Taslima: Portrait of a writer in exile

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen has willy-nilly turned into an itinerant minstrel, hounded by commissars and fanatics alike, intoning her outcast song of angst against the lies of religion and the state. Kolkata, the famously liberal cosmopolitan city hospitable to the muse and its patrons, looked on as the apparatchiks decided to send the beleaguered writer to Rajasthan after violent protests by Muslim fundamentalists.

But the blood-thirsty bigots were quick on the scent and made sure that the exiled author, who had to sneak into Jaipur in a burqa nearly a month ago, spent no more than a tormented night in the city of grand palaces and exotic delights so beloved of tourists.

Now, Nasreen the iconoclast is in Delhi. But will this big sprawling city have enough place or heart for this defiant author who has not yet bowed to the dictates of hate-spewing bigots? And, if yes, for how long? Will the god-drunk faithful, who will be too happy to lynch her for heresy, find her here too?

As she rests her fatigued mind and soul, after years of vagabondage shuttling from city to city and country to country, at a guesthouse in Delhi, speculation is rife about her next stop. Will she be allowed to go back to Kolkata, her beloved city, despite her disgraceful send-off, where she said memorably she wished to live and die? Or, will she be sent to a friendly country, debunking India’s claims to liberal ethos and reputation for its hospitality to strangers and outsiders?

The Left Front government in West Bengal acted timorously when it decided to bundle Nasreen out to Jaipur, revealing its Stalinist streak and penchant for identity politics.

But what is more shameful is that some of the influential political parties, grouped under the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA) which claim to provide an alternative to the ruling dispensation, have denounced Nasreen’s anti-Islamic writings with an eye on Muslim votes. The UNPA leaders, including such liberal faces of the Muslim community as former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, bluntly told Nasreen not to misuse her political asylum in India to hurt the sentiments of Muslims or to cause communal tension in the country. The UNPA also asked the author to apologise for her controversial writings.

Sorry for what, one may ask. For defying unwritten rules of political correctness? The cynical appeasement of Muslim fundamentalists by mainstream political parties, be it the then Congress government in the Shah Bano case or the banning of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, has almost become a leitmotif of the way minority politics is being practised in this country, leaving a writer at the mercy of bigots and illuminating her homelessness in these intolerant times. In the end, a writer is not allowed to exist even in the house of words, as Theodor Adorno said archly.

If a persecuted author, no matter how heretical her opinions may sound to some, can’t find a home (mind you, not refuge) in this vibrant democratic country, what does it tell us about ourselves and the country we live in? For one thing, it shows that for all our pretensions to culture, liberalism and belief in democratic debate, we care little for writers and dissenters.

This cultivated indifference also underlines our smugness as we luxuriate in consumerist bliss, supping on more spectacular massacres on our breakfast TV, and brings out in all its lurid colours the temptations of totalitarianism. Could there be something more shameful to a civilised society to watch indifferently as a small loony fringe of fundamentalists hound out a fearless writer exiled by her own country for speaking out? If this is the price of speaking out, then all of us who subsist on words for our living are at mortal risk of being bullied and bossed around by those who claim to know the revealed word.

In a way, fundamentalists have ensured that no matter where Nasreen goes in India – east (Kolkata), Hyderabad (south), Rajasthan (west) or Delhi (north) – she is booed and hissed at with a clear message that nobody wants her here.

Nasreen is no stranger to the insidious power of thought police. Her long tale of victimisation started in 1993 immediately after the publication of “Lajja” (Shame), which highlighted the evils of state-sponsored persecution and the mistreatment of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government, sensitive to the political cost of ignoring Muslim opinion, confiscated her passport and banned the book. The clerics issued a fatwa against her with some of them even demanding her execution.

The authorities in Bangladesh also gave her a stark choice: stop writing if she wants to retain her job as a doctor in the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital. The intrepid woman she is, she chose writing.

Recurrent threats to her life forced her to leave Bangladesh for Europe, where she wrote 28 books of poetry, essays and novels, before she moved to her beloved city Kolkata in 2004. Her poems and novels were translated into more than 25 different foreign languages.

Thirteen years of exile, with fundamentalists breathing down her neck, could have sapped one’s creative energies, but Nasreen kept on singing defiantly, determined to “undo the folded lie /The romantic lie in the brain/ Of the sensual man-in-the-street/And the lie of authority/Whose buildings grope the sky,” in W.H. Auden’s words.

True, Nasreen is no great stylist or a re-maker of language like Salman Rushdie. But even as opinions vary on the literary merits of her writings, her soulful lament against the soul-stifling hypocrisies of religion and patriarchal politics is authentic.

In a poem written for her mother, Nasreen says: “There is, I know, no reincarnation,/no last judgment day:/heaven, bird meat, wine, pink virgins -/these are but traps set by religionists.” But these traps could never take away from her the redemptive joys of imagining another heaven and another earth where she can be just what she is: solitary and singing.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.