February 26, 2010
Symbolism in A Golden Age: Rehana as Bangladesh
In her novel chronicling the dramatic events of Bangladeshi independence, Tahmima
Anam focuses on the microcosm of a single family: a widowed mother, Rehana, and her two
children, Sohail and Maya. A Golden Age tells the story of Rehana’s struggle to keep her family
and her nation together during wartime chaos. Despite repeated desertion by other male
protectors, Rehana preserves her family through the wartime love of a faithful man. The story of
this brave woman, in particular how she relates to the men in her life, parallels the tumultuous
story of the Bengali people from before Partition to the formation of a distinct nation.
Rehana’s Indian childhood and hasty marriage mirror the Bengali experience during
Partition. Growing up in pre-partition India, Rehana was the neglected last daughter in her
family. She felt alienated from her wealthy father, a “handsome, polished” gentleman with
British tastes, such as Thackeray, piano music, and fashionable parties (138, 144).
By the time
Rehana reached marriageable age, her father had died, and family fortunes had turned upside
down, so she escaped into an arranged marriage (137).
Similarly, the Bengali had grown up
among other “sisters”—the future Pakistanis, the Hindus, etc.—under the paternal hand of Great
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Britain, a distant, foreign father. When the British government left India, the Bengali regions
were united with distant West Pakistan, without much forethought.
Rehana’s life with her husband, Iqbal, was a peaceful, prosperous period, during which
she was surprised by love for the stranger she had married. Iqbal treated her with attentive love
and respect, lavished her with expensive saris, and watchfully guarded the safety of their family.
This happy interlude in Rehana’s precarious life does not correspond directly with the rocky
transformation of Bengal into East Pakistan. Anam prioritizes Rehana’s development as a
character above the neatness of the allegory. Rehana is primarily a believable woman; her
symbolism is lagniappe. Rehana’s union with Iqbal is significant for the allegory, though,
because it produced the children who would dominate her affections—the children who are the
hope of Bangladesh. Furthermore, Iqbal died suddenly, leaving Rehana a widow, a state that
suitably represents post-Partition Bengal. Like an unprotected single mother, the Bengali nation
faced a frightening, vulnerable future.
Her husband’s death left Rehana vulnerable to other men, and the absence of a
sympathetic government exposed the Bengali to merciless outsiders. As a poor, single woman,
Rehana became prey to the greedy desires of men around her. First, her brother-in-law Faiz and
his wife Parveen took advantage of her weakened emotions to gain legal possession of her
children, Sohail and Maya. Then, when she asked for loans to get her children back, the money
lender tried to rape her (148).
The Bengali, in their new formation as E. Pakistan, were weak and
exposed. Consequently, unscrupulous leaders of West Pakistan took advantage of East Pakistan,
subjugating the Bengali in order to enrich their own state.
At this point in the novel, Rehana became more closely identified with the fate of
Bangladesh through her struggle for her children. The children of Rehana are, simultaneously,
the children of Bangladesh. They represent the future and promise of the Bengali nation, as well
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as of Rehana’s personal world. For their sake, she begins an undercover resistance against
manipulative men, by refusing to remarry (23) and then by stealing from T. Ali. Interestingly,
when Rehana committed the theft, she broke a mirror belonging to T. Ali’s dead wife, Rose.
With her English name, white complexion, and European dress, Rose evoked Britain’s colonial
presence. By shattering the mirror, Rehana could be symbolically breaking the Bengali link to
the nation’s unnatural parent, Britain (152).
When Rehana’s Pakistani brother-in-law, Faiz, took the children, he stole the future of
Bangladesh. If Sohail and Maya had stayed with Faiz and Parveen, the children would have
been transformed into Pakistanis, and Bangladesh would have been metaphorically childless. In
contrast to Rehana’s fruitful Bangladeshi family, Faiz and Parveen are childless, and Parveen has
an insatiable mother-hunger (178).
Just as the Pakistani couple attempted to usurp Rehana’s
children, so bitter, barren Pakistan tried to possess Bengali children through linguistic and
cultural domination. This effort eventually fails, so Pakistan must kill the rebellious children of
Bangladesh—with Faiz and Parveen as murderous instruments, to complete the allegory. The
Bengali, in turn, must launch an undercover resistance.
When the events of 1971 commenced, the story of Rehana and her children became
inseparable from that of their nation. The men who had deserted them—Rehana’s father and
husband—were replaced by a fierce nationalism. The three had a father-void, which was filled
when they saw Mujib at the rally: “They belonged to him now; they were his charge, his
children. They called him father. They loved him the way orphans dream of their lost parents:
without promise, only hope” (49).
