This is an extract of my February, 2012 blog titled Of Two Authors -One Condemned for Life Taslima continues to be an an enigma in exile – derided, abused and in danger for life in her own country as well as in India, her adopted country. Jaipur Literary Festival (2012) missed Salman Rushdie who refused to come unless the government assured him safety, but forgot the writer who steadfastly lives in India despite the daily scare. Finding that spirit still aflame in her in the Twitter handle,@taslimanasreen that I accidentally came across, I thought a revisit of that part of the blog was called for.
Some of the facts mentioned here are rather more relevant to 2012 than the present – I didn’t want to edit the blog. So here goes.
Think of Lajja, a poignant and graphic description of what happened in Bangladesh immediately after the destruction of Babri Masjid by Hindu hooligans, swayed by BJP’s Advani (as per the author) and VHP. The book I read was an English translation; many pages read like a statistician’s official report – but much of the book, by the very graphic nature of the narration, touches every string in your heart. You cannot identify yourself with Rushdie’s characters – they are too magical and distant. You can, with the four members of the Dutta family.
Although Lajja‘s English translation is competent and reads smoothly enough, one might possibly miss the fine nuances in the original Bengali. Taslima Nasreen’s characters , whether or not the particular family described in the book was fictitious, its fate, its life at the time and its psyche strike you as not too far from truth. Some of the scenes are so poignant that they could make you cry even if you might want to skip a few tedious newspaper-like reports that run through several pages.
In 1993, I visited Bangladesh several times to sell television circuit boards to their fledgling electronic industry. The tension was palpable. Lajja had just got banned, but most educated people – Hindus as well as Muslims – seemed to have read it. A Hindu technician told me that what was written was a milder version of what had actually occurred. A Muslim businessman assured me that Lajja was an exaggeration, but he was ashamed of whatever had happened. He asked me if I was shocked. I said no, what they had done in a few weeks, Hindu fanatics with the connivance of the ruling party in India had done to our own Sikhs within a couple of days. Most men, I said, are victims of their own religion. They avenge that victimization by taking it out on people of other religions. Nearly all the businessmen I met were unsympathetic towards Nasreen; as for the fatwa, they said “she asked for it”.
Taslima had not spared the Hindus of India and their bigoted leaders. Advani was mentioned at many places listing the inciters of Hindu fanaticism in India; VHP and BJP are portrayed as the fiends behind killing of Muslims . Evidently, the author relied on the news and rumours spreading in Bangladesh at that time. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice her mentioning Bal Thackeray and his radical Shivsena. However, Shivsena was in the forefront asking for the banning of her book,
It is not easy to understand why Bangladesh wanted Lajja banned and their most famous author of the time assassinated. Unlike Rushdie, she had not spoken ill of her religion. Not at that point of time – even if her feminist views expressed in earlier books could have antagonized the fundamentalists. Somebody could have denied the kind of happenings that was described in Lajja. They could have challenged her to produce proofs for her general statements in the book. They didn’t; they knew there was nothing in the book to challenge; that all that it contained was the shameful truth. Today virtually all her books stand banned in her country; but the fatwa and the ban made her an international celebrity in exile. Whether she made a lot of money out of her books, I am not sure. Unlike Salman Rushdie, She had no high-level support.
In India, Just a couple of weeks after the BJP-Shiva Sena combine won the state elections, Bal Thackeray, who styled himself the “Hindu Hruday Samrat (after declaring that he did not believe in God, that he threw out all the Ganesha idols when his wife died) called for the extermination of Muslims. This was one fatwa that worked; a thousand Muslims in Mumbai were massacred in the 1992 riots. Bal Thackeray was one person who enjoyed complete freedom of speech. Pramod Navalkar, an author himself and a Thackeray minion, issued threats against the publishers of Lajja in India.
Even more hard to understand is the banning of the book and expulsion of the refuge-seeking author by the communist government of West Bengal. The hero of the book is a Hindu-born atheist-communist of Bangladesh. His communist friends (mostly Muslims) are portrayed as secular youngsters, ready to help his beleaguered family although, out of sheer fear, they became somewhat indifferent towards the end of the story. “None of them (Bangladeshi intellectuals) , despite their progressive and secular inclinations have openly spoken out against the ‘fatwa’ and the ban against my books.” moaned Nasreen. The same applied to the young intellectual friends of Suranjan Dutta. “Why, he had heard leftists abuse Hindus as bastards,” says the book.
