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Original Essays

Honor

by Tahmima Anam
 
  1. A Golden Age: A Novel
    $3.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    A Golden Age: A Novel

    Tahmima Anam
    "[An] impressive debut....[A]n immersive, wrenching narrative." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "[U]nique in its wonderful tenderness and wit, Anam's affecting debut marks the arrival of a significant new voice." Booklist (starred review)


My grandmother likes to tell the story of the day the army came. It was the summer of 1971, six months into the Bangladesh War of Independence. Her eldest son, Wasif, had left home to join the Mukti Bahini — the resistance — and she was left in the city with her two younger children, my mother among them. Dhaka was a small city at the time, still bearing signs of a provincial outpost. When my grandparents had first moved into their neighborhood in the 1950s, the land was still wild and overgrown; she tells me the insects would creep onto their porch overnight, and in the morning she would sweep them back into the mud.

I still remember that house, the semicircular porch, the small garden where I would spend summers sucking the red flowers of the exora bush. Even before she told me the story of the guns buried in the garden, I knew the house had its secrets. It was that sort of house; there was something about the color of the whitewash, the eerie glow of the trees by moonlight.

By the time the war had broken out in 1971, my grandmother was ten years into widowhood. Her husband had died suddenly, of cancer. Although they'd been relatively well-off in his lifetime — there were card parties, a coat from Harrod's, a car — his death had caught them all unawares, as he'd made no provision for her or the children. And in that decade, between his death and the war, she had somehow managed to raise the children, put them in shoes and school uniforms and singing lessons.

After my grandfather's death, his cousin tried to get custody of the children. He was under the impression that my grandfather would have left behind a great deal of money. My grandmother neither won nor lost the case — her children became wards of the court, and every month she had to register at the courthouse to collect on the small life insurance policy that was left in their name. Before the day he died, my grandmother had probably never imagined her husband's death. She certainly would never have spoken of it. But one day he was gone, and she was left with her children in an uncertain world.

I have always wondered why she didn't remarry. She told me once that there had been a proposal, but that she had turned it down because the man had not sufficiently convinced her that he would love her children as he should. She kept the family running with the rent from a house she let next door. My mother tells stories of the strict diet she forced upon them — an abundance of required meals, milk before bedtime, tablespoons of cod liver oil. And other rituals: Vicks rubbed into chests, braids oiled and tightened before school, the regime making up for the leanness of the times and the lack of a father.

Although the Bangladeshi resistance to the army occupation was limited, by August of 1971 the Pakistani troops realized the war would not be a short one. There was a mass-movement against the occupation, and the freedom fighter army — largely untrained and badly equipped — was causing more trouble than they'd bargained for.

My grandmother's neighbor and tenant, Summer Apa, had warned my grandmother not to allow the guerillas to take shelter in her house. But my grandmother, for reasons which may have to do with love or may have to do with courage, had ignored her neighbor's warnings and made her small bungalow into a safehouse for the freedom fighters. She had collected donations for the soldiers and the refugees. Worst of all, she had allowed them to hide their rifles in a box under her rosebushes.

The night before the raid on my grandmother's house, the occupying army arrested all the young men in Dhaka who had links to the nationalist movement. Many of my uncle Wasif's friends were picked up, including a man named Bodi. By the time the army were finished with Bodi, he was ready to tell them anything. They put him into a truck and drove him to my grandmother's house. They made him point to the place in her garden where they'd dug a hole and buried their rifles.

While Bodi and his friends were being rounded up by the army, my grandmother and her daughter were reading poetry. My grandmother was reading the famed Urdu poet Iqbal, and my mother was reading Tagore's Gitanjali. On the two sides of the bed they shared, the two languages which were at war lay balanced as though on a scale. When the army walked in on them, still asleep in their bed, the officer in charge found their poetry books. The Tagore made him angry; the Iqbal confused him. As the interrogation wore on, it would be my grandmother's fluent Urdu that would save their lives.

The soldiers found my grandmother, my mother, and my uncle Rizwan at home. Rizwan was only fourteen. A few nights before, they had celebrated his birthday. My grandmother had sewn him a pair of red pajamas.

They searched every inch of the house. They stationed themselves around the periphery of the garden. My mother remembers asking them to leave her while she changed out of her nightgown. This minor politeness sticks in her memory. Their old cook, Abu'r Ma, squatted in the drawing room as the interrogation began.

The commanding officer separated Rizwan, still in his red pajamas, from the women and asked him why there was a trench dug into the garden. "We're digging a tubewell," he said.

They asked my grandmother, "Why is there a trench dug into the garden?" "We're digging a tubewell," she replied, "there's no water in the pipes."

They had not planned to tell the same story. My grandmother calls this an act of God.

Then one of the soldiers grabbed Rizwan's arm. Let's take the boy, he said, I'm sure we can find a way to make him talk.

My grandmother stood in front of the door and told the officer he would have to kill her first. She spoke to him in Urdu, her native tongue. He was impressed by this. He asked her where the boy's father was. And she said, he's an orphan.

And the officer let him go.

Perhaps it was the word she used — orphan — which swayed the officer. Or her perfect Urdu. Or something in the way she stood in front of the door. This is one part of the story I will never know; the alchemy of that moment. My grandmother insists her acts were never bourn out of courage. If you asked her she would tell you it took more mettle to fight the custody battle, or to survive for a decade without a husband.

After the war ended and Bangladesh gained its freedom, the new nation began its process of commemoration. Something had to be done to classify all the war heroes, the victims, the survivors. For their contributions to the war effort, men who had participated in the war were given state honors for their courage and valor. These honors were divided into five categories; the highest of these was Bir Sreshto. Seven men, all of whom were killed in combat with the Pakistan army, were given this honor.

Women, too, were recognized by the state — not for their heroic deeds, but for their victimization by the Pakistani army. For having suffered the defilement of their honor, the rape victims of the Bangladesh war were named "Birangona" — heroic women. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had led the independence movement, and who became the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh, referred to Birangona women as his daughters, and pleaded with his people to allow these women to return to their families and communities. He set up the Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation Board within the first few months of independence. Part of the Rehabilitation Board's activities were to reintegrate the women into society; to encourage their husbands and fathers to allow them back even after their loss of honor. The other task was to contend with the babies born to the Birangona women. For though he entreated his nation to embrace the Birangona women, Sheikh Mujib referred to their children as "bastards" with "Pakistani blood". In an interview he said, "please send away the children who do not have their father's identity. They should be raised as human beings with honor. Besides, I do not want to keep those with polluted blood in my country."

The Rehabilitation Board set up camps around Bangladesh where the war babies were aborted or sent abroad for adoption. Restoring the honor of the birangonas meant that their children had to be purged from the annals of the new nation.

As for my grandmother, what may have happened that day remains unspoken. Any number of things, things that became commonplace in a country at war. But they did not happen, not on that day, and not in that house. No honor was taken, and in the new nation that was forged, none received. She slips into history, except that I am here to tell her story.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975. She attended Harvard University, where she earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology. A Golden Age is her first novel. spacer

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