Book Review: Exile: Memoir by Taslima Nasrin

By Piya Srinivasan


One thing we know about Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, whether through her writings or hearsay, is that she doesn’t mince words. Her memoir follows this legacy. Exile is about the fight of a woman against the state, a commentary on India’s struggle to maintain its secular credentials, the rapidly diminishing arena of free expression, and the ugly effect of vote bank politics on her life. Her open attacks on religion, patriarchy and intolerance are distilled into a retelling of her seven-month ordeal in 2007 against the Indian state’s coercive mechanisms.

Nasrin has many epithets: former physician, humanist, human rights activist, proponent of freedom of expression and women’s rights, battler of fatwas. Forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994 after the religious furore caused by her book Lajja, she led a nomadic existence in Europe and America for a decade. Her repeated attempts to return to Bangladesh were rejected by the government. The last of her three-part memoir, Ka, published as Dwikhandito in West Bengal, was banned by the local government in 2003 for hurting Muslim religious sentiments. In 2004, she was granted a residency permit in India and made a home in Kolkata, the place closest to her homeland in language and culture.

Her narrative — through musings, letters, conversations, diary entries and newspaper reports – uncovers the grit and grime of politics. After an attack on her by religious ideologues linked to the political party AIMIM at the launch of her book Shodh in Hyderabad, a violent protest march by rabble rousers demanding her expulsion from Kolkata expedited the state government’s “Exit Taslima” mission.  She was subsequently put under house arrest on her return to Kolkata, for fear of communal disturbances over her presence. When asked to arrest the protesters, the Commissioner of Police refused, saying this was a “minority issue”. She offers this as proof of manufactured dissent by the state government to secure the Muslim vote bank.

She challenges Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who was the chief minister at the time, on his studied silence over the Dwikhandito ban, approved by him after 25 prominent literary figures read the book and condemned it, clearly belying the Left Front’s progressive ideals. She condemns many of the city’s intellectuals and exposes the media-politics alliance through the instance of Anandabazar Patrika editor-in-chief Aveek Sarkar stalling her interview for the newspaper on the then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee’s behest, allegedly to appease fundamentalist factions in West Bengal.

Her life then unfolds like a parcel without a designated address. Forced to abandon her house in Kolkata, she is flown to Jaipur, then secreted away to Delhi, where she is lodged in a “safe house” with no address. The freedom to go out, meet people or enjoy the small liberties of life is taken away from her. Her request to return to Kolkata is shunted from one department to another, in the face of an obdurate bureaucracy whose motivation is not to upset communal balance by letting this outspoken critic of Islam and patriarchy nest among them.

Stripped of all rights in the many “safe houses” she is lodged in, her musings about the state of people in exile, rejected by their countries, reflects the predicament of many artists, intellectuals and writers. She speaks not just as Taslima but as a woman of the world, defending the rights of all writers from persecution by the cold hands of the censoring state. She articulates her fear for India in its “inability to organize collective action for seeking justice and rights”.  Her writing reflects censorship as a shroud that clouds not only the individual but dulls the body politic.

The book offers a stark look at the cost of truth, and more than once, she compares her plight to Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. She does not spare the press, and reveals how inaccurate information about her detention in Delhi, provided by “unofficial sources”, was planted by the government ministry to keep the public misinformed about her situation. She calls her ordeal “political terrorism” where the Indian state used psychological pressure to get her to leave the country, keeping her under indefinite lockdown with minimum outside interaction.

Her writing is like a punch in the gut, always reflecting on the fleeting nature of freedom. The human cost is excessive. “It is perhaps a universal rule that some people always have to lose their way in the darkness for others to feel secure. My incarceration is making some people feel secure; it is making them feel extraordinarily safe.” Political and existential questions combine with quotidian worries such as, “Who will water my plants?” or “Who will look after my cat?”

These reflections are peppered with evocative recollections of home, and the idea of belonging. Kolkata the city is the hero of the memoir, as it is the place where her dreams come to rest, despite the political stalemate over her return. “You are not just a house but a fragment of the land I have lost, and my mother tongue,” she says. The Kolkata book fair “with its crowded, dusty lanes and the heady smell of new books” evokes an eternal hope for her, where she can be free of her concerns.

In some parts, her memoir reads like a double exile: exile from her freedom to express her beliefs, and exile from both her homes in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Her memoir speaks of not only the pain of being stripped of rights, but also the pain of Partition. Historical and personal trauma prevails in equal measure. Written as much as a manifesto as it is a memoir, her statements on the fundamentalist regimes of both countries hold up a mirror to their ongoing political crises. The persecution of thinkers, artists, historians, rationalists, makes this a timely musing on the state of religion and politics in the Indian subcontinent. Even though her exile is not ours, her disillusionment is.

The reviewer is a research scholar and freelance writer.