Lajja

Taslima Nasrin (author)

By Niloo Kalaam (reviewer)

Before Satanic Verses, in a novel titled Shame, Salman Rushdie wrote:

By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature (a realistic novel), it would have done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not only about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing! Realism can break a writer's heart.'

Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy tale, so that's all right; nobody need get upset or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken either.

What a relief!

Along with the rest of us, Taslima Nasrin learned from Rushdie's subsequent experience that whatever its merits, creative form is no protection against fundamentalists. Unlike Rushdie's, her novel Lajja (subtitled Shame in English) is a political warning before it is a novel in a strict literary sense. Nasrin utilizes fiction's mass emotional appeal, rather than its potential for nuance and universality. Written in a mere five days, Lajja sold over 60,000 copies in the five months before it was banned and a fatwa issued against its writer's life. The book was banned on grounds that it disturbs communal peace.

Lajja is a response to the anti-Hindu riots that broke out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India. Its intent is to warn the people of Bangladesh that communalism is on the rise, that the Hindu minority is badly mistreated and that the secularism they once fought for is in grave danger.

Nasrin achieves this by telling the story of a Hindu family-the Duttas-and the sequence of events that eventually force them out of Bangladesh. Interspersed with their story are long lists of atrocities committed by Moslems against Hindus. These are not woven into the story, but presented in point form or unlikely dialogue, and fail to grip the reader's attention.

The story of the Duttas-Sudhamoy, Kironmoyee, and their children, Suranjan and Maya-is more interesting. For generations they have been land owners near Myemsingh, in what is now Bangladesh. After the partition, when most Hindus left for India, Sudhamoy's father refused to leave. Why should I leave my homeland and go somewhere else?, he argued, If I live it will be on this soil, and if I die it will be in this very same place.

Sudhamoy, who was a medical student at the time, believes in his father's rationale. He has stayed in Bangladesh, working as a physician and taking active part in the national and secular movements that have gained Bangladesh independence from Pakistan. His wife, Kironmoyee, has stayed with him, although most of her family has moved to Calcutta and she, herself, is more open to the idea of migration.

Over the years Sudhamoy and his family have suffered severely as a result of their refusal to leave their country. Among other things, they have had to sell their ancestral land for a pittance, and move to Dhaka where they live in a small house with no servants and little money. Just the same, Sudhamoy clings to the idea that Bangladesh is a secular state.

Now in the wake of the Babri Masjid riots, the family looks to the eldest son, Suranjan, to find them a safe shelter.

But Suranjan is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For years he has been involved in left-wing politics. Oblivious to practicalities such as finding a job, he has alienated himself from his family as irresponsible. Until now his closest friends have been Moslem and these friends have helped the Duttas out in previous riots. But this time around, the animosity is more intense, and Suranjan realizes that ultimately, his minority status makes him different from his friends.

While riots escalate and Hindus hide in fear, Suranjan roams the streets of Dhaka in a semi-trance. His presence shocks his comrades who are organizing anti-communal demonstrations, yet take for granted that Suranjan should not appear in public. As one after the other his friends let him down, and they all do, he finds communal prejudice seethes inside him.

Had they not been bound by the prejudices of patriarchy, the Duttas would have looked to their daughter, Maya, for shelter. Maya is a pragmatic sort, filled with a sense of responsibility and a desire to live. She is the only one genuinely concerned with saving the family, but has to wait in vain for Suranjan.

Once it becomes clear that Suranjan will do nothing to help the family, Maya goes to stay with a Moslem friend. His pride wounded, and detesting the fact that his sister should ask Moslems for help, Suranjan withdraws from the family even more. A few days after her departure, Sudhamoy has a stroke. Maya comes back, and when, in the name of Islam, thugs invade the house, they take Maya with them. Helpless with rage, Suranjan retaliatesby violently raping a Moslem prostitute. Thus, violence breeds violence, the weak turn against the weaker, and in a patriarchal system women are easy victims of men's impotent fury.

