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Being Taslima

Being Taslima

Author: Rakhi Chakrabarty
Publication: Mumbai Mirror
Date: May 6, 2007

Introduction: Rarely do you come across a writer whose doors are guarded by armed policemen. But then, Taslima Nasreen is not just another writer who enjoys a hallowed existence marked by bestsellers, awards, seminars, book reviews, foreign trips and book fairs. Rakhi Chakrabarty talks to the Bangladeshi author about life under a fatwa and the elusive thing called love

This Bangladeshi author lives in exile in Kolkata under a cloud of fatwas, death threats, rabid criticism - and, yes, praise as well. And, her voice continues to be as strident as ever when she says, "Here, there are laws to protect black bucks but none to protect Muslim women against oppression."

Taslima Nasreen left her country in 1994 after her first novel Lajja (Shame) was banned in Bangladesh for hurting religious sentiments and radical Islamists threatened to kill her. After living in exile in Europe, she came to Kolkata. "I applied for Indian citizenship but did not get any answer," she said. But, she refused to give up.

"I will again apply and, this time, follow procedures," said the author. Last time, she had directly written to the Indian government seeking citizenship. "I didn't know the rules then," she confided. Will she approach West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee about this?

"I don't know people so high up. There may be a perception that I have friends in the upper echelons. But, the truth is I mix with common people and my friends are from amongst them," said Nasreen.

Though she is living in exile in foreign lands since 1994, she is completely clued in to developments back home. In the changed scenario, does she hope to return home? "Initially, I was hopeful to as I thought a secular force was emerging to counter fundamentalist and corrupt parties. It was thought that they wouldn't spare anyone who was corrupt. After recent developments though, the situation seems confusing."

What does she think of the interim Bangladesh government's decision to exile two former prime ministers? "I am for democracy. Even those two political leaders - Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia - who exiled me should be allowed to stay in the country. I don't want them to be banished or exiled," said Nasreen.

But, her eyes gleam with anger as she lashes out at the leaders. "Their corrupt ways are well-known. People have suffered immensely during the regime of both Awami League and Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Both had unleashed a reign of political and religious terrorism and corruption. With the end of their era, common people heaved a sigh of relief," she said.

How about the current set-up in Bangladesh? "This government is backed by the army. And, the Bangladesh army is not known to be very secular unlike, say, in Algeria or Turkey. There, whenever fundamentalists formed government, the Army seized power."

Isn't that anti-democracy? "If people are not politically conscious, as in Bangladesh, democracy can't work. In my country where a large number of people are poor and illiterate, votes can be bought. For such a country, I think secular dictatorship would be ideal. Maybe, somebody such as Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. He was a secular, rational and humanist dictator who worked for the people."

Nasreen rued the fact that in the Indian subcontinent, common people are not even aware of basics of democracy. "Rulers behave like colonial masters. And, the masses have no clue about freedom of expression or gender equality. So, in the name of religion, tradition, custom, equality is sacrificed. To ensure their supremacy over women, man created God and religion."

Elaborating on her idea of absolute equality, Nasreen said, "If there is no uniform civil code based on equality, how can a country call itself a democracy? Constitution talks about gender equality but what about the law? What is practiced is merely electoral democracy?"

An avowed atheist, she asserted, "Every religion discriminates against women. Any law based on religion will do just that. By hanging seven fundamentalists, you cannot hope to root out fundamentalism or corruption. It is necessary to strike at the root. The factories that churn out fundamentalists - mosques, madrasas that impart religious education - should be done away with."

In her book Dwikhandito, which was banned by the Left Front government and lifted in 2005 following a Calcutta High Court directive, she criticised leading intellectuals of Bengal. In fact, the likes of Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay who were once her staunch supporters turned critics. Poet Hashmat Jalal filed a PIL in court. Taslima had written about her sexual encounters with Jalal and other famous people of Bangladesh in the book.
She was then accused of a breach of faith. Gangopadhyay, a doyen of literature, had said, "By making them public, she betrayed trust in a relationship where she entered into sexual liaison by mutual consent."

Looking back, does Taslima feel she betrayed trust? "Hypocrites who have double standards think that way. These are the people who criticise, go to courts. If you are honest in a relationship, then where is the problem in writing about it? They will exploit women within the four walls and outside they want to be worshipped as God."
So, what is her take on relationship between a man and a woman? "In reality, it is a power equation. When there is no equality between men and women and where men are considered superior to women, there cannot be any love in their relationship. It would be a master-slave relation. At best, you can call it a contract."

Talking about her experience, Nasreen said, "At various points in life, I was in love with several men. From my side, it was just love. But, the same was not reciprocated. Men have always tried to dominate. They want submission from women."

Living all by herself in her plush apartment in Kolkata, doesn't she feel lonely? "I have struggled to live alone. I have not allowed anybody to dominate me. I didn't follow the rules. So, I don't fit in the traditional mould," she signs off.

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