Taslima Nasrin was first thrown out of Bangladesh, the nation of her birth, and later from Kolkata, the city of her choice. In exile since 1993, following the publication of ‘Lajja’, the controversial author, in an animated conversation with Utpal Kumar, recalls her journey so far, why she often finds herself in trouble, and how the Indian definition of secularism is deeply flawed.
When Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014, many people thought that Taslima Nasrin’s struggle as a ‘Nowhere Woman’ would finally end. It was widely believed that the new dispensation would help the exiled Bangladeshi author get an Indian citizenship. But Taslima was in for a rude shock when the duration of her residence permit was reduced to two months from the previously sanctioned one year. “The UPA government would give me a permit for one year which had to be renewed annually. When I raised this issue with the then Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, he called it a technical glitch and promised to provide me a permit for 50 years. I remember telling him that I won’t survive that long, so a permit for five years would do.” Ironically, the same glitch was repeated when Taslima applied for a five-year permit after the BJP romped back to power in 2019. This time she was given a three-month permit, which was extended to one year following a massive uproar. “I don’t understand how a technical glitch could happen twice,” she wonders.
The controversial Bangladeshi author, who has been living in exile since the publication of Lajja in 1993, took refuge in India in 2004 after a long stay in Europe and America. She lived in Kolkata, which she called her home, till 2007 when she was thrown out of the state following violent protests by Muslim fundamentalists. She stayed in New Delhi for a few months, following which she left for Sweden, which granted her citizenship. In 2011, Taslima returned to Delhi never to leave again, regularly renewing her residence permit thereafter.
As the doctor-turned-author is out with the English translation of her memoir, Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood), published byPenguin and brilliantly translated from Bengali into English by Maharghya Chakraborty, she tells Guardian 20 why she never compromises with truth even if it puts her life in jeopardy, how Islam is not compatible with modernity, why she won’t stop trying to go back to Bangladesh though she knowns it might never happen, and what she does when she isn’t writing a book. Excerpts:
Q. Your memoir, Amar Meyebela, was translated into English by Gopa Majumdar in 2001. What is the reason for another translation now?
A. In Gopa Majumdar’s translated book, which Kali for Women had published, a lot of things got censored. Every time they found the word Islam, they just edited that out. I was so unhappy with the outcome that I asked them to stop its publication. But I couldn’t stop as Kali for Women had bought the rights from the French publishers, who had first published the book in 1998.
Q. How did the idea to write this book first came to you?
A. When I was in exile in Europe, I was missing my family and country. Initially I thought my exile would be temporary and would go back to my country once things settle down. But that never happened and I continued to be a persona non grata in my own country. I began writing this book in that mental turmoil.
Q. Did you ever feel that you should not have put your own family in the dock?
A. When I began writing this book, I was missing my family. You know why I was thrown out of my country. Because I refused to hide anything. What I saw in my society, I wrote. I was very critical of Islam, misogyny and patriarchy. No wonder, not just the Muslim fanatics but also the status quoists of Bangladeshi society, including those in the government, hated me. So, if I can expose my society, how can I not expose my family? It never occurred to me that I should hide anything about my family.
Q. How did your family react to this book?
A. My family wasn’t pleased. When the book was banned in Bangladesh, I was in a way relieved, hoping my family would not get a copy of the same. Especially I didn’t want them to read my father’s extramarital relationship. But my father managed to get a copy from Kolkata and I heard that he would read it every night. Today, when my father is no more, I feel bad that my writing would have caused him pain. But I believe he would have secretly appreciated me for telling the truth. He was a brave man. When I was hiding in Bangladesh after the publication of Lajja, he wrote me a letter saying I should not worry and if I had to be killed for telling the truth, so be it.
As for his extramarital relations, I only heard these things through other people. He never brought any other woman at home, which is remarkable in the context of a Muslim man in a Muslim-majority nation. So, I sometimes do feel bad for writing such things about him. Also, I believe I focused more on bad things. I didn’t write enough on good things and good times we had in the family. But again, it may be because people generally write on good things about their family, brushing aside dark, dirty secrets.
