The child of a diplomat, Tahmima Anam grew up far away from her native Bangladesh. But all her life, she heard about that country's war for independence — which took place before she was born — from her Bengali parents and their friends. And when she decided to write a novel about Bangladesh, Anam says, she couldn't imagine writing about anything else except the war.
Anam's first novel, A Golden Age, revolves around a family headed by a widow named Rehana — a character inspired by Anam's grandmother and the small but remarkable role she played in that war.
Initially, though, Anam had a different kind of book in mind.
When the Everyday Is Epic
"I thought I would write a sort of epic," she says — "a very muscular narrative that had battle scenes and political rallies and all the sorts of big moments that you see in war novels. But actually, when I sat down to write, I ended up really thinking about what it was like for ordinary people to survive that war."
To research the story, Anam interviewed people who had lived through the war. In 1971, long-simmering hostilities between East and West Pakistan began boiling over. Separated from West Pakistan by language, culture and the expanse of India, East Pakistan chafed under the dominance of the West. When East Pakistan's Awami party won an overwhelming victory in national elections, leaders in the West refused to allow a new parliament to convene. East Pakistani nationalists took to the streets to protest.
Anam's mother, Shaheen, was 19 years old at the time.
"We had no inkling that we were going to war," Shaheen Anam says. "But we thought if we demonstrate, if we protest, if we have rallies ... we are going to be able to convince them. So every day we were out in the street, we were talking, we were singing, we were having meetings, and it was very, very exciting."
Then, on the 25th day of March, the Pakistani army moved in and began indiscriminately killing protestors.
Shahidullah Khan, a young man at the time, was stunned and angered by the massacre.
'We Have to Liberate This Country'
"I saw dead bodies and blood all over Dhaka," says Khan, a friend of the Anam family. "And we decided, four friends to go out — four friends together. We went out, and there was only one motto at that time: We have to liberate this country."
One of those four friends was Tahmima Anam's uncle, Shaheen's older brother. He asked his mother if the resistance fighters could stay at her house, and if they could hide weapons in her garden.
And so Tahmima Anam's grandmother provided food and shelter for the young fighters. While the young men went off on missions, Shaheen Anam stayed home. The atmosphere in the house, she says, was more exhilarating than terrifying. But one morning, the Pakistani army came, looking for her brother.
It was those events, and the stories her relatives told, that inspired Tahmima Anam to write her book. Anam says that in the character of Rehana, she found a way to show what happens when war intrudes unexpectedly on the normal rhythms of life.
"I suppose the idea I had was that people brought their histories, their personal histories, their struggles, their familial struggles into that war," she says.
(In the book, Rehana's reasons for giving over her house are more complex than mere commitment to a cause: Early in the book, we learn that she once lost custody of her children. After their return, her devotion to them was boundless, but that devotion is tested when, in the midst of war, Rehana falls in love.)
"So it's not just that their political ideals motivate their participation in the war," Anam says. "They have all kinds of personal histories, especially Rehana, when she becomes a nationalist. All of these things kind of play into her actions, and ultimately affect very deeply the decision that she takes at the end of the war, and at the end of the book."
Anam says she worried about getting the story of the Bangladesh war right, both for those who lived through it and for those of her own generation who may not know much about it.
And she says she hopes the book will be a way for other people to learn about Bangladesh. This native daughter, who writes in English because she is not comfortable writing in the language of her own country, is nonetheless determined to tell its story. A Golden Age is the first book in a trilogy Anam plans to write about her homeland.