Wednesday, February 23, 2005

BANGLADESH: Nasreen, writing and deep crimson



The difficulty with the Taslima Nasreen case is that there are a lot of people out there standing ready to strike her down, physically, if she sets foot in her own country. The result of that fear or threat has been a long period of wandering for the young woman whose writing has always been a breath of fresh air to a generation of men and women eager for a demonstration of intellectual courage. It is immaterial as to whether or not you agree with her. The broad masses of her readers do, and then there are the handful who do not. But that surely is no criterion for anyone to judge the quality or content of her writing. Do not let go of the thought that a writer is not a politician and therefore is not taking part in a popularity contest. If Nasreen were ever tempted to judge her position through ratings on the opinion poll scale, she would find that she left a lot of people disturbed or feeling uncomfortable. The good thing about her is that she has never fallen for such histrionics. More importantly, from our point of view, it is only when a writer creates a disturbing or upsetting sort of situation for his or her readers that he or she is truly fulfilling the demands of writing.

Nasreen, writing and deep crimson
Syed Badrul Ahsan

The question relates to writing — and being able to write without a mob or the ancient laws of statecraft hounding the writer out of town. Now, there is a whole array of views, or points of view, over which we disagree with Taslima Nasreen. But that certainly does not take away from her the right to be able to express her thoughts in the way we expect such thoughts to be articulated in a democratic atmosphere. For the past eleven years, though, Taslima Nasreen has been in exile. That is a most unfortunate part of a writer’s life. It does not have to happen that way, unless of course the one who writes chooses voluntarily to stay away from her own country. There are plenty of examples around us to demonstrate the nature of exile lurking in writers’ souls. Ernest Hemingway, though not in exile in that proper sense of the meaning, nevertheless chose to spend a very significant portion of his time abroad. In the years of the Cold War, a wide swathe of intellectuals from eastern Europe simply made their way to the West, where they prospered and became famous. In 1974, the Soviet authorities bundled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on to a plane and sent him off to the West, for he had become a very troublesome thorn in Moscow’s side. Twenty years or so later, the author of the Gulag chronicles returned home.

The difficulty with the Taslima Nasreen case is that there are a lot of people out there standing ready to strike her down, physically, if she sets foot in her own country. The result of that fear or threat has been a long period of wandering for the young woman whose writing has always been a breath of fresh air to a generation of men and women eager for a demonstration of intellectual courage. It is immaterial as to whether or not you agree with her. The broad masses of her readers do, and then there are the handful who do not. But that surely is no criterion for anyone to judge the quality or content of her writing. Do not let go of the thought that a writer is not a politician and therefore is not taking part in a popularity contest. If Nasreen were ever tempted to judge her position through ratings on the opinion poll scale, she would find that she left a lot of people disturbed or feeling uncomfortable. The good thing about her is that she has never fallen for such histrionics. More importantly, from our point of view, it is only when a writer creates a disturbing or upsetting sort of situation for his or her readers that he or she is truly fulfilling the demands of writing. For what is writing if not the boldness to tell people that what they have believed in so long may not actually be true or logically acceptable? More to the point, it is the responsibility of a writer to induce fresh bouts of thinking, or reflection, in their readers. That precisely is what Nasreen has been doing since the early 1980s, when she moved into this risky territory of writing. And how has she been different? Let us just say that she has always had her own point of view on offer, in contrast to others who have generally fallen for a ceaseless repetition of clichés. In a world where bravery is fast receding from the life of the writer, Taslima Nasreen has in her lonely way kept our faith alive in the power of writing to bring about change in people’s intellectual dimensions.

But that contribution of Nasreen’s is these days carefully being kept under the rug, even by those who have regularly claimed, with justification, fidelity to liberal intellectual beliefs. Taslima Nasreen has complained that Bangladesh’s progressive intellectual society has never displayed any great enthusiasm about her return to the country. She has lived in Europe, moving from place to place as it were. And she has spent time in America. Feeling the urge to be home, she has come closer to home, staying just outside its political parameters. In West Bengal, she has tried savouring something of the Bangladesh she has been compelled to stay out of in the past eleven years. And yet no one in this country, either from political as well as intellectual expediency or a fear about upsetting sensitivities, has ever made a public call about the need to have Nasreen come back home. Newspapers in Bangladesh have in most instances reported on her work and her travels, through making sure that she is described as a controversial writer. It makes you feel that Taslima Nasreen is a being from outer space. Or that she is one individual whose very presence on earth is detrimental to the future of the human race. But have you ever reflected on just what people mean when they describe individuals as controversial? Fundamentally, in our times the term ‘controversy’ has gone through much abuse. Controversy implies setting into motion a process of thought over which people do not agree or have a whole range of sharply divergent views to express. That is fine with us. But look a little deeper. A controversial writer is, more than anything else, a courageous writer. She is one who relates to us what she sees, which is that she observes the emperor for what he actually is. While the rest of us think that the emperor is wearing new clothes, people like Nasreen inform us, bluntly, that in fact the emperor is wearing no clothes at all. Small wonder, then, that our middle class minds go looking for sand to hide the face in.

Let us go back in time a little. Some of the biggest damage done to free thought came from Rajiv Gandhi when in the late 1980s he decreed that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses be banned. Gandhi’s act was of course motivated by the fear that the work could ignite a communal bloodbath on a scale unimaginable. He was not about to forget the carnage that was the 1984 murder of Sikhs in the aftermath of his mother’s assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. But it was clearly a short-term view he was taking through banning Rushdie. The long-term idea should have been for the book to be displayed and sold in the open market in order for people to debate the contents and style of it. You will not find very many people who will appreciate Satanic Verses. It is a roguish book written in language that is meaningless and using images that do not enhance the state of literature. You can say the work is blasphemy. But is it not enough to say that it is bad, extremely bad literature? And yet this bad literature, thanks to Rajiv Gandhi and then Ayatollah Khomeini, turned Rushdie into an unlikely celebrity. Let us make something clear here first, which is that Salman Rushdie is and has been a good writer. But Satanic Verses remains one of the worst examples of modern literature, if indeed it is literature. The bigger point here is that Rushdie should have been in a position where we could all have challenged him academically on his knowledge of the Islamic faith, through much intellectual debate and discourse and thereby demonstrated to ourselves that there are good people, Muslims among them, who do not simply wish to end an argument through putting someone’s neck through the guillotine or the noose. But when Khomeini decided, in the infinity of his anything-but-wisdom, that the author of Satanic Verses deserved to die, he actually gave all Muslims around the world a bad name. That was unfair.

And today it is unfair to think that Taslima Nasreen, by any stretch of the imagination one of the foremost writers in Bangladesh, must go on being a fugitive from her land. Politicians, including those who profess to be in the secular camp, have condemned her. The rabid right wing is of course still out there baying for her blood. It is all part of a pattern, this uncouth way of keeping a writer out of her land. When people of the progressive mould begin to think that a problem will simply go away only through ignoring it, when they reach somewhat the bad conclusion that writers in exile are individuals whom history will soon forget, they are engaging in a bout of beautiful delusion. They do not remember that in literature, in the wider territory of aesthetics, it is always advisable to let a hundred flowers bloom. You simply cannot stamp out one of the flowers only because it happens to be a deeper crimson than all the others around it.

It is time for a serious rethink on Taslima Nasreen in exile