Taslima Nasrin was forced to leave her desh 22 years ago. She has never since returned to Dhaka, where she worked as a doctor and a writer of feminist columns. Neither has she gone back to Mymensingh, the town on the banks of the Brahmaputra, where she grew up. “It was a large house, one of those old zamindar houses, with high ceilings and shuttered windows. There were niches, spiral staircases and wrought-iron railings. There were many fruit trees and plants. The Brahmaputra was a walk away. We would play on its banks. Whenever I see a river, I think of the Brahmaputra. It always surfaces in my poetry,” she says, when we meet at India Habitat Centre, Delhi.
Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño once wrote, “For some writers exile means leaving the family home; for others, leaving the childhood town or city; for others, more radically, growing up.” For Nasrin, it has been all of these banishments and more. Exile, for the 54-year-old, has not been an inner injury, nursed in private, but one that has frequently pitchforked her into the many bitter contests of the subcontinent: over religion, patriarchy and freedom of speech.
In India, she represents the test of freedom of speech and fairness that the Left and Kolkata’s intellectual class failed spectacularly in 2007, when she was hounded out of Bengal. Exile (Penguin Random House), the new English translation of the seventh part of her autobiography, recounts that damning tale. To many other writers, she is a polemic writer who fell out with the Bengali literary establishment because she pushed her relationships to the edge. Bangladeshi poet Syed Shamsul Haque sued her over Dwikhandito (Split into Two), which claimed that he’d had a relationship with his sister-in-law. The book was banned by the West Bengal government in 2003 after a petition by 25 literary figures (The Calcutta High Court struck it down later).
It is difficult, however, not to see sexism in this cocktail of political opportunism and personal bitterness. Poet Subodh Sarkar asked if Nasrin was “sexually depraved”; author Samaresh Majumdar compared her to Nandarani, a famous prostitute, and said, “she changed her men like women change clothes”.
Today, Nasrin is wearing a resplendent green-and-yellow Bomkai, and a red bindi on her forehead. She is worried, though, about how her hair will look in the photograph. She still argues that she broke no personal codes in writing about her sexual life in Dwikhandito. “Did I have permission to reveal those things? My question is: did I need permission to write about my life and relationships?”
She does need one to visit West Bengal, which has been steadfastly refusing her entry since 2007. The then Left government, under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, buckled to the spectre of Muslim fundamentalists running amok, and sent emissaries to pressure her to depart, saying her presence could start a riot. The current Trinamool government too, has made it clear that she is persona non grata.
The country she left in 1994 is unrecognisable. “Desh ta bidesh hoye gechhe (My homeland has become foreign to me),” she says, bemoaning the Islamisation of Bangladesh. Her childhood had been different, open to scepticism and irreligion, even if girls were not allowed to go out much. “My father was a very secular man. He did not ask us to be religious. He wanted me to study science, become a doctor — to become independent. There was more of a conflict with my mother, who was a very kind, nice and sympathetic woman. She was religious and wanted me to pray. I would always ask why. My brothers were not religious either, I never saw them going to mosques or offer namaaz. Some of my maternal uncles were Communists and atheists. This was an environment I found as a child,” she says. Inspired by her brother’s literary interests, she began writing poetry in college.
In the 1990s, she lived on her own in Dhaka, where she worked in Mitford Hospital in the gynaecology and anaesthesia departments. “The salary wasn’t enough for me. Because the poetry books sold well, I was invited by newspapers and weeklies to write columns. Each would pay 500 Taka. With that money, I managed. I would write about my experiences as a woman, what I saw of female life around me — and how all religions stood in the way of emancipation,” she says. The backlash from the fundamentalists began earlier and peaked with her novel, Lajja, which told the story of a Hindu family caught in the riots that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid in India. It was promptly banned. The government filed a case against her under Section 295 for hurting “religious sentiments”. In 1994, waves and waves of protests forced her to leave.
The question hangs in the air: would she have survived in Bangladesh if she was writing today? “The things I was writing in the 1980s and early 1990s, it is impossible to write that in Bangladesh anymore. Even if you dilute those in a river of water, you won’t be able to publish them. Nothing can be questioned in Bangladesh now. Not Islam, nor fundamentalism, nor the government.”
It was in Europe, in the first, few cold years of exile that Nasrin realised that language was slipping away from her. “Here I was, talking about fundamentalists through the day but when I sat down to write, I could not recall the Bengali word for ‘fundamentalists’. I had to telephone my friends in Kolkata and ask. I was moving away from Bangla,” she says. Wrenched out of the culture which gave her work its force, she knew her writing would no longer be the same. “How long would I be able to write about Bangladesh sitting far away? I could not see what was happening there. So I decided to look back and write. I began to start writing my autobiography in bidesh. The first part was Amar Meyebela, which I began writing in Sweden,” she says.
It was to return to “her language” that she had sought shelter in Kolkata in 2004. She lived an uneventful, peaceful life in a rented house on Rawdon Street in south Kolkata for over two years. The bubble burst with a visit to Hyderabad, when the party led by the Owaisi brothers, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, stormed a book reading and attacked her.
Life would never be the same once she returned to Kolkata — the state government placed her under house arrest. To date, she scoffs at the idea that Bengal’s Muslims were a security threat to her. “No one attacked me in Kolkata. I lived near Muslim-dominated areas without any problem. The Left front was on a sticky ground. Rizwanur Rahman had died [there were allegations that the 30-year-old engineer was killed for marrying the daughter of a rich, Hindu industrialist], there were protests in Nandigram and Singur, people were against the CPM. Poor Muslims were angry at them. Because I had been slapped with an anti-Islam label, they thought maybe chasing me away would get them votes,” she says.
Her life in Delhi now is a rapprochement reached with uncertainty. The days are filled with reading and cooking for friends. She stays away from crowds and needs permission to travel to other states. “I am a citizen of Europe. In the US, I have a green card. But in India, I am not sure, I was turned out before. I could be again. I have to renew the residence permit every year, I am apprehensive. I will keep fighting to stay here. But if they decide eventually to turn me out, I can do nothing,” she says.
Will her exile ever end? “Will just returning to Bangladesh be the end of exile? Even there, I have felt like a stranger and been treated like an outsider. Ami nijo deshe porobashi (I was a foreigner in my own land). A person who dreams of change, who speaks of human rights, perhaps, is always in exile, wherever she might go. Or it might be that the whole world is her desh.”