BOOKS: TASLIMA THE BRAVE
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.