Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Bangladesh: Taslima Nasreen - is she for real?

[The one time enfant terrible of the Bangladesh literary scene, now writer-in-exile Taslima Nasreen, has been creating waves once again. Ironically, the waves have been rocking the fraternity of poets and novelists who had once loyally rallied behind her, the motley crowd considered to be avant-garde writers in both the Bengals.While some of her loyalists like to compare her with Salman Rushdee, in Dhaka’s literary circles she had never been known more than a mediocre writer. In fact, she was a poet and her prose pieces, which ironically brought her to the international limelight, were certainly not her forte.]

What makes Taslima tick?

by AYESHA KABIR from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Taslima Nasreen, controversial feminist writer from Bangladesh, has won an equal avalanche of accolades as she has condemnations. What lies behind this meteoric rise from the mediocre to the magnificent?

The one time enfant terrible of the Bangladesh literary scene, now writer-in-exile Taslima Nasreen, has been creating waves once again. Ironically, the waves have been rocking the fraternity of poets and novelists who had once loyally rallied behind her, the motley crowd considered to be avant-garde writers in both the Bengals.

Her latest bombshells have been Ka and Dikhandita, revelations of the “sex, lies and more sex” kind, washing in public the dirty linen of her ‘friends’ in Bangladesh and West Bengal, quite unconcerned about her own not-so-clean laundry.

So now, with both the books banned in Bangladesh and West Bengal respectively, Taslima is once again hitting the headlines, something she seems to be getting better and better at. She had slid somewhat into oblivion for a couple of years, but now she’s back with a bang. Taslima the Terrible strikes again!

* * *

While some of her loyalists like to compare her with Salman Rushdee, in Dhaka’s literary circles she had never been known more than a mediocre writer. In fact, she was a poet and her prose pieces, which ironically brought her to the international limelight, were certainly not her forte. One of Bangladesh’s leading woman novelists, Selina Hossain, says, “Taslima is basically a poet. She is yet to come up with a novel that has a sensitive perception of human life. Her columns may have jolted the social psyche, but they are certainly not literature.”

Yet the fact of the matter remains that today Taslima is one of the most internationally famous Bengalis alive, topped only by the venerable Tagore. So what has earned her this international fame and acclaim, despite the notoriety at home? Her “shock and awe” techniques seem to have worked like magic. In the early nineties, her anti-Islamic writings, her radical feminist stand, had the fundamentalists baying for her blood. As senior journalist Afsan Chowdhury says, “the more she was condemned and abused, the more she became famous and her wings spread. Here was a woman who defied all norms. She was free-wheeling, sexual and non-conformist.”

Women in Bangladesh started off with a reluctant appreciation for her rebellious spirit, while over the border in West Bengal, she was hailed as a modern-day Joan of Arc. She was their darling. They cosseted her, indulged her and pampered her to no end. Her vivisection of her countrymen was well awarded, a contrast to the treatment back home where she was condemned as a virtual heretic. She had even fallen from favour among her feminist following – they wanted no part in this blasphemy. Images on BBC of her irreverently flipping through the pages of the Qu’ran, cigarette in hand, was too much for even the most liberal Muslim to swallow. And thus around 1992 she took up a life in exile, shuttling mostly between Europe and America. Today she is a research scholar at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the US.

* * *

Where did it all begin? Taslima Nasreen was born on August 25, 1962 in the district town of Mymensingh. While not exactly the backwaters of the Bangladesh, this was not Dhaka where the liberal literati hung out. Her father Dr. Rajab Ali, was apparently a strict patriarch, whom she describes as violent and hateful.

Taslima began her literary life dabbling in poetry as a young girl. She brought out a literary magazine Shejuti, quite an achievement for a girl in a small town. She studied at the Mymensingh Medical College and, as a doctor, was eventually transferred to Dhaka. There she began mixing with the off-beat literary crowd and, while not considered a writer of considerable caliber, her lifestyle did set tongues wagging.

But back to Mymensingh. “I remember the cloistered life, the rules, the smallness of space in life,” she says in an interview. “To grow up under watchful eyes of my parents, that’s my first exposure to differences between the way boys were treated from girls. I learnt about discrimination early in life.” Her father leaving the family to remarry didn’t help improve her impression of the male species.

She began blurring the gender divide even back then. As editor of the local magazine Shejuti, she did not use the term shampadika (female editor) to describe herself. She was the shampadak (generally implying the masculine gender). That was at a time when politically correct Bengali was almost unheard of, even more so in a district town like Mymensingh. Frowns of disapproval and hostility began.

* * *

There are of course the inevitable Freudian factors behind the making of the renegade. Explains Afsan Chowdhury, who recently interviewed Taslima Nasreen in Kolkatta, “it was a cheerless middle-class household that breeds rebellion, suffocation and sexual trauma.” Taslima herself has written about her uncles – two of them who sexually abused her when she was a child. The same two, she said at an Asia Society meeting in New York 2002, were also in a procession demanding their niece’s death in 1994.