Q. This book was banned in Bangladesh. Please tell us about those times?
A. The book was banned in Bangladesh even before it could be published there. It was first published by a small publication in Kolkata, and was bought by the Bangladeshi Embassy in India that probably sent a copy to its government in Bangladesh. All my previous books were banned for hurting religious sentiments; this one got banned by the Sheikh Hasina government in 2000 for obscenity. Ironically, the book focused on how a little girl was sexually harassed in her own family. How can it be banned for obscenity? The ban is still on.
Q. We are told in India that Hasina is a liberal politician and Prime Minister…
A. No, no. Hasina is a cunning politician who, for staying in power, can do anything. She is working hand in hand with Islamist fundamentalists. In fact, she was the one who made madarsa education equivalent to university education. She also said that the country would be run as per the Madinah Charter, the law that existed in the seventh-century Saudi Arabia. She has also taken no credible action against those who killed atheists and secularists in Bangladesh.
Q. You started questioning certain Quranic ideas very early in life. Why do you think Islam is not compatible with modernity?
A. While my mother was a religious person, my father was an atheist, which I discovered much later. So, I grew up in a family of a staunch believer and an absolute non-believer. From the very beginning I would ask questions which would turn inconvenient to my mother. Why should I study the Quran when I don’t understand its meaning and language? Why should I learn Arabic? My mother would say that I should read because Allah would be happy! But if Allah knows everything, then why shouldn’t I pray in Bengali? Doesn’t Allah know Bengali? Exasperated, one day my mother told me if I said anything bad about Allah, my tongue would fall off. I was eight years old then. Curious as I was, I locked myself in a bathroom and said something foul about Him. But my tongue didn’t fall off! At the age of 12, I found a translation of the Quran and Hadith, and after reading them I became an atheist. We have to understand that critical scrutiny of any religion is very important. Christian and Jewish societies became civilised and modern only after they allowed people to question their own religious scriptures.
Q. There are many liberal Muslim intellectuals who charge you of inciting reaction with your fiery, non-compromising stand. They push for a middle ground between Islam and modernity. Your take.
A. They do so because they are not real seculars. They, for sure, don’t like fundamentalists, but they also don’t approve of criticism of Islam. They are actually pseudo-seculars. I don’t believe in the Indian definition of secularism, which accepts the barbarism of all religions. For me, secularism is complete separation of state and religion. Another double-standard of these Muslim intellectuals is that while they applaud a Hindu and a Christian criticising their respective religions, they don’t approve of the same for a Muslim. No society can be liberal and secular if its people are not given the freedom to critically analyse their own religion. This is a fundamental necessity.
Q. You have lived in exile in the US and Europe. What encouraged you to come and stay in India?
A. I lived in Paris, Berlin, Boston, Harvard, New York and Stockholm. I moved to many cities as I was longing for home. Then I decided to move to Calcutta which was closest to the culture and language of my country where I was barred from going. I felt at home in Kolkata, but I was thrown out of the state by the communist government. I now stay in Delhi, where I don’t feel like an outsider. Even when I was a celebrated writer in Europe, I invariably felt like an outsider. For a writer, it’s important to feel at home.
Q. When we met the last time in 2016, you said that you didn’t see yourself ever going back to Bangladesh. Do you still hold that position?
A. I don’t see any hope. Bangladesh has transformed into a fundamentalist country. When I was staying there, I would not see so many women wearing hijab and burqa. Now it’s a normal sight. The country is very much Islamised today. I would still fight till my death to go back to my country, though I am not very hopeful about that.
Q. In your previous book that was translated into English, you mentioned in detail how you were thrown out of Kolkata. Did you ever try going back to Kolkata? How is your relationship with Mamata Banerjee?
Mamata Banerjee doesn’t like the CPM, but she seems to approve the communist action against me. My fight has been for an equal society where women are not oppressed and there’s no discrimination against them. The fact that the woman Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the woman Chief Minister of West Bengal are party to the ban brigade is truly tragic.
Q. What does Taslima Nasrin do when she is not writing a book?
A. I have written 45 books so far. But it’s not that I just write books. I go out and chat with people. I love travelling. I used to paint a lot, though I have not touched the brush for long. But most importantly, when I don’t write, I primarily devote myself to reading. Occasionally, I cook Bengali foods. I see YouTube channels to learn different cuisines and recipes.