The Bones of Grace: Rewriting History
Tahmima Anam. ISBN 978-1-84767-977-2. London: Canongate, 2016
Tahmima Anam attracted an international readership when her debut novel A Golden Age (2007) won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book in 2008. After this splendid arrival Anam added two more novels to her credit: The Good Muslim (2011), which was shortlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and her latest The Bones of Grace (2016), the final fiction of her loosely-knit Bengal trilogy.
The Bones of Grace revolves around the story of Zubaida Haque (a third generation member of Haque family and adopted daughter of Maya Haque, the protagonist of The Good Muslim) who unhesitatingly reveals to her audience the fact of her adoption at the very onset of the novel. The revelation, undoubtedly, is intertwined with the question of belonging and identity, which constitutes one of the core thematic concerns of the novel.
Zubaida is a marine palaeontologist, studying at Harvard, and is about to leave Cambridge for the archaeological dig in Pakistan where she wishes to retrieve the fossils of Ambulocetus natans – a rare type of walking whale which is attracted to the “lure of the seas and the comforts of land” (20) – from the sediments of the ancient Tethys sea. On the eve of her departure, she meets Elijah Strong – a Harvard graduate who has recently dropped out of a doctoral programme in Philosophy – at Sanders Theatre, and feels a deep emotional connection with this blue-eyed American. These two youngsters from disparate worlds seem to share an emotional bond which is immediate and intense. This cross-cultural relationship, however, scripts a tortured footnote to a fairytale of 'living happily ever after' when in an emotionally vulnerable moment Zubaida faces a public failure near the Tethys and decides to marry her childhood sweetheart Rashid after she returns from Pakistan. It was Zamzam, the son of the local chieftain, who discovered the bones of Ambulocetus, and hailed them as the bones of grace that will “rewrite everything we have known about our history” (57). The recurring image of the fossil, Diana, and the metaphor of digging, altogether, function as reminders that Zubaida's odyssey entails a search for her identity, her roots, her past which is mired in hidden truths, and a quest to rekindle the embers of a seemingly dead love, a pursuit to re-penetrate the consciousness of the man whom she had loved and lost. The narrative, here, is structured in the form of a letter, addressed to this invisible stranger and visitor from across the 'seven seas.' The letter, however, not only recounts the saga of the unbearable sadness of unfulfilled longings and happiness of a singular character, but also it carves space for marginal voices.
In “The Testimony of Anwar,” the readers are allowed to penetrate the psychology of a Bengali labourer, Anwar, who migrates to Dubai leaving behind Megna, with the girl whom he had loved and impregnated, as well as Shathi, his dark-skinned unconsummated bride. Together, they search for a better future only to discover themselves utterly crushed under the dehumanising and debilitating working conditions of that country. Set across diverse cultures and climates, Anam's narrative thus brings forth the contemporary global experiences of labourers who are caught in the maze of the “machinery of modernity.” The episode named “Prosperity Shipbreaking” delves deep into the darker and harsher realities of contemporary Bangladesh unearthing the tragic scenario of a world where workers are forced to function sans any safety precautions while cutting and striping away metals from the bodies of ruined/decommissioned ships in the dark and gloomy beaches of the Chittagong port. “Shipbreaking is important for Bangladesh. We need steel,” contends a character, referring to child-labour, lack of enough supply of food and proper sanitation system for the workers- the sufferers of exploitation and low-payment, injustice, marginalization and discrimination.
Anwar's deeply disturbing tale bears a significant weight in unwinding and then winding back the story to its satisfactory end, because he is the missing a “link in Zubaida's broken chain.” Zubaida's existence is not tethered to a great cause; as no great war has defined the moral/ethical perspectives of her generation as it did her parents,' she hardly shares her mother's desperate desire to see the war criminals hanged. Zubaida does not bear the burden of avenging her country's humiliating past; though she feels proud to call her parents freedom fighters, she always resented the space the liberation war took up, creating an unbridgeable gap between them. If Zubaida is in thrall to anything then it is her individual past, the riddle of her birth which she must solve. And finally, when she has been able to piece together all the disjointed parts of the fossil as well as herself, she feels confident enough to place her heart in the immortal pages of history, hoping that one day Elijah, the love of her life, will come back.
One of the commendable features of Bones is its nuanced prose, although at times it seems to lack brevity and precision. A flatness of tone pervades the first 120 or so pages. Anam's language is at its best and replete with lyricism when she offers detailed descriptions of Diana, or the decommissioned ship, named Grace. Her metaphors and images are pictorial where the fossils, for instance, “like fairytale crumbs....began to emerge from the rock”. (67)
In this book, Anam's characters hail from diverse strata of society, possessing their distinct shortcomings and prejudices; for example, Zubaida's upper-class mother-in-law Dolly does not hesitate to condemn Zubaida's origin as 'bad background,' once her post-marriage affair with Elijah is revealed. On the other hand, Anwar's mother pressurises his son to divorce his 'darkie wife' since she has not begotten any heir to the family. These insular mindscapes of the characters, here, parallel the condition of the post-independent cityscape where despite Ghulam Azam's death, the country remains “troubled as it has ever been.” (402)
Finally, the title, I must say, is carefully chosen as it reminisces the predominant themes and concerns of the novel. It is the bones of Diana, the remnants of the shattered ship (Grace) that eventually led Zubaida to the discovery of her 'self,' her origins. They appear in Zubaida's life with unparalleled grace, offering her insights into the intricacies of human relationships and histories: “that's what happens . . . when you fall in love . . . suddenly there is a thread connecting your life and all the lives that went before you and all the lives that will follow” (403). Thus in the end, Zubaida is able to imagine an alternative notion of belonging, assuming her life not as a frozen entity, rather as a continuum of things that are past and at the same time, present.
Natasha Afrin is Lecturer, Institute of English and Other Languages, Rajshahi University.