On the Murder of Bloggers, and Bangladesh’s Greatest Living Writer
Tahmima Anam's Novels Offer Both Art and Activism
It’s a strange time to read a novel about Bangladesh.
“Bangladesh says it now knows who’s killing the bloggers,” a New York Times headline blared this month, announcing a putative end to the mystery of a string of assassinations. But the article merely confirmed what has been known for months: a series of 39 targeted killings over the last three years were the doing of at least two Islamic extremist cells. Bangladeshi authorities have been painfully slow to respond to the killings (cops watched the murder of writer Avijit Roy without intervening, then insisted there was “no dereliction of duty;” the only responder to the killing of Oyasiqur Rahman was a hijra beggar). But the first group of perpetrators, Ansarullah Bangla Team, began claiming responsibility for the attacks months ago. The other, Ja’amatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, has been operating in the country since 1998.
In truth, bloggers weren’t the only ones targeted for violence. In the last nine months, victims have included an Italian foreign aid worker, a Japanese farmer, a publisher, a liberal arts professor, a Buddhist monk, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and (most recently) a policeman’s wife. Journalists have been subjected to death threats, too.
The list of victims does not appear to include any novelists, and so much the better. But Bangladesh is a place that has always taken language and literature seriously—in 1913, the first Asian Nobel laureate for literature was Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, which remains a national point of pride a century on; in mid-century, Bangladesh’s 18-year movement for independence from Pakistan made a point of protecting the country’s linguistic heritage—and this conflict is at its core a struggle between fundamentalists (who want Islam to be the center of Bangladeshi identity) and ethnic nationalists who emphasize a Bengali identity centered on secular culture. So the current situation calls to mind a question: in a place where writing is a central bone of contention, can any writer capture what’s going on?
If one could, it would be Tahmima Anam, arguably Bangladesh’s most influential living writer. “I consider writing, fiction and nonfiction, to be my activism,” she told me recently. Her latest novel is out this week.
That’s clear from the first two books of Anam’s Bengal Trilogy, which both center on national politics. The books follow three generations of women through Bangladesh’s history. The first, A Golden Age, begins from not long after the 1947 Partition of India, which made the eastern half of the Bengal region part of Pakistan, and ends at the close of the blood-drenched 1971 Liberation War, which made the country independent. The second, The Good Muslim, centers on the next generation, traversing post-conflict development in the 1970s and a resurgence of hard-right Islamism in the 1980s.
Her third book, The Bones of Grace, runs all the way up to the present. It’s also so sharply realistic that for those who have lived in Bangladesh recently (like me), it feels like nonfiction.
Anam has been criticized in the past for inaccuracies in her novels; her first book, A Golden Age, depicted protagonists watching a movie in 1959 that wasn’t released in actuality until 1963, for instance. But The Bones hews so closely to real life in present-day Bangladesh that written descriptions of a few locations could almost be substituted with photographs. (The protagonist asks her driver to “take me to the pharmacy in Gulshan 1, the one under the ice cream parlor,” for instance—and there really is a drug store directly below a second-floor A&W Restaurant at that large Dhaka intersection, and Anam’s description of it is accurate down to the pharmacy techs’ irritating behavior.) Many other moments are equally vivid in their realism.
If Anam deviates from the present-day realities of Bangladeshi culture, it’s often to omit some of the silly bullshit that tends to preoccupy upper-class Dhaka ladies, a choice for which she deserves hearty praise. In other moments, it’s to be more forthright and progressive than typical. She’s unusually direct about how the ostensible communist ideals of the Liberation War have long since given way to fairly exploitative neoliberalism. She also makes a brave choice to include a character from Pakistan—the country carried out genocidal violence against Bengalis in the 1971 war, and that some Bengalis continue to fear and dislike—and make him sympathetic, courageous, and reasonable (if quite peripheral).