Lajja is a poignant and unrelenting account of the suffering of minorities. Millions of people the world over wonder whether they should stay or leave an oppressive homeland. Some stay and suffer, as the Duttas do, others leave to find that the world is simply not large enough for their rights. They may have fled, let's say religious fundamentalism, only to be victimized by racism or nationalism. Fascism is not confined to one country or region, but permeates our whole world order.

It is precisely in not acknowledging this world order that the book fails, at least in an international setting. To make the point that religious violence must stop somewhere, Nasrin purposely amputates Bangladesh from the rest of the world and the rest of the Indian subcontinent. She picks a loop in a chain of causes and effects and says that here we must undo the sequence. Let us forget about the reasons that have led us here, let us simply acknowledge the shamefulness of violence and stop it. So intent is she on making her point, that a Moslem herself, she writes a book in which every single Moslem proves him or herself incapable of understanding the plight of the Hindu protagonists. Indeed, the best of them, Haider, visits Suranjan not so much to find out how he was, but to gossip.

Nasrin quotes Jinnah as saying, A man is Punjabi or Bengali before he is Hindu or Moslem. They share a common language, culture, and economy. Yet, by drawing up nationalism against religious fundamentalism, she emphasizes the not so ancient or organic borders that separate West Bengal from Bangladesh and in effect says, let's forget about our historical connection to India; in Bangladesh we must remain faithful to the secular ideals we have fought for.

Her voice is brave, a lone voice, with some of the naiveté of Sudhamoy. We can almost for give her, for she wrote in Bengali for a Bengali audience. But the book was later translated into English and published by Penguin India. Moreover, Nasrin herself became an international figure.

Outside its original context, the book can be read as a tract against Islam. Within the Indian subcontinent one can well imagine Hindu fundamentalists utilizing it to further theirrhetoric of hate: if you don't believe us here's a Moslem's testimony... In a still larger context it plays into the hands of a western media who are always eager to blame and condemn Islam.

That Nasrin has actually not extended her views and her fight for freedom and justice beyond the borders of Bangladesh is demonstrated in an interview she had with France's Le Nouvel Observateur. Last December the magazine arranged a dialog between Nasrin and three veiled Moslem women residing in France. When asked what she thinks of France's plan to ban the veil from French high schools, Nasrin who has written so movingly of the plight of minorities in Bangladesh, replied that that is the French government's decision. Goaded further, she said that no woman, person, or citizen should wear the Islamic veil.

Both in her writing, and in numerous interviews, Nasrin has iterated over and over again that she is not against Islam, but against any kind of religious fundamentalism. This is not clear in Lajja, where she downplays Hindu fundamentalism to magnify the horrors of Islamic fundamentalism; nor is it clear in her attitude towards women wearing the veil in the west, when she has written sympathetically of Bangladeshi Hindus giving up their dress in compliance with the ruling Islamic culture. Perhaps, it is more apt to say, Taslima Nasrin is against Islam in a way only a Moslem can be, or more accurately yet, as only a Moslem Bangladeshi woman can be. While the west, or Hindu fundamentalists, speak against Islam in a struggle for ascendance, Nasrin speaks against the injustice she has seen and experienced. She speaks against the repression of a Hindu minority, against the mistreatment of Bangladeshi migrant workers by members of richer Moslem states, and first and foremost against the oppression of women. Her voice is the voice of anger and outrage, the voice of protest, and it carries the weight and power of any struggle for justice. She obviously touches a nerve that threatens Islamic patriarchy, or the mullahs would not have reacted the way they have and largely male processions would not take place demanding her life. But it's important to realize that, with all its importance, Nasrin's voice is inextricably bound within the fabric of Bangladeshi society. She is no Rushdie, no lone atom orbiting outside international boundaries in the realms of thought and sophisticated social analysis. Nasrin is simply a local activist and quite unprepared for the fate that has launched her into the international scene.

Will she rise up to the challenges that have been thrust upon her? Will she broaden her quest for justice and come to realize that Islamic fundamentalism has not sprung from a void and is not the sole evil in our world? Without the freedom to roam and explore, living in isolated exile under a death threat and in high security, it will require a super-human effort.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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