Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

INDIA: Bangladeshi Author’s Luck Runs Out With Autobiography

Sujoy Dhar

KOLKATA, India, Nov 26 2003 (IPS) - Exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin may have spoken out against atrocities on Hindus in her Muslim-majority country, but that has not prevented the Bengali intelligentsia in this eastern Indian city from denouncing the latest of her autobiographical works as pornography instead of literature.

Nasrin has so far been welcomed with open arms by Kolkata’s liberal literary world. But with the third installment of ‘Dwikhondito’ (Split in Two), the latest in a series of autobiographical accounts, this ‘female Salman Rushdie’ may have hit the limits of goodwill on this side of Bengalidom.

Earlier this month, the High Court in this city slapped a 14-day stay on the printing of ‘Dwikhondito’, which is banned in Bangladesh, a country created from a larger Bengal during the 1947 partition of India.

This is not the first time that Nasrin, a gynaecologist by training, has been accused before seeking publicity through literary works that challenge religious and moral sensibilities in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Nasrin is also the author of ‘Lajja’ (Shame), which depicted the atrocities committed on Hindus living in Bangladesh as retaliation for the demolition of the mediaeval Babri Masjid mosque in India by Hindu chauvinists in 1992.

Her "anti-Islam" views led to charges of blasphemy by the government and a ‘fatwa’ of death by enraged fundamentalists and her exile in 1994.

But this time, Nasrin has managed to unite critics on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border by writing about her dalliance, fact or fantasy, with prominent literary figures.

The High Court handed down its restrictions on the basis of a defamatory suit filed by Kolkata poet Syed Hasmat Jalal, who complained that the autobiography contained references to him that were ”false and frivolous”.

In her ‘let-it-all hang-out’ style of writing, Nasrin apparently described Jalal unflatteringly in her memoirs as someone ”frustrated with the communal and partisan attitude of Kolkata Hindus.”.

From her exiled home in the United States, Nasrin released a statement in reaction to the High Court ban saying that she could ”expect such a ban in Bangladesh but not in India which has so many progressive writers”.

That suggestion does not cut ice in Kolkata. Said Sunil Gangopadhyay, a leading literary figure popular in both countries: ”The book has passages of tirade on religion which could incite riots. It is not literature. . . it is almost pornography. It should be banned as it misuses freedom of expression."

In rebuttal, Nasrin said: ”I can’t understand the outbursts of writers like Sunil Gangopadhayay. He said I should not say everything – but I cannot talk about one part of my life and suppress the other when I am writing an autobiographical account.”

”If my book has references to Islam which are derogatory I fail to understand why there was no reaction (in Kolkata) to my other books which also contained – in their words – anti-Islam statements,” she added.

Implicating well-known Bangladeshi writers sympathetic to the pro-India Awami League party, currently in the opposition, has also not exactly endeared Nasrin to Kolkata’s cognoscenti.

On Nov. 9, prominent Bangladeshi poet and novelist Syed Shamsul Haq filed a 1.72 million U.S. dollar defamation suit against Nasrin for causing "hurt" and "embarrassment" by references to him in ‘Dwikhandito’, which is being published in India by Shibani Mukherjee of the independent Peoples’ Book Society.

”By writing about her private moments with pro-Awami League intellectuals she has actually helped the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP). She does not have the sobriety or decency to keep mum about her private life,” pointed out Bengali author Samaresh Majumdar.

"My memoir’s purpose was not to prove that I am a good person, a saint, a goddess. My purpose was to describe the beautiful, the not-so-beautiful, and the in-between events that happen in one’s literary life," said Nasrin.

Author Sirshendu Mukhopadhayay, speaking on the book’s explicit detailing of the author’s sexual encounters with Bangladeshi intellectuals, said: "I find that obscene. If she has done it to unburden her soul, I have no objection but if it is to titillate, I don’t approve.”

”It is a writer’s responsibility to draw a line between obscenity and literature,” Mukhopadhayay said.

"I was alleged to have written obscene material. Some who in the past praised me for my honesty are now attacking me for that very same honesty,” Nasrin argued. ”What I wrote were descriptions of what literally, physically, and emotionally happened to me. I wrote about those of my friends who surrounded me at different times of my life’s story.”

”In my book I portrayed them as human beings. Were I to have damaged anybody’s character, I would have been damaging my own, not theirs," said Nasrin. "I have been forced to live with a decree issued by religious extremists, but it is disheartening to find that any intellectual who claims to believe in the freedom of expression would take a position about me similar to that of the religious extremists.”

Citing the French writer Voltaire, she said: ”Let us work without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

”As with Voltaire, my own concern is to expose life’s injustices, not to go about blindly cultivating my little personal space without regard for what is happening elsewhere," Nasrin said in her defence.

"In Bangladesh, it has always been shameful for women to have relations with men other than their husbands. Men, however, have always been proud of having multiple relations. This uproar in Bangladesh proves that it is shameful if a man’s extramarital affairs to be disclosed,” she said.

Still, Nasrin has supporters in Kolkata, which she calls her second home, and the High Court restrictions have not escaped condemnation here. "I don’t support the ban (of her book) as this is an infringement on the person’s freedom of expression," said author Navanita Dev Sen.

The two previous books in Nasrin’s autobiographical series are ‘Amar Meyebala’ (My Girlhood) and ‘Utal Hawa’ (Wild Wind).

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  • Shalu Sharma

    Something like this can only happen in India. Hindus are not worth your respect. You do them a favour and in return will suck your blood.