But while A Golden Age’s hero, Rehana, sheltered freedom fighters, and her daughter Maya spent part of The Good Muslim giving abortions to women raped by Pakistani soldiers, The Bones’ protagonist, Zubaida, is not in the thick of the current political maneuvers of her country.
This third-generation heroine reflects the upper-class people her family has become; the book opens on her doctoral work at Harvard. It’s a place she leaves almost immediately, first for a prestigious paleontology dig in Pakistan and then for a long-anticipated marriage to a childhood friend in Bangladesh. After Pakistani political strife ends the excavation and her marriage begins to dissolve, Zubaida dispatches herself to Bangladesh’s second-largest city, Chittagong. There, she helps a filmmaker interview men involved in shipbreaking, a dangerous form of manual labor for deconstructing decommissioned ships on the beaches near Chittagong port, and interviews a worker named Anwar. His life story ends up dovetailing with her own in surprising ways.
One of those ways is the quest for a lost love. The book is framed as a long letter to an American man who Zubaida met, fell in love with, and left in Cambridge, and around Anwar’s marriage and his hunt for the woman he loves. Many pages pass with both characters tangled in dueling romantic assignations.
That’s not wrong. Marriageability and a sometimes romance-killing sense of propriety have long been important to South Asian culture. Zubaida tells her Harvard paramour the tale of a great-great-uncle, “the only man in the history of my family to have ventured beyond the boundaries of his home in search of love,” who falls for a Jewish-American woman and finds himself beset with such ferocious familial disapproval that he agrees to cancel the wedding—and immediately commits suicide. There are things in this book that feel too far-fetched, but to people in South Asia, that anecdote won’t necessarily be one of them. The romantic intrigues aren’t any less realistic than the rest of the book.
Nor does Anam focus on romance only. Her protagonist is socially aware enough to help make a film about the extreme safety and labor rights violations involved in shipbreaking. In real life, this largely neglected topic has been the focus of a documentary called Iron Crows (2009) and photos by Edward Burtynsky. Anam also moves her heroine completely off the page and lets Anwar, the impoverished Bangladeshi laborer, take center stage for a large portion of the book. His first-person explanation of an excruciatingly difficult life also rings true, and it’s a perspective few Western readers will find so thoroughly described anywhere else.
What the book doesn’t do is link this character’s situation to the political upheaval that his disenfranchisement is actually creating in Bangladesh. The narrative might loop from Anwar’s tale of being nearly killed in an unsafe workplace and viciously robbed and beaten to his support of anger-soaked, violent politics—providing a rare understanding of why anyone develops such insane political tendencies at all. Instead, it retreats to a highly personal discovery that also serves as the novel’s only far-fetched moment.
This is unfortunate, because the outburst of rage currently leading to the deaths of writers (and others) in Bangladesh has antecedents and context (if not logic, per se) that rarely comes across in writing.
Bangladesh has been split between Islamists and secularists for the entirety of its existence. In 2012, the nation began a tribunal related to crimes of the 1971 war—a fact that Anam mentions in The Bones of Grace. Her heroine’s take on the conviction of real-life war criminal Ghulam Azam is triumphant: “His reckoning had come late, but it had come, and I was there to witness it. I swelled with the weight of the moment, understanding what it was, possibly for the first time, to be my mother’s daughter.”
This pride will resonate with a lot of Bangladeshis. But the book leaves aside the pyrrhic nature of those convictions. The government of Bangladesh mounted the war crimes tribunal in 2012, long after the war. It insisted on including the death penalty in the trials, a move that the world at large rejected after the Nuremberg trials of 1947. This prompted the UN and nearly all other international participants to abandon the proceedings. The tribunal then focused solely on the Bangladeshi participants in the war’s losing side—the Islamic fundamentalists who had also been banned after the war but have steadily built back power since then. The tribunal initially indicted 13 men who retained power in a legally permitted Islamic fundamentalist party called Jamaat Islami, who functioned as the ruling party’s rivals in the present. When one was sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2013, some 200,000 centrist Bangladeshis rallied daily for a month to demand the death penalty for all indicted, evidence notwithstanding, under the thinking that lighter punishments would be reversed by corrupt political deals. Such deals would be impossible if trials and imprisonment had taken place in The Hague, and this would’ve obviated any need for the death penalty, too. But to a public that believed only death could aggrieve the pain of the genocide, the point fell on deaf ears.
