Tahmima Anam's The Bones of Grace is the last in the trilogy that began with A Golden Age and was followed up by The Good Muslim. Despite the recurrence of characters from the previous novels, The Bones of Grace marks a new beginning, as the narrative takes off from the stories of the 1971 Liberation War and its aftermath, to trace the lives of contemporary Bangladeshis. The novel weaves many strands of contemporary life, following its protagonist Zubaida Bashir, and through the ramifications of fate and chance, meshing in the story of Anwar, perhaps the male counter to the life/lives that are being recounted.
This multi-layered novel spans continents, as it traces through the journeys of these two characters the many countries and locales where Bangladeshis tread. Zubaida is a young girl from a privileged background, a graduate student at Harvard University, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. The descriptions of Cambridge and its environs are detailed and evocative of student life in that great university, tracing friendships, chance meetings, academic jealousies and opportunities. It is in the course of her research that Zubaida has to travel to Pakistan in search of a whale, and the dig brings out the first bones of grace as this prehistoric creature is dug from under the soil. Our other ancillary protagonist travels to Dubai to work in construction, and the vagaries of migrant workers as the city's skyscrapers go up gives us the other aspect of transnational Bangladeshi life. The juxtaposition of the two stories of travel and migration shows the political and economic reality of Bangladesh, and how Bangladeshi lives have not and cannot be lived within the borders that had been fought for so passionately.
The juxtaposition of these two stories has a very happy effect. Zubaida's story – of the life, loves and adventures of a young woman from a privileged South Asian family – can easily be read and related to the stock-in-trade of South Asian English writing, and could be compared to many novels. What remains a criticism, and perhaps even a limitation of this genre of writing, is its class provenance. The question has been asked whether writing in English can overcome the class barriers that reading and writing in that language necessarily entails, and every major writer has tried to bring in stories of the poor, of hardship and suffering. Salman Rushdie, for example, sent Saleem Sinai to the slums of Delhi and Bombay, but the magic realism technique of the novel, relieved him of the onus of realist description. Anam takes on the challenge directly, and not only through Anwar, but through the many 'subaltern' characters in the novel – Pahari, Mo and the Shumon gang – disparate social classes are integrated into Zubaida's story. This is indeed a difficult task, as the narrative could easily sink into pathos, or become guilty of 'othering' the poor and the needy. I think this effort is praiseworthy, and the narrative does try to bring in all these facets not only through careful and detailed description, but also through the vagaries of the plot.
The Bones of Graces is primarily a woman's novel, related in the female first-person voice, interjected by Anwar's testimony. It is written as a long letter to a man. It can be read as a love letter, and as a love letter from a woman, it expresses desire, longing and a search for fulfillment. This is what struck me the most on my first reading of the novel: the boldness and the honesty with which this desire is expressed. This requires courage, and the novel is not only courageous but honest in its depiction of female desire. The letter is addressed to Elijah, whom the heroine is in love with, though they had met only briefly and accidentally before her departure from Cambridge for the archaeological digs. The epistolatory style gives the novel immediacy and intimacy, giving the reader a feeling that they are closely following Zubaida through the vagaries of her life. But as we know there is also a limitation to this: the reader gets only one point of view. This is exactly why the novel is so interesting, as we are listening to a young girl recount the story of love, marriage and sexuality.
There is a portrait of a marriage within the pages of the novel – of two marriages really. One is that of Zubaida's, who with her young husband, a childhood sweetheart, son of her parents' closest friends, tries to find happiness within the privileged gilded Gulshan crowd among whom they move. But Zubaida has travelled far and wide, has flown away really, and as she tries to reconcile her flight with the reality of her marriage, can only bring hurt and suffering to all who come within her sphere. This results in immense guilt “weighing me down like stones around my ankles.” Anwar's marriage, on the other hand, brings him back to his original love, and just as Zubaida spends her whole time writing to – talking to – her beloved, so does Anwar, through his sojourn in Dubai, and his inability to love his wife – spends his time searching for his original love. It is this search that draws the two together in ways that transcend class divides. It is difficult to discern which the 'real' transgression in the novel is, but I tend to think that Zubaida's struggle with marriage and love – with an unexplained and inexplicable desire – remains the most striking element in the novel. That women's desire is complex and the voicing of such desire is transgressive, has been witnessed time and again in literature. Whether it be the nineteenth-century women writers like Charlotte and Emily Bronte, or even a writer who is a social worker such as Maitreyee Devi, or the fate suffered by Taslima Nasreen, the expression of female sexual desire has been met with disapproval and even opprobrium. This “relentlessly, brutally truthful” recounting is thus all the more appreciated. And in its relentless honesty, it doesn't spell out a site of fulfillment, thus not falling into the hazardous trope of “white men saving brown women from brown men” as Gayatri Spivak would have it.
Tahmima Anam has been experimenting with both themes – of class and sexuality – recently. Her short story “Garments” has been both admired and reviled for the recounting of women's sexual lives and desires, and as readers we can only await to see what her future writings will be concerned with.
Finally, I feel as though English writing from Bangladesh is finding its own distinctive voice. It has taken flight from its South Asian locales, to transnational locations, flitting from the US to Bangladesh, to the Emirates and Pakistan. India seems to take a back seat here, and even in its geographical purview, Bangladeshi writers are mapping out another South Asia. It reminds one of Zia Haider Rahman's In the Light Of What We Know, in its skipping over the great landmass of India to bring together Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The novels also share a great interest in science, and in bringing science – this time as evolution – into the pages of the novel, span divided intellectual territory.
As we are talking about voice, the novel is written in easy, expressive and flowing English. The cadences of the Dhaka elite are audible, as are, obviously in translation (and the epistolatory style really comes in handy here), the accents of interaction between various classes of people.
With this new novel, published beautifully by Daily Star books, as its Bangladeshi edition, we hope that the Bangladeshi novel is English is ready to take flight and we await a host of new writing from Tahmina Anam and a new crop of Bangladeshi writers.
Firdous Azim is the Chairperson, Department of English and Humanities, BRAC Unversity.