The Bengali saw this political leader as their surrogate father
and the whole country as their siblings. On the night of Operation Searchlight, “Maya fell asleep
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in the flag,” cradled in this symbol of her nation like an infant in a father’s arms (61).
part to desertion by their own fathers, Maya and Sharmeen disavowed relations with men, took
on masculine characteristics, and devoted all their energies to Bangladesh. In a sense, through
these actions, the girls “married” their country. Therefore, the revolutionary government of
Bangladesh became a father and husband figure, a replacement for absent men.
During the ensuing period, Rehana’s actions reveal her growing identification with the
Bengali revolution at the level of a husband figure. At first, Rehana tried to remain her own
source of strength and protection (65).
She lived with her eye on the past, focused on her dead
husband. However, when she devoted herself to the revolution, Rehana forgot to visit the
She donated her best saris, which were gifts of romantic love from her husband
She disassembled the saris, converted them into blankets, and sent them to cover
revolutionary soldiers. With this gift to the liberation army, Rehana demonstrated a significant
transfer of love and authority. Moving out from the shadow of Iqbal’s death, the widow was
initiating a courtship with her nation. As she discovered her love for Bangladesh and sealed it
with the sari gift, Rehana found a parallel love in the Major.
The Major is the first man in the novel with a real physical and emotional presence. He
is identified by manly attributes like his “firm grip” and “the span of his shoulders” (111).
Major was also the first man to suffer wounds for Bangladesh; in previous pages, Anam
represented only women’s emotional and physical sufferings. The Major evoked in Rehana an
awareness of her desire to serve her country, not just her children (111).
Not only did he expand
her world, but he invited her trust: “He reached over and laid a finger on her arm. ‘I understand,’
he said” (146).
Drawn to the Major’s protective, compassionate strength, Rehana finally shared
the secret of what she had done—what she would do—to win back her children, the burden
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which “she knew, should only be hers” (37).
When she surrendered the burden of her aloneness,
Rehana was able to rest in the protection of a real man and allow him to save her children.
By the end of the novel, Rehana was the mother not only of Sohail and Maya, but of all
the young revolutionaries who would form the new Bangladesh. Before a dangerous mission,
Sohail asked Rehana to give her blessing to all the young men: “They’ll be happy to get your
blessings. Some of them haven’t seen their own mothers in a long time” (109).
aware of her new identity as mother of a country, when she refused to give Mrs. Haque news of
her sons: “But now she was something else—a mother, yes, but not just of children. Mother of a
different sort” (140).
This new Rehana united herself with the Bangladeshi Revolution, and she
was involved in the birth pains of a nation. Earlier, she had mused about familial happiness:
“She felt an old swell of longing for the unit, the family: man, woman, child. This was the
formula for happiness, the proper order of things” (165).
In a satisfying allegorical symmetry,
Rehana found her perfect unit: Bangladesh (Rehana), the wife; the Bangladeshi liberation
movement (the Major), the husband or lover; and young Bangladeshis, their children.
Because the Major represents the Bangladeshi freedom fighters and their selfless love for
the emerging country, Rehana’s relationship with the Major confirms her as a symbol of
Bangladesh. As Rehana’s lover, the Major sacrificed for Rehana’s children; as the symbol of the
Bangladeshi Revolution, he sacrificed for the future of Bangladesh. Bengal had endured a
history of rejection and suppression: ignored and discarded by paternal distant Britain, used
economically by Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and, finally, violated through wartime violence.
In 1971, two “fathers” stood in the gap for Bangladesh. Mujib rose up to be founder-father of a
free Bangladesh. The liberation army, led by faithful commanders—and majors—and composed
of devoted sons and daughters, was the sacrificial father. The army’s outpouring of passion,
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youth, blood and life was necessary to give life to the new nation.
The Major’s love was not, like that of Faiz, a false love that violated Rehana, nor, like
Iqbal’s, a love that unexpectedly left her. His departure was a determined choice to give a free
life to her and her children, a sacrifice that Rehana believed to be necessary: “your life for mine”
She saw their relationship as a deeply-felt but doomed love—a love fated to a set period
of time. She writes to Iqbal, “For the smallest fraction of those ninety-six days, I loved
him….Only the briefest moment” (274).
Her relationship with the Major was a passionate
wartime love that preserved her family. When the war ended, she decided to think of the Major
as a bittersweet episode, from which she could move on to watch her children and her nation
build a new future. “I will clutch my flag, hold my breath and wait for our son,” she tells her
deceased husband (274).
Though she released the Major, Rehana’s love for him will live on in
her love for her “beautiful and bruised country” (276), the new nation born from a bloodied
union of love and sacrifice.
Anam, Tahmima. The Golden Age. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.