Believe it or not, a movement of 200,000 people screaming for death was a relatively peaceful counterfoil to a rapaciously violent far-right opposition party, the BNP and its allies, Jamaat Islami, that year. Amid the war crimes tribunal and a hotly contested election, the opposition mounted well over a hundred hartals, or large-scale riots that can shut down the country. Most involved deaths, sometimes of innocent bystanders. The Awami League cinched the election in a vote that lacked international observers and netted another six-week-long outburst of violence. Violent crises have carried on every year since.
It’s not hard to see why centrists in Bangladesh dislike the far right. But it’s not hard, either, to see why rank-and-file right-wingers embrace rebellion against the increasingly dictatorial and abusive Awami League. This month, the government’s belated response to the run of targeted killings involved a mass arrest of over 11,000 people—just the latest in a number of mass arrests—of whom just 194 were known Islamist militants. Six of them were shot dead in custody. One wonders if any of the other 10,806 people might have experienced something like the treatment Anwar gets from a prison guard (“‘You gonna kill me too, or what?’ ‘We could,’ he said, ‘or we could leave you in here to rot. No one would notice…’ He pulls off his belt and he’s holding it in his hand… and I’m just hanging there by my arms and when I finally feel it, the knot of leather on my chest, buckle cutting deep, I cry out with the pain, but also with relief, because it’s not the worst, worst thing, until the second lash, and the third.”). One wonders if any of them, beaten or not, might feel something rather like the populist anger that now drives hard-right movements around the world, if it’s just a scaled-up, extreme version of what drives poor white Americans to support Trump or Britons to vote for the Brexit. One wonders if this method has anything to do with Bangladesh’s popular support of the murders of writers.
In the end, the arbitrary arrests might do few favors to the targets of extremist killings. A Hindu lecturer was stabbed after the arrests began. Since the government has also prosecuted bloggers for “offending religious sentiments”—well, little has happened to alter the feeling Anam expressed to me in conversation: “If you do not have state support of free expression, it feels like a lot of writers have nowhere to turn.”
Expecting Anam to cover all that in her novel would be too much to ask, of course—and maybe the author of such an incendiary book would need to be someone whose father is not being prosecuted for his work, as newspaper publisher Mahfuz Anam currently is. “I’m trying not to say anything that would get my father into any more trouble,” Anam told me despite noting the 84 cases against him have all been stayed and may be dismissed (and added, “I think that’s a very powerful message from the state, when they go after a journalist, and especially a journalist of my father’s stature”).
“I do spend many months of the year there, and I do worry that it might be difficult for me to go back someday,” she says, and I, like most people, am in favor of preserving her chance to do that. I’m also in favor of this charming, love-and-marriage-centric novel exactly as it is written, far-fetched denouement notwithstanding.
“The purpose of the novel is to ask questions, it’s not to provide answers,” she says. When I talk to her, she raises one such question in my mind about how to effectively eliminate the twin problems of public rage and politicized murder.
If the world at large is starting to look more like Bangladesh, Anam argues the situation in the country is actually a bit better than the past. “I do think there is, on the one hand, an effort by this government to tackle the problem of fringe groups who are trying to kill people,” she says, that, if overbroad and alienating, is perhaps better than previous governments’ negligence.
She describes the violence as resurgent, mentioning a series of bombings at movie theatres in 2005. Later, when The New York Times covers the blogger murders, I realize she has a good point there. The perpetrators of the 2005 bombings were Ja’amutal Muhahedeen Bangladesh, one of the groups killing people now.
Image: shipbreakers in Chittagong, Bangladesh.