AFTER SHE was banned from Bangladesh for “hurting religious sentiments”, Taslima Nasrin wandered the world in search of a home. Finally, she tried to make a life for herself in West Bengal, or epar Bangla (this side of Bengal). She made her home on 7, Rawdon Street, planting a lot of flowers on the terrace, the ones she remembered from her childhood. At night, she would move the pot of the white flowering hasnuhana, or Cestrum nocturnum—which gives off a strong sweet smell, especially after dark—near her bed, so that it would lull her to sleep like it would when she was a child. Alas, it was a false sense of security. The ‘safe house’ would soon crumble and become unsafe and unwelcome, and she would be hounded out of Kolkata, first to Rajasthan, then to New Delhi and finally out of India.
In Exile: A Memoir, Nasrin talks of her struggles of seven months, starting from November 2007 when she realised that democratic India was surreally looking more and more like Bangladesh. It all began to unravel when she was invited to Hyderabad for the launch of the Telugu translation of her book Shodh in 2007. Radical Islamists in the past had vandalised shops for selling her book Lajja, which was published in 1993. In Hyderabad, members of Abdul Wahed Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen barged in at the launch and began attacking her. The police arrived just in time, but Nasrin’s worries had just begun. “Did I become a writer only to have to fight for the freedom to write?” she asks.
Apart from religious fundamentalists, Nasrin, a doctor by profession with a passion for writing, had also angered Bengal’s renowned writers, including Sunil Gangopadhyay. The cause of their ire was the third volume of her autobiography, Dwikhandito, which, among other things, spoke of her “affairs with multiple men”. The book was banned with the official reason being that it might incite communal tensions. A mob of religious fanatics took to the streets in the heart of Kolkata and demanded that she leave the city immediately. The Left Front, on its last legs then, watched helplessly.
What followed was worse. Nasrin wrote a diary during those stressful days of her forced house arrest. In those diary excerpts and the poems written during that time, one can sense high stress levels: “If you are alone, then that is all that you are. All you have then is solitary confinement and a room full of misery. When you are alone, you are completely alone. And you have no one else in the entire universe.” Sitting in a lonely room, she thought about death: “Death waits past the window./As soon as I open the door/We will come face to face,/Unfazed, it might even come and sit beside me,/Perhaps even hold my hand.”
She felt angry, helpless and alone in her fight against the world. To be fair, some leading lights of Bengal did stand by her, including economist Amlan Dutta, who argued, “Taslima has been advised to be careful, to avoid saying something that might offend or hurt someone. Then why is this honest advice not being shared with the fundamentalists too?…” He said, “Every new strand of knowledge offends someone to begin with. Taslima has managed to establish her human identity way above her religious one. Let us reserve for her nothing but a cordial and steadfast welcome.”
When she had become a ‘pariah’ for the Communist leaders of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu had agreed to meet Nasrin on her request. “…he had spoken out against the ban… We simply sat and talked, him narrating tales of his village in Bangladesh, family and friends, and his childhood and adolescent years… He talked to me about my writing and its historical relevance,” says Nasrin.
But the Left Front failed the writer by banning her book and driving her out of the city she loved. The ban was lifted later and her books are selling again in Bengal now, but she remains persona non grata even under Mamata Banerjee’s regime.
Nasrin’s memoir holds up a mirror to the socio-political situation in India and the world (think Turkey, Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh), where writers/artists and activists are being prosecuted for daring to question authority or religion. In Orhan Pamuk’s Strangeness In My Mind, he quotes lines from William Wordsworth: “I had melancholy thoughts…/a strangeness in my mind,/A feeling that I was not for that hour,/Nor for that place.” Nasrin, too, seemed to be in the wrong place, surrounded by strangers and imprisoned because of the thoughts and feelings of others.
Nasrin hasn’t been to Bangladesh in 22 years. In a nutshell, she has been leading the life of a wanderer since 1994 when she was forced to leave her homeland. After living in the West for 11 years, she decided to stay in Kolkata to be nearer her roots. Sadly, that was not to be. India failed Nasrin like it failed MF Husain, and her memoir is a scary reminder of what a writer/artist/human being can suffer if he/she thinks differently or is perceived to be thinking differently. Yet Nasrin lived to tell the tale. Her residence permit for India is still valid and she hopes it will be renewed over and over again.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer