The Bones of Grace
IN GRANTA 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4, published in 2013, we read Tahmima Anam’s Anwar Gets Everything, a devastating account of a migrant Bangladeshi worker’s anguish in West Asia, while a group scrambles to complete two 50-storey buildings they call ‘Bride’ and ‘Groom’.
Anwar Gets Everything was an excerpt from the third part of Anam’s Bengal trilogy, now out as The Bones of Grace. But Anwar Gets Everything didn’t quite prepare you for the ride Anam takes you on in The Bones of Grace. She digs deep into her anthropological roots to set up the premise of the book. So we have Zubaida Haque, a paleontologist in Boston with roots in Bangladesh, embarking on a journey to Afghanistan to find the bones of Ambulocetus natans, or the walking whale. On her last night in Boston before the trip, she goes for a Dimitri Shostakovich concert and meets and falls in love with Elijah Strong, who hails from a typical large American family. Strong’s parents are both professors at Harvard, divorced but best friends. He has three brothers and a sister, a house in Porter Square, a grand piano in the living room, lemonade in the refrigerator and so forth.
Haque, on the other hand, had been adopted by a wealthy Bangladeshi family. She found out about the adoption when she was nine years old and she recalls that it “felt like death. Like there’s a person I’ve been my whole life and she’s a fake, a ghost”. As Haque tries to come to terms with her identity, her country is mired in bigger problems—“full of fatwas and poor people… Political infighting, radicals on the loose, child marriage, and climate disaster around the corner. No one should want to go anywhere near it”.
But Haque will have to return home, marry her childhood friend Rashid and try to settle down in a rich household. Only she can’t, and her restless soul veers towards Chittagong, where she joins a crew making a documentary on ship-breakers. Chittagong’s beaches are filled with ships that are sent there to be destroyed and their parts put up for
sale, and Haque witnesses the destruction of Grace. The ship-breakers’ stories make up the saddest part of the book, though Haque’s own story is no less harrowing.
Anwar is one of the ship-breakers who has somehow ended up in Chittagong, searching for his long-lost wife and child. There’s appalling poverty all around, working conditions are pathetic and workers fall asleep with poison in their blood. For a little “scrap of money”, they are all “cut up from the metal, arms about to fall off from carrying it” and so hungry they will eat anything, sleep anywhere and thirsty like they have never known. As Haque goes over her interviews, it’s one sad story after another, “each starting with its same moment of fracture—an illness, a bad crop, the death of a father—and the long journey south… to the shipyard”.
With her Bengal trilogy, Anam has addressed the 1971 Bangladesh war (A Golden Age), its aftermath (The Good Muslim) and the disturbing present (The Bones of Grace), where the country seems to be radicalising further. This is bound to have far-reaching consequences throughout the subcontinent. Anam lives in London and the irony is that if she wants to tell more stories about Bangladesh, she is probably safer outside than in.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer