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.
By Aminah Sheikh
“Let Another Name for Religion be Humanism.” It was these words that had lured me, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, into buying Lajja from an almost non-functional bookstore in my hometown. I’d got my hands on the book five years after it was published. Back then, I didn’t know much about Taslima Nasrin, except that she was a Bangladeshi Muslim writer, penning some not–so-good things about the community, as overheard during conversations between elders. I recall the day I bought the book, and was wondering if I should hide it. I didn’t. In fact, after reading the book in one sitting, I walked up to my mother and asked, “Why was this book banned? Why was a fatwa issued against her? What wrong did she write?” My mother’s reply was simple but had a deep impact on me then. She said, “Every individual has an opinion and feels differently. We must be tolerant of others’ views. Allah has given us a mind, we should use it. And never cause any human being harm or drive anyone out of their home.”
Taslima Nasrin was driven out of her home in 1994.
“A Free Bird” was her first poem at the age of 13, Taslima’s first writing ever. “I wanted to be like a free bird, wanted to fly in the open blue sky,” she fondly recalls, in an email interaction with Kitaab. Her poems were published in literary magazines, followed by her opinion pieces on culture in national newspapers. In the years that followed, her views, expressed through her writings, on women’s rights and criticism of religious fundamentalism in a conservative patriarchal society, made many uncomfortable to the extent they grew intolerant of Taslima’s existence itself.
“Before writing Lajja, I wrote several books. One of them was Nirbacita Kolam, and that book was a turning point. The book consists of my feminist writings,” she adds. The undercurrents in the minds of religious extremists against this very bold writer had already begun to gather steam in Bangladesh and perhaps Lajja was the last straw. In September 1993, a fatwa was issued against her and a reward offered for her death. Taslima’s life as a medical officer was also put on hold. “I had to quit my job as a medical officer at the government hospital because the government wanted me to stop writing books. I was obviously punished for no fault of mine. I got busy with my writings. And gave up being sad for their injustices against me,” she recounts. Although Taslima was born in a Muslim family, she was raised in a secular atmosphere. “It (being secular) was not uncommon in 1960s and 70s Bangladesh. Most of my family members were not practicing Muslims. Some of them were atheists. It was not common during my time for young women to wear hijabs or young men to go to mosques. It is a recent phenomenon after massive Islamisation of Bangladesh,” she explains.