Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Banished from Bengal - book review of 'Exile - a memoir' by Taslima Nasrin

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The Bengal in the title refers to both West and erstwhile East. Both which banished writer Naslima Nasrin. Even if the accusations against Ms Nasrin, dominantly being her fanning religious extremism and of her being a mediocre writer are to be believed, the life of exile she was relegated to (and written about in her book ‘Exile – a memoir’, translation by Maharghya Chakraborty and published by Penguin) speaks loudly of the failure of a State (two States in fact) to protect an individual and its machinations to stifle freedom. The book also brings to the fore a strange love that Taslima Nasrin has for India where she continues to live, largely due to her courage and conviction, at the face of massive resistance and near lack of substantial support.

The book is a powerful account of an individual, a writer, a female, who has been let down by the powers that be. The book is a commentary on how vote bank politics trumps basic human rights. The book is a testimony to the humongous and nearly unlimited State power. The book is a note of how personal relations, friendships, acquaintances fail to stand up in times of adversity. Taslima Nasrin’s Exile is a book that through its diary entries, poems, newspaper testimonials makes all the above points and makes it strongly.
In the first chapter titled ‘Forbidden’ Ms Nasrin writes how the words, which she calls epithets, of ‘whore’ and ‘prostitute’ have become cherished for it reminds her of the stand against patriarchy that she has taken and the reader, provided one is unaware of her work in general, is given a glimpse of what a woman has stood up to. 

22nd November 2007 was the fateful day, and a chapter “Farewell, 22 November 2007” has been devoted to it, when after applying immense pressure on Ms Nasrin to leave Kolkata, where Muslim religious fundamentalists were protesting against her, she made an exit to Jaipur, from where she was to eventually live in ‘exile’ in various safe houses of New Delhi.

Taslima Nasrin has given the reader an image of her happy self in Kolkata, prior to her becoming a captive at the hands of Indian State. How she set up her house, was happily writing, was socially active and how all of it was snatched away from her just because a state government (then a CPM government) could not rein in fundamentalists and rather sought recourse in sending the author away.

Ms Nasrin asks the right questions about Muslims, which a vast majority of people wonder about. At one point (pg 153) she writes “I feel that the ‘moderates’ do not even exist.” She invokes Gandhi, Mandela, a host of editors, poets throughout the book who have given her strength to fight the mighty State and who have praised her valour. The book ‘Exile’ is also about how friendships (be it the Mr B, a minister in UPA government or any other) have ditched her in time of need and through that becomes relatable to the average human.

The powerful sections of the book are where Taslima Nasrin writes about her love for India and her dislike for the comforts of Western world where she spent 11 long years before coming to Kolkata. This narrative comes along at various points in the book. A Bengali first and then a Bangladeshi perhaps is how she has chosen to put it.

The outright disgusting part of the book is where she describes her exile of nearly 8 months in various safe houses of Delhi. Stripping a human being of basic freedom of meeting people, availing medical facilities, going about a normal life is a gross violation of human rights and Ms Nasrin was subject to that. She has provided a disturbing account of how due to lack of medical help her blood pressure situation got worse and which eventually led her to bite the bitter pill and leave India.

Maharghya Chakraborty, a PhD scholar at CSSC Kolkata needs to be commended for a wonderful translation. The literary prowess of Taslima Nasrin has been done justice to in English it can be safely said. The narration is gripping, fast moving and accommodates literary flourish along with some lovely poetry in vast sections. There could have been more clarity on the timeline of events in general. The book is a highly recommended one for those who would like to learn more about Taslima Nasrin, her love for India, her fight against religious fundamentalism, the coercion of the State, machinations of governments, and much more.

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