Taslima Nasrin: Stranger in a Strange Land

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin hasn’t visited her country in 22 years. But what good is a homecoming when there is nothing to return to?

Written by Amrita Dutta | Published:October 30, 2016 12:06 am
Taslima Nasrin, Taslima Nasrin books, Taslima Nasrin life, bangladesh, Taslima Nasrin exile, Taslima Nasrin works, Taslima Nasrin india, indian express, sunday eye, express eye, lifetsyle news, books news Bangladeshi author Tasleema Nasrin. (Source: Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

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.”

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  1. K
    Krishna Bhagawan
    Oct 31, 2016 at 1:19 pm
    Well Mohamamd got prominence in-spite of Hurting other religions in Quran
    Reply
    1. M
      MyTake
      Oct 30, 2016 at 10:23 pm
      Nor K h a n s nor i n t o l e r a n c e brigade to be seen in sight! Some in India are h e l l bent to make sure it stays a r o t t e n f i s h because that's what help them keep their s h o p open for their "c l i e n ts" and also further their agenda!!! It sells like hot cake when it is sold under the label of democracy!!!
      Reply
      1. M
        MyTake
        Oct 30, 2016 at 10:16 pm
        [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.”]lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Very true. Evidence is only today Hindu Houses and Temples of entire HInsu community in a village called Nasir Nagar in Brahmanbaria were attacked in Bangladesh because some one put a Lord Shiva's picture on top of Kaba! Sheikh Hina is trying hard but can she really control the fundamentalist is the question? Or is it be a cosmetic show on top?lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Taslima Nasrin is also happen to be a challenger to patriarchal society who would employ all means to control a women's life and still they would scream to the world say they are the secular beacon of the humanity! What a trash and what a self cheating.
        Reply
        1. A
          Archpagan
          Oct 31, 2016 at 2:12 pm
          All the three organized religions viz. Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism, will die natural death.
          Reply
          1. B
            Babu Gupta
            Oct 30, 2016 at 3:26 pm
            The "Intolerant gang of Khans, Aamir and Shah Rukh", the seculars, intellectuals, Award Bapsi gangs, liberals, Human Right groups. famous beings like Shabhana Azmi and Javed Akhtars etc no body came to her rescue. All these people does not have courage against muslims for the fear of being hurt. They are good only for Hindu bashing because they know they will not be hurt.
            Reply
            1. V
              Victor
              Oct 31, 2016 at 8:34 pm
              Mr Murshed,Every religion should be put to lie detector test.At the end is Allah scared to listen and if he is Allah then he or she should know how to listen to his or her people with out getting angry.
              Reply
              1. M
                M. AHMAD
                Oct 31, 2016 at 7:00 am
                THIS IS THE CURSE OF ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT) THAT NOBODY GIVE HER LIFT.
                Reply
                1. C
                  C
                  Oct 31, 2016 at 2:28 pm
                  So why did Almighty Allah create her in the first place? Was He not aware of what she was going to do?
                  Reply
                  1. D
                    Darshak
                    Oct 31, 2016 at 9:52 am
                    Its not She, here the The Final Effect of The Curse to The Humanity:lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;www Dot youtube Dot com Slash watch?v=LFOlOwoVT3k
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      Santanu Roy
                      Oct 31, 2016 at 3:06 am
                      I have not read anything of Taslima except a few newspaper columns and found nothinglt;br/gt;objectionable. 'Mamta has her compulsions but the irony is that a communist governmentlt;br/gt;could not protect her coming under the pressure of Islamic fundamentalists.She is anlt;br/gt;exceptionally bold woman and our society is yet to learn what to do with her kind of woman.lt;br/gt;Even Hindu society,with all it's catholicity will find it difficult to accomodate her kind of womanlt;br/gt;so deep rooted is patriarchy amongst us.It is the bounden duty of the state to protect her.lt;br/gt;And that is why she should wield her pen more vigorously to elucidate her world viewlt;br/gt;from her exile hoping one day,not so far away the society will learn to respect andlt;br/gt;appreciate her world view."Woh subha kabhi to ayegi....."
                      Reply
                      1. C
                        Critical
                        Nov 6, 2016 at 4:36 am
                        Moving, yet admirable. Hope India gives you permanent residence and wish your writing flows uninterrupted.
                        Reply
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