discusses the role of Sultana’s Dream as a feminist text and argues that it was one of the first to be embraced by the nationalist agenda (2019, 3–4). Mrs Sengupta is inspired by Hossain’s literary career. In fact, the first time she meets Rehana, she points out that she is writing a novel (Anam 2008a, 37). And when she is found by Rehana at the refugee camp, unable to speak, Rehana, remembering her mentioning the book, gives her a pen and paper. Only then is she able to start expressing what happened to her. One other very interesting intertext at work here is Jahanara Imam’s Of Blood and Fire. This diary first published in 1986, in Bengali, chronicles the war from the perspective of a mother whose son is a guerrilla. Like Imam, Anam captures the fear felt by war-mothers and the grief that surrounds them. Rehana and Imam are also allegorical mothers, embracing political change (Khan 2020, 90). Through the parallel between the two women, and the homage paid to Imam in The Good Muslim as the “Mother of Martyrs” (Anam 2011a, 95), it is the political force of women and mothers that is asserted.

25At the end of the novel, Rehana has become a collector of stories, someone who inspires others to share their stories. Anam’s novel stands for a repository for these stories to exist as an attempt to not forget. Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin explain in their study of women at the time of India’s Partition, that traditional historical archives are not enough; there is a need to turn to oral history – as Anam did, using some of her grandmother’s experience – to letters and memoirs, but also to Partition fiction, for they provide “women’s voices, speaking for themselves” (1998, 12). In this regard, in the same way as Maya becomes the voice of her generation, a secondary character like Silvi is an invitation to look back on the rise of radical Islam in a young secular Bangladesh and to reassess the role of women in the making of nation and identity.

26Anam brings the focus back onto the family units, onto ordinary lives. The narrative tells the story of an “exceptional” generation for whom struggle was the only lifeline. Like the grandmother in Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, who explains that she grew up with police raids, Maya and Sohail come of age in a context of political exception. And like Boori in River of My Blood, Rehana finds her cause not in a country, but first of all in her children. Partition is a state affair, but it is also a family affair. As Butalia explains, women’s narratives and testimonies are empowering when it comes to acknowledging history, but they have their shortcomings (2000, 16). There is not a single voice, but many voices for women; each has her own background, social status, etc. (Butalia 2000, 280). In her novel, and thanks to the flexibility of fiction, Anam brings together different types of women. Mrs Rahman, Mrs Akram, Maya, Silvi, Sharmeen, all create a polyphony of women’s voices that almost blocks out the soldiers in the narrative. The epigraph of the novel is the last stanza from Shamsur Rahman’s poem entitled, “Freedom, You are,” an homage to the freedom fighters (“muktijhoddhas”). With it, Anam also pays homage to the women who fought for freedom and to the necessity to “scribble” and tell their stories.

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Bibliography

Anam, Tahmima. 2008a. A Golden Age. 2007. New York: Harper.

Anam, Tahmima. 2008b. “The War that Time Forgot.” The Guardian, 10 April. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/apr/10/bangladesh.photography.

Anam, Tahmima. 2011a. The Good Muslim. New York: Harper.

Anam, Tahmima. 2011b. Interview by Terry Hong. Bookslut. July. http://www.bookslut.com/features/2011_07_017958.php.

Anam, Tahmima. 2015. “An Interview with Tahmima Anam.” By Amy Finnerty. “A Voice in the World.” A Special Issue on Bangladesh, Wasafiri 30: 43–46.

Biswas, Sanjib Kr, and Priyanka Tripathi. 2017. “Relocating Women’s Role in War: Rereading Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age.The Criterion: An International Journal in English 8, no. 1 (February): 522–28. www.the-criterion.com.

Boehmer, Elleke. 2005. Stories of Women, Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence, Voices from the Partition of India. 1998. Durham: Duke University Press.

Butalia, Urvashi. 2002. “Gender and Nation: Some Reflections from India.” In Ivekovic and Mostov, 99–112.

Ghosh, Amitav. 2005. The Shadow Lines. 1988. Boston: Mariner.

Gorra, Michael. 2008. “Birth of a Nation.” The New York Times, 27 January. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/books/review/Gorra-t.html.

Gunesekera, Romesh. 1998. Reef. 1994. London: Granta.

Harrington, Louise. 2011. “An-Other Space: Diasporic Responses to Partition in Bengal.” In India and the Diasporic Imagination, edited by Rita Christian and Judith Misrahi-Barak, 237–50. Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée.

Hossain, Selina, and Pascal Zinck. 2016. River of My Blood. New Delhi: Rupa.

Islam, Kajalie Shehreen. 2018. “The Discursive Silence of Women in 1971.” The Daily Star, 16 December. https://www.thedailystar.net/1971-the-battles-women-fought/news/the-discursive-silence-women-1971-1674070.

Ivekovic, Rada, and Julie Mostov, eds. 2002. From Gender to Nation. Ravenna: Longo Editore.

Kabeer, Naila. 2011. “The Quest for National Identity: Women, Islam and the State in Bangladesh.” In Perspectives on Modern South Asia, A Reader in Culture, History and Representation, edited by Kamala Viswewaran, 139–53. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Khan, Mosarrap Hossain. 2020. “Motherhood and the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971).” In The Concept of Motherhood in India: Myths, Theories and Realities, edited by Zinia Mitra, 85–95. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Menon, Ritu, and Kamla Bhasin. 1998. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Rashid, Azra. 2019. Gender, Nationalism and Genocide in Bangladesh. Milton Park: Routledge.

Saika, Yasmin. 2011. Women, War and The Making of Bangladesh, Remembering 1971. Durham: Duke University Press.

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References

Electronic reference

Sabine Lauret-Taft, “You’re Just a Housewife. What on Earth Could You Possibly Do?”: The History of the Bangladesh War of Independence Told by Women in Tahmima Anam’s A Golden AgeCommonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 43.1 | 2020, Online since 30 October 2020, connection on 28 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ces/4107; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ces.4107

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About the author

Sabine Lauret-Taft

Université de Franche Comté

Sabine Lauret-Taft is an Associate Professor at the University of Bourgogne Franche-Comté. She completed a joint PhD at University Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle and the University of Madras in 2010. Her dissertation analyzed the notions of voices, language and discourse in Amitav Ghosh’s novels. Her major research interests are Southeast-Asian fiction, conflicted spaces and territories, diasporic cultures, and the use of archival material in fiction. She has published articles on Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Monica Ali. Her most recent work focused on “Postcolonial Anxiety in Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef” (Colonial Extensions, Postcolonial Decentrings, 2018). She is currently working on Tahmima Anam’s trilogy.

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