This remarkably moving and assured debut, the first in a planned trilogy, tells the story of Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence through the eyes of a widow who will do anything to ensure her children’s survival.
The widow Rehana has remade her life more than once. With her once wealthy Muslim family, she was forced to leave Calcutta for Karachi during Partition; after an arranged marriage she moved to Dhaka with her husband; when her husband died, she temporarily lost her children to her wealthy brother-in-law back in Karachi, until she found the financial means—how and where is her shameful secret—to bring them back a year later. Ten years later, Rehana lives contentedly with her son Sohail and daughter Maya, both politically active students at the local university. Then civil war breaks out and her children sweep Rehana into political events. Sohail, who has always been a pacifist, joins the resistance fighters. Maya, whose best friend has been raped and murdered by the Pakistanis, becomes a resistance spokeswoman. Anam keeps Rehana grounded in a daily routine—there are evocative scenes of cooking, of sewing blankets out of saris, of going to market—that brings Bangladesh to life amid the chaos and carnage of the war. Soon Rehana is hiding not only supplies and armaments on her property, but also a wounded resistance officer. At first she resents him for his role in endangering her son’s life, but growing to love him, as years earlier she grew to love her husband, she confides the secret theft that gave her financial survival and her guilt at losing her children even temporarily. Ultimately, she must make a final horrendous sacrifice to keep them safe again. Rehana is a memorable literary achievement, exemplifying motherhood in all its complexity and intensity. That her relationships with her children are difficult, often prickly, only makes her maternal passion that much more believable and heartrending.
Panoramic in its sense of history, intensely personal in its sense of drama—a wonderfully sad yet joyous read.