But Taslima hasn’t only vented her ire against her sexual abusers. She hasn’t spared those with whom she had relationships based on equal footing. She has had no qualms in describing her sexual exploits with a large number of men, some of them whom she married and most who were just casual flings or incidental occurrences. In her book Ka (a colloquial Bengali word meaning ‘speak out’), she presented detailed descriptions of sexual liaisons with her lovers, many of them prominent personalities of the country. She has certainly named names. Caught off guard, these persons first cringed, and then were outraged by her betrayal. They had, after all, entered into relationship with her with acquiescence on all sides. They weren’t the conservative community who disapproved of her ways. They weren’t the father who beat her when she was young. They weren’t the uncles who had sexually abused her. Or were they? Had she replaced them in some sort of psychological role-play within her head?

Ka lacks the feminist viewpoint she professes to uphold. It is hard to determine what she is trying to put across – the outcome is almost pornographic in content and steps on more than just toes in the process. It is a sort of unholy emasculation. In it she writes of prominent poet Syed Shamsul Huq who, she claims, had been a father figure. He had called her his daughter. Yet we find her spending the night in the same bedroom with him. He has not forced himself on her, she is a willing player in the game. But then she brutally exposes this intimacy in Ka. Even outspoken women writers like Selina Hossain find this hard to swallow. “She is full of contradictions,” says Selina Hossain about Taslima Nasreen. “She was willing to spend a night in the same room with Syed Shamsul Huq. She could have slept anywhere else, but she chose not to.” Taslima has similar contradictory condemnations of ex-husband Nayeemul Islam Khan, novelist Emdadul Huq Milan and others. Have the ghosts of her past made the victim become partner and perpetrator?

* * *

Taslima’s had her fair share of men, but three official husbands. The first was Rudra Mohammed Shahidullah. They married in the early eighties, both students. Rudra was the rebel, a popular poet among the young and bold, a familiar face at the Dhaka University campus. Taslima was relatively unknown at the time. Their marriage didn’t last long and Rudra is now dead. His loyal band of followers are convinced that she just used him as a stepping stone to join Dhaka’s arty crowd.

Next came Nayeemul Islam Khan. Nayeem is well known in the Bangladesh media, having introduced a bold and brash brand of journalism, a pioneer in the field. Perhaps his revolutionary zeal when it came to journalism is what attracted Taslima. “Actually the proposal came from her,” says Nayeem. “Her relationship with Rudra was over and by the time we met, she was free.” He is dispassionate in analyzing her. “I think the big transition began from 1989 and peaked in 1992. This was when she decided that her goals had to be set and having set them, she went on to get them. Nasreen is a single-minded person. She goes for what she wants.”

Nayeem sees the role of the father in Nasreen’s life as significant too. “She had never called her father ‘abba’ or addressed him by any such term.” He feels the bad memories of her father’s betrayal contribute to her becoming extra bold and outspoken. Anyway, that marriage ended too with Narseen’s dalliance with her publisher which went on to becoming a full-blown affair, if reports are to be believed.

Her third husband was Minar Mahmud, also a journalist. He was the editor of Bichinta, a rash Bengali weekly, popular among the youth of the day, with little regard to norms and conventions. An appropriate pair indeed, Taslima and Minar, or so it may have seemed at the time. But Taslima accused him of physical violence and their marriage was soon on the rocks. Minar is in the US now, reportedly pumping gas. Ironic that Taslima is in the same country, rubbing shoulders with the higher echelons of academia.

* * *
If India glorified Taslima Nasreen when her fellow countrymen decried her, bestowing her with literary awards and the like, that was just a mere shadow of things to come. The West has almost canonized her, lifting her to heights she hitherto hadn’t dreamed of. She was hailed as the champion of the feminist movement, as a writer with a cause. Her Lajja (Shame) and its translations sold like hotcakes, though to the astute reader, she hadn’t really come up with anything new. It was the nexus of condemnation from the religious zealots, and kudos from the welcoming arms of the west, that brought her more and more into the limelight. Awards showered upon her like the monsoons back home – Ananda Puroshkar from Kolkatta in 1992; the Swedish PEN Club award in 1994; Edit de Nantes Award from France in 1994; Human Rights award of the French government in 1995; Sakharov Award from free thinking from the European Parliament in 1995; Upsala University Award in 1995; Humanist Award in 1996 from the International Humanist and Ethical Union … and much more. Taslima had arrived.

Farid Hossain, Bureau Chief of AP News Agency in Dhaka, accounts for her popularity in the West: “They listened because what she said basically confirmed what they thought of the Islamic East.”

* * *

With the likes of writer Sunil Gangapadhaya as her patrons in West Bengal, Nasreen continued in her popularity there. Even Ka was hailed for its honesty and boldness in exposing the smut of the Bangladeshi babus. But the smirks of their comrades that side of the border soon faded when Taslima came up with her next shocker – Dikhandita, which literary means dissected. This time her amorous frolics with the literati of Kolkata was up in the stands for all to see. It was a lowdown on the Kolkatta highbrows. It didn’t take long for the authorities there to ban the book.

* * *

Taslima Nasreen, in condemning the social fabric of her old world, seems to have played into the hands of the West. Perhaps this is deliberate on her part. She can hardly be cast into the role of a social reformer. She had ended up being the bane of the East and boon of the West. Her books may titillate, but they have failed to attain the depth demanded of a reformer, a revolutionary. Perhaps she was never that. Perhaps that was just a façade put up by her puppeteers.

NFB 04/10/2004