Tahmima Anam’s “Anwar Gets Everything” is the third story in Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This piece is an extract from Anam’s forthcoming novel, Shipbreakers, the third in a trilogy she began with A Golden Age (2008) and The Good Muslim (2011). I have seen these books, but I haven’t read them. After reading this extract, though, despite the fact that in some ways it is relatively simple and even predictable, I feel a desire to get caught up.
I did a bit of looking and see that A Golden Age takes place in Bangladesh in the early 1970s, during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Good Muslim appears to move things forward about a decade. I don’t know the exact dates of “Anwar Gets Everything,” but since we are with a group of migrant workers building skyscrapers in Dubai, I’d put us some time after 1990; probably sometime in the early twenty-first century, since the narrator has been in Dubai for nine years when the story begins.
Our narrator is one of the migrant workers, building and cleaning skyscrapers, under the watch of a brutal foreman who docks their meager meals from their meager pay. We get a sense of his brutality from the beginning lines, when the narrator tells us that the foreman likes to send the new guys up the skyscraper:
Some of them have never climbed higher than a tree in their village. Back home the place is flat, flat. I’m here nine years, I know what’s what, so I tell them, don’t look, don’t look. Hold the torch in one hand, like this, and keep your eye on one screw at a time. From here to here, I show them, holding my fingers apart an inch, maybe an inch and a half. Your eyes will see this much, no more. Understand?
It’s a great first paragraph, introducing the terror of being up high on swaying platform, but it also introduces a kind of philosophy of life. Not only does the narrator tell the new guys not to look down when they’re up in the air fifty storeys or more, but he also tells them not to look the foreman in the face. Really, just take one day at a time; don’t let other things in life distract you or you’ll fall. Or, perhaps, you’ll realize you’ve already fallen. At nights the narrator is haunted by the two women he left behind, one whom he loved and one whom he married.
This particular story, though, revolves around a new Pahari kid who shows up perhaps a bit too proud. He looks the foreman in the face and doesn’t mind it when the foreman sends him to the top of a skyscraper:
Worst of all, Pahari kid got hauled up to the top of Bride and nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. He swung like a monkey and laughed his way through the shift. Turns out those tribals like floating on top of buildings, hitched up so the whole world is spread below them.
You can see where this story is heading from pretty early on, and it’s a bit heavy-handed, but that didn’t lessen the impact for me much, particularly since the final, brief section, despite a major shift in perspective, takes us right back the to the themes of the beginning: don’t look. Just keep your eyes on exactly what’s in front of you.
Like Kamila Shamsie’s “Vipers,” “Anwar Gets Everything” is an exemplary extract, exciting and fulfilling on its own while pointing us to the rest of the author’s work.