Fossilised in no way

The Bones of Grace
Tahmima Anam
Penguin
2016, pp 407
Rs 399

No wonder you were lost. With nothing to resist, you floated like a fallen leaf.” Thus does this novel’s protagonist, Zubaida Haque, describe, in this retrospective narrative, her first impressions of Elijah Strong, her new American friend (and eternal love).

Bangladeshi-British writer Tahmima Anam’s writing is redolent with imagery; she has just come out with her third novel, an epic culmination to her Bengal Trilogy, which chronicles three generations of the Haque family, right from the 1971 Bangladesh War for Independence to the present day. Yet, this is also a stand-alone book, very much like her earlier novels. Fittingly, at the conclusion of this book, one does get the urge to explore Anam’s earlier works.

The enigmatically titled new book, The Bones of Grace, is more diverse in its setting: Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA), Dubai, Pakistan, Bangladesh (Dhaka and Chittagong). And it all pours out, in the form of a book-long confessional love letter, from the tortured heart, mind and soul of Zubaida, a marine paleontologist graduate from Harvard. Her breathless apologies, explanations and revelations are addressed to Elijah, the privileged American-philosophy-doctorate dropout she encounters in a Cambridge concert hall. A meeting of twin souls, it would seem, as the two connect fervently through the week, before she leaves for an archaeological dig in Pakistan’s insurgency-hit Baloch desert region. “I’m going to dig out a whale fossil... Ambulocetus natans, the walking whale,” she informs, even as they exchange small details — her adoptive birth and lifelong-seeking, their matching solitary personas, and her childhood friend cum probable fiancé, Rashid. They part, promising to be in touch through song-title-text messages.

The dig happens, the fossilised whale (Diana) uncovered, and it ends suddenly due to some harsh geopolitical truths. Zubaida is back home in Dhaka, to the gentlemanly and self-assured Rashid, besides their respective parents. Well-off and lifelong friends all, the inevitable wedding takes place. A mundane year of marriage and a miscarriage later, Zubaida is bound for Chittagong in a self-imposed, temporary isolation, finding happiness through her work with an NGO and a team of ship-breakers, and documenting exploited human existence of the most desperate sort. Even amid the environmental spoilage caused by the ship-breaking industry, she manages to find beauty and poetry. A decommissioned cruise ship, Grace, is ready for breaking. Anam writes: “The curve of the ship began to appear, and now we could see the gleam of the hull, a poem of curves rising... and suddenly it was before us... white, immense, violent.”

Zubaida has a premonition that this majestic condemned ship is home to mysteries and treasures beyond her comprehension. She is right. Among other factors, the Chittagong interlude draws into Zubaida’s circle a young boy; Mo, a grand piano; Anwar, the man from Dubai in search of his lost beloved Megna; and Elijah, again. This fact changes the course of Zubaida’s sombre existence. And even while Zubaida loses, she gains. Strange are the ways of fate.

The story ambles along, languorously at first and then in a surprising rush, revealing by stages and making connections. The novel’s main voice is Zubaida’s, but there is also an extremely interesting and powerful chapter devoted to Anwar, the man who left behind his love in Dhaka, endured the dust and despair of high-rise Dubai, experienced the highs and lows of construction hell, returned, searched for his lost love, suffered, and ultimately became the instrument of another haunted soul’s salvation.

It’s a well-crafted story. The author makes acute observations on life in the affluent West as contrasted with the survival-mode East. But her narrator’s voice also makes it clear that Elijah and Zubaida have connected, because they both have felt alone in their respective families. Then there is a fair amount of information on relevant topics like fossils and their evolutionary status. Interestingly, Zubaida identifies herself with the amphibian fossil. And there is satire, as befits a story set against conflicting societies.

Initially, a few factors — the near-soporific pace, the complex sentences — did work against the book. There is also a surreal air to it occasionally. But Anam is an accomplished writer, and one soon finds oneself involved with the characters’ fates. The well-etched characters are just humans, not caricatures. The writer is quick to make use of situations that lend themselves to humour: “Molly, like a lot of women of her stature, used religious words like punctuation.” There is more of this sort, enough to lighten the mood of a sumptuous, grand climax to a trilogy. Worth a patient read; even two.

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