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Communal time bomb - a letter - Manushi

Avantika Rao, California, USA ()
1996 November-December

Title : Communal time bomb - a letter
Author : Avantika Rao, California, USA
Publication : Manushi
Date : November-December 1996

I hold in my hand a book open to the title page. Underneath the
typeset print, Lajja, there is a crudely scrawled, delicate
signature: "To Avanti, with best wishes, Taslima Nasrin". The
title, Lajja, roughly translates to "shame" in English. Nasrin
seems to use it to denote the feelings that have arisen in reaction
to the human rights abuses against Hindus in post-independence

Shame wells up in me as I hold the book, not as a reflection of
what is inside, but rather ironically in reaction to the audience's
divisive antagonism to Nasrin when she spoke at Wellesley College
this past May. Though I had read and heard about Hindu-Muslim
antagonism, this was the first time that I witnessed a real
situation in which the two groups, so obviously threatened by each
other, created mental barriers to a constructive dialogue.

My parents are moderately devout Hindus of the exodus generation,
but my father has increasingly become a Hindu nationalist over the
past few years. He had long ago exhorted me to read Lajja since he
sees it as proof of the historical victimisation of Hindus by
Muslims. He also concurs with most of the Western world in
believing that Muslim women are oppressed and (though the Western
world may not agree with him on this point) he correspondingly sees
Hindu women as relatively unoppressed. So I came into this debate
having heard mainly one side of the argument and wanting to
transcend my narrow knowledge of the issues. It frustrated me to
see the younger generation, with the bonus of a once-removed
perspective from our parents' prejudices, engaging in the same
defensive arguments that have never gotten our parents anywhere.

My first memories of that night are of Taslima Nasrin, a well-known
Bangladeshi writer, a smallish woman who looks exactly like she
does on the back cover of her novel. She has short, dark hair and
a face which remains in a constant expression of turbulent
indifference. The face is almost childlike, yet she has the air of
one who carries a heavy burden and has therefore learned to
conserve her energy.

Nasrin condemns the human rights abuses (especially against women)
of Muslim fundamentalists in her homeland. Much of her poetry is
very feminist and poignantly realistic in its accounts of the
abuses against women. Due to her condemnation of Islam's treatment
of women, a death threat (fatwa) has been issued against her, so
she travels carefully and defends her right as an artist to express
any political belief, like Salman Rushdie. That night she read some
of her poetry and some excerpts of her other writing followed by a
question and answer session. It was during this session that the
audience, laden with female students (Wellesley is a women's
college) and Boston-area intellectuals in rapt attention, got a
chance to express itself.

While most faces focused intensely on Taslima's reactions, I
watched the faces of the audience. One of the first questions was
asked by a devout Muslim who happened to be a good friend of mine.
She read the question from a piece of paper which she held in her
hand. She asked how Nasrin could say that the Quran does not
respect women when it states that "Paradise is at the foot of the
mother" and cited another quote. Nasrin, in her broken English,
responded basically that the Quran may say these things, but it
also advocates violence against women. Some people in the audience
retorted with comments in defence of Islam and one even asked how
Nasrin lives with the guilt of having caused the deaths of numerous
people in communal riots instigated by her writing. Other audience
members booed in response to these comments and antagonised the
Muslim contingent by apologising for the rudeness of commentators
and for the noisy attendees. Unruly sections of the audience began
jeering whenever people said something they disagreed with. As the
crowd's noise and antics increased, tension and emotion also rose.

Then some audience members asked Nasrin whether she blamed the
interpretation of Islam, and not the religion itself, for the human
rights abuses against women in Bangladesh. Nasrin said something to
the effect that she doesn't distinguish between religion and
interpretation. Under her breath, someone in the audience murmured
"Blasphemy" - quite a serious accusation to be made against any
speaker. As for Nasrin, she was clearly not becoming provoked and
was instead - as I was, albeit a bit more wearily - observing the
emotions that she was bringing out among these people. The fact
that she was not provoked, however, seemed only to intensify the
emotions in the audience. Like a lightning rod, Nasrin had become
a medium through which all the hatred in the room passed and

Not surprisingly, the reality of the human rights abuses against
women in South Asia never even came up. We got so caught up in the
theoretical, the emotional, and the moral that we never got to the
practical. That women were being raped, oppressed and abused while
we were sitting in a beautiful auditorium debating whether or not
one who writes about the atrocities - no matter who she blames - is

In my view, most fundamentalisms oppress women and minorities since
they often advocate a return to traditional ways of living. There
are contradictory feminine ideals in most cultures, including
Western ones, although we would like to think there are not.
Though "paradise" may lie at the foot of the mother and (in
Hinduism) earthly paradise may be visualised through a female devi
figure, in both Hindu and Muslim culture women are limited to very
specific, traditional roles, usually relating to their reproductive

As soon as I left the auditorium that night, sobs of frustration
and pain erupted from deep in my chest. What I had hoped to do by
coming to Wellesley was to learn from other people's perspectives
that either of us
could be "right", but after this event my idealism was sorely
tested. We discussed the lecture in my South Asian politics class
and it was wonderful to hear the variety of views on the affair.
One woman, a Bangladeshi Muslim, said how she connected deeply with
Nasrin's patriotic prose and poetry, despite Nasrin implicating
Islam in political abuses. If Nasrin's writing were to condemn
Hindu fundamentalism, I would love her work just the same.

In a way I feel burdened with having to work through a terribly
complex issue that's been politicised by my parents' generation.
Along with the bhajans and Bharatnatyam have been passed down to
me, I've been slipped a little time bomb called "communalism" with
the inscription: "To Avanti, With Best Wishes". The British may
have helped construct it, but it is my generation who must defuse
it with minimal knowledge of how to go about it. My simple
academic desire to see the South Asian community flourish in its
diverse strength seems likely to die hard as the Muslims and
Hindus, as well as the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and the Sikhs in
Punjab, fight it out in the streets. It seems that we don't even
need a conqueror to divide us anymore, we manage pretty well on our

At the end of the lecture forum, I thanked this small woman for
implicitly agreeing to spur on our fears and passions and asked her
to sign my book. As I handed her the book, I found in her smiling
eyes what I had been vainly looking for in all the theoretical
contortions of the audience members: a spark of humanity. She did
not condemn the audience's disrespectful behaviour arising from
their angers, fears, and hatreds, but rather welcomed them as the
very real feelings that arise when people are dealing with serious
issues. Her secure smile communicated to me that this was exactly
why she gave up being a doctor to become a writer - art can
provoke, but art can also be provocative. In time, perhaps even
the angriest audience members may calm themselves enough to
entertain the thought that "perhaps another perspective is just as
valid as mine". She asked my name and began signing the page.

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