Lajja by itself had nothing against the religion of Islam, only against the Pakistanis who mutilated Sudhamoy Dutta’s genitals destroying (and his faithful wife’s) conjugal life, yet held on to his fierce patriotism for Bangladesh nonetheless; and against those who attacked and burnt Hindu homes and killed many of the Hindus, raped and killed Sudhamoy’s daughter Maya (who loved a Muslim boy ) and disillusioned Suranjan (who loved a Muslim girl ) to the point of destroying himself. Nor did the author spare the Hindu extremists of India. It is true that Nasreen might have antagonized some fundamentalist Muslims and Hindu Pundits by her writings about the suppression of women in Muslim (and Hindu) societies, but her open apostasy into radical atheistic secularism and attack on Islam happened after the fatwa for her murder. Unlike Rushdie, it was the fundamentalist Muslims themselves who drove Nasreen to write her later publications, some of which viciously criticized the religion.
Her somewhat self-contradictory statement speaks for itself: “It is not my intention to write anything against Islam, but to tell the truth. It is not just Muslim fundamentalists, but also the true Islam that is against democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and women’s rights. We need to combat Islam in order to create a society in which women will obtain equality and justice. That may include moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate.”
The reason for her progressive alienation is evident enough. Debonair of India, in its Oct-Nov 1993 issue wrote : “Nobody, even if he boasts of being secular or a rationalist, comes forward openly in support of this ostracized author. Even political parties like the Awami League or Bangladesh Communist Party prefer to keep a safe distance from this firebrand.” The Bangladesh Medical Association, which ought to entertain no religious fanaticism, banned her – a trained gynecologist – from practicing in Bangladesh. So much so for the constitution of the country that pledged “that the high ideals of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularity will be protected”.
Why does India deny Taslima Nasreen citizenship, and frown on– virtually ban – her books? Why did the Communist government of West Bengal sent her out of the state which she longed to make her home? Why couldn’t the other Bengali firebrand Mamata Banerjee reinstate her? Is it because they were afraid the publication and circulation of the book (which was bound to be circulated in any case) would have caused religious riots? Why should Indian Muslims riot over a book narrating the cruelty heaped on the Hindus of Bangladesh while the book also takes note of Hindu aggression on Indian Muslims?
The reason is simple: Taslima does not take sides. Whether it be Hindu extremism or Islamic extremism, she calls a spade a spade.
Why wasn’t Saamna, Bal Thackeray’s mouth piece that inflamed Bombay for several days, goading his followers to murder Muslims, not banned? Why weren’t the leaders of riots – both Muslim and Hindu – arrested and prevented from letting the violence get out of control? Why weren’t the policemen who openly sided and abetted the marauders dismissed and punished? Why weren’t the actual wreckers of Babri Masjid domes, who could be easily identified from the video grabs, identified and punished? Why are the leaders who goaded mobs to burn, kill and loot innocent Sikhs still laughing in their sleeves?
What is the crime of Taslima Nasreen, the author whose books would be read by but a few thousand intellectuals and juicy-bit-seekers as compared to that of Narendra Modi, whose audience runs into millions and who has become the most lauded chief minister of a large state and Lal Krishna Advani, who thinks he has a legitimate claim to the Prime Ministership of this secular Country? Why wasn’t the proclamation of a Karnataka minister that those who do not want to study Gita in schools can get out of the country and another minister from Madhya Pradesh who wants to make Surya Namaskar compulsory in all schools thrown out of the government? Why weren’t the perpetrators of such inflammatory sentiments that make a joke of our secular constitution driven out of this Country? Couldn’t their public speeches have caused riots? Why do Hindu ministers insist that everybody sing Vande Mataram which was originally composed in praise of goddess Durga, who is no goddess to other religions? Why do Maharashtrian police stations display Ganapati pictures in the stations ostensibly located to protect Muslim colonies?
Salman Rushdie’s fictional insults and Taslima Nasreen’s fictionalized truths cannot be compared for their contents. Salman Rushdie was one of those maverick authors with a flair for warped but stylish English who won the Booker prize. He is more famous even in this Country though other Booker Prize winners of India are rarely spoken about and certainly not missed at the last Literary Festival (nor noticed even if they were present) – Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai or Arvind Adiga. One reason : The fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini for his murder rendered his books juicy for gossips that easily pass off for intellectual debates. If Arundhati Roy is better known than Adiga, it is because of her court cases rather than for her one-and-only beautiful novel and her substantial skills at oratory.
After gaining unrivaled name and fame, Rushdie apologized from the fortresses of British security to dilute the effect of the fatwa . Taslima Nasreen stood by what she wrote and never stooped to apologize. Instead, she sharpened her resolve bringing out even more home truths about her own life and experiences as a girl born to Muslim family and as an author who dared to question. She continues to be an exile – derided, abused and in danger for life in her own country as well as this, her adopted country.
Even feminists of India have no time to spare for this beleaguered author. That is literary secularism for you.
Postscript : On 2nd February (2012), the day I thought I had finished this blog, Taslima Nasreen’s seventh volume of autobiography, Nirbasan (Homeless?) was launched in Dhaka’s Bangla Academy campus. The next day, a similar attempt at releasing the book in Kolkata was cancelled under fanatical duress. That is the freedom of expression in secular, democratic India. Give me a break.