Monday, February 21, 2005

ANALYSIS: Rushdie and Taslima: exiles from 'home'

Taslima Nasreen, too, speaks in a similar vein when she says, in the rough translation of a Bengali poem: "India was not a piece of waste paper that it should have been torn apart. I want to rub out the word forty-seven. I want to wash out the blackness of forty-seven with soap and water. I don't want to swallow the bone of forty-seven stuck in my throat. I want to vomit it out. I want to recover the undivided land of my forefathers."

21/02/2005

Rushdie and Taslima: exiles from 'home'
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It should be a matter of pride for Indians that two celebrated writers - Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen - virtually look upon India as their home, underlining how the success of its democracy and multicultural polity has made it a favourite of intellectuals and artistes.

Evidence of this yearning to be an "Indian" is again evident in Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen's expressed desire to secure at least the status of a permanent resident in India if she cannot become a citizen. Rushdie, too, had once written that his first thought following the monetary success of his literary career after the publication of "Midnight's Children" was to buy a flat in Mumbai.

In "The Ground Beneath Her Feet", it is undoubtedly Rushdie who says the following lines rather than the fictional character Umeed Merchant, aka Rai the photographer: "India, my terra infirma, my maelstrom, my cornucopia, my crowd. India, my too-muchness, my everything at once, my hug-me, my fable, my mother, my father and my first great truth."

Taslima Nasreen, too, speaks in a similar vein when she says, in the rough translation of a Bengali poem: "India was not a piece of waste paper that it should have been torn apart. I want to rub out the word forty-seven. I want to wash out the blackness of forty-seven with soap and water. I don't want to swallow the bone of forty-seven stuck in my throat. I want to vomit it out. I want to recover the undivided land of my forefathers."

As their intensely personal expressions show, neither writer has any time for the partition of 1947. Taslima Nasreen's yearning for an undivided India is all the more strange considering that she is not old enough to remember a pre-partition India. She was born in 1962. Rushdie was born in 1947, making him a true midnight's child. Yet, if they are conjuring up an idyllic scene, it is possibly because of their distress at the communal prejudices and fundamentalism that have subsequently gained ground in the subcontinent.

What is more, if India is now seen by them as some kind of ideal - "my fable ... my first great truth", as Rushdie said, and "land of my forefathers", as Taslima Nasreen has said - the reason presumably is that a democratic and secular India has been more successful in keeping the sectarian sentiments and religious bigotry at bay than either Pakistan or Bangladesh, both with their background of military dictatorships and covert and overt official patronage of fundamentalism.

Although the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie is still valid, as Tehran clarified recently, and it is virtually impossible for Taslima Nasreen to return to the land of her birth because of the threat from the Islamic clerics, the two writers obviously feel at ease in India in spite of the fact that Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" remains under a ban, as does the second part of Taslima Nasreen's autobiography, "Dwikhandita".

However, as their writings show, they still derive their artistic inspiration from India. Despite his long years in the West, the primary settings of Rushdie's novels are in India - whether it is "The Moor's Last Sigh" or "The Ground Beneath Her Feet", not to mention "Midnight's Children".

Taslima Nasreen's poems, too, are redolent of the Bengal countryside and if she wants to settle down in West Bengal it is evidently because she feels that she can only recharge her literary batteries by being in touch with a part of the subcontinent with which she is familiar. "I love Bengal", she has said. "My identity as an author will remain intact if I am allowed to stay here".

As politicians and diplomats wrestle with latent suspicions about their motives, the views of writers of this genre have a special value, for their preferences emphasise their search for an atmosphere where the freewheeling human spirit can thrive. In praising and choosing India, therefore, these kindred souls have given a certificate whose value is immeasurable.

Nor are they the first of their kind. Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate, was no less impressed by India's "incredible diversity, the coming together of extreme contrasts: the modern and the archaic, abundance and poverty, sensuality and asceticism, weakness and violence, the plurality of castes and languages, gods and rites, customs and behaviour". Clearly, it is a writer's paradise, a cornucopia of events and images to satisfy nearly all of an artist's needs.

In the 19th century, when repressive regimes were the norm in Europe, England used to be the home of exiles like Marx and Lenin, who could only have faced incarceration in their lands of birth, Germany and Russia. Unfortunately, even in the 21st century, South Asia presents a dismal picture of autocratic rulers, civil strife and fledgling, uncertain democracies stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar. The scene has been made worse by the presence of religious fanatics, intent on stifling freedom of all kinds, whether political or artistic.

Since India provides a ray of hope in this all-encircling gloom, it can seem like an attractive destination for writers on the run from bigots