BOOKS: TASLIMA THE BRAVE

India Today - - INSIDE - —Shougat Dasgupta

Split is the English trans­la­tion of the third vol­ume of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nas­rin’s thus far seven-part au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It was pub­lished in Ben­gali in 2003 and swiftly banned, and though the Cal­cutta High Court struck down the ban, Nas­rin was still forced to ex­punge part of the book. She was also sued for crores of ru­pees in dam­ages for defama­tion. Many Ben­gali writ­ers, po­ets and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als—people Nas­rin might or­di­nar­ily have con­sid­ered among her al­lies—dis­missed the book as lewd and low gos­sip. Apart from the ‘sen­ti­ments’ of some of the Ben­gali writ­ers in the mem­oir, painted in less than flat­ter­ing light, Nas­rin, as she so of­ten has, hurt the sen­ti­ments of Mus­lim hard­lin­ers who re­sponded, as they so of­ten do, with hys­ter­i­cal vi­o­lence. She was smug­gled out of Kolkata, a city which she con­sid­ers her cul­tural home, in 2007 and has still not been al­lowed to re­turn. She lives, in part and with ap­pro­pri­ate se­crecy, in Delhi, not a cit­i­zen of In­dia but on ex­tended leave to stay, de­pen­dent on the gov­ern­ment’s gen­eros­ity, and, a lit­tle like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, used by right wing con­ser­va­tives as a pop­u­lar stick with which to beat Is­lam.

All of this is to say that Nas­rin, to her eter­nal mis­for­tune, can­not be read just to be read, be­cause of the plea­sure her writ­ing might bring. She is now read as the scourge of hide­bound Is­lam, the scourge of the pa­tri­archy, the scourge of those who would limit speech. A project, say, like Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s six-vol­ume au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, is read and dis­cussed as a lit­er­ary en­ter­prise; Nas­rin’s sim­i­lar project— the map­ping of an in­di­vid­ual life—is dis­cussed not for its lit­er­ary qual­i­ties but as a ges­ture of de­fi­ance, as an ex­tra­or­di­nary un­will­ing­ness to be cowed by re­li­gious and male author­ity. And so you per­se­vere with Split be­cause you feel you owe it to Nas­rin, owe a per­se­cuted writer her right to have her voice heard.

What be­comes clear from the be­gin­ning of Split is that a woman’s life and choices are at the mercy of her sex. In­de­pen­dent as Nas­rin is, and fi­nan­cially un­bur­dened, she must put up with the ad­vances of older, more es­tab­lished po­ets, their out­raged in­sults when those ad­vances are re­jected. Worse is the vi­o­lence to which women are sub­jected. “I sud­denly felt a sharp blind­ing pain on my right arm,” Nas­rin writes about one ran­dom at­tack, a “boy of twelve or thir­teen was press­ing a half-smoked burn­ing cig­a­rette on my arm.” Still, she adds, she is lucky that “no one has yet thrown acid” at her. “I have not been blinded and I am es­pe­cially grate­ful that a group of men has not am­bushed me on a road and raped me,” she says. Even Nas­rin’s stolidly re­spectable fa­ther beats her bloody on the ba­sis of a scur­rilous mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle. There is much ca­sual hor­ror in Split, an ac­count­ing of the feral crea­tures even rea­son­able men be­come when they find they can­not con­trol a woman. Nas­rin, in trans­la­tion at least, is not a stylist, nor is she par­tic­u­larly in­sight­ful. But her in­dig­na­tion makes her a com­pelling, pow­er­ful writer.

YASIR IQBAL

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