Attack on Taslima

by f

Taslima Nasrin

note: I posted this on Subrosa on April 10, 2008.

I visited the library today and found Taslima Nasrin’s Shodh sitting on the used book sale shelf. I bought it immediately. When I began to read it, the memories flooded back.

On August 10, 2007, I woke up to the news that Taslima Nasrin was assaulted at the launch of the Telugu translation of her novel Shodh. (It was published in the original Bengali in 1992,) I was staying not a mile from where the assault occurred and I read it fresh off the press that came along in with the milk.

I mention this because during Contemporary Europe today the class discussed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the radlcal secularist Somali-Dutch politician. She’s also a perpetual refugee, bouncing around from one party to another, shrill but nevertheless dogged. Like any other politician, her motives are pretty tainted and stained, but her life and the threats on her person hurt to read. Recently, she came/left the US via the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a few pretty vitriolic books and papers and went back to Denmark.

Taslima Nasrin is different from Hirsi Ali in the sense that she’s never had political aspirations — it is worth noting activists are not necessarily good politicians. Unlike Hirsi Ali, who left when she was younger, Taslima was already employed as a government doctor. She became a gynecologist. Her initial experiences in feminism or straying away from what she saw as the “demons of her faith” was from constantly having to treat rapes of young girls.

Being an expert on the female anatomy and the female reaction through sexual abuse allowed her to write that graphic rape scene in her initial novel. Lajja–or shame–was originally 76 pages, and then expanded to around 200, and I own the original as well as translated 200 pg copy. This was the novel that was made into a movie starring a slew of A-list Bollywood actresses.

For awhile after she was thrown out of Bangladesh, she lived in Kolkata–she speaks and is culturally Bengali, so West Bengal was the most ideal location for her outside of Bangladesh–but she was forced to go to Sweden.

After that, she went on to write more books–particularly an autobiography in parts, detailing the stress underwent as the result of her exile. She went through a literal heartbreak. She came back to Kolkata and toured around the country–hence the Hyderabad appearance–but she had to sprint from Delhi and then to London after suffering cardiac stress. She suffered from being exiled.

To me, her writing is as disturbing as her cardiac condition, to be honest. Her poetry receives atrocious translation, but here’s an example of what I mean:

HAPPY MARRIAGE

My life,
like a sandbar, has been taken over by a monster of a man.
He wants my body under his control
so that if he wishes he can spit in my face,
slap me on the cheek
and pinch my rear.
So that if he wishes he can rob me of my clothes
and take the naked beauty in his grip.
So that if he wishes he can pull out my eyes,
so that if he wishes he can chain my feet,
if he wishes, he can, with no qualms whatsoever,
use a whip on me,

if he wishes he can chop of my hands, my fingers. ‘
If he wishes he can sprinkle salt in the open wound,
he can throw ground-up black pepper in my eyes.
So that if he wishes he can slash my thigh with a dagger,
so that if he wishes he can string me up and hang me.

He wanted my heart under his control
so that I would love him:
in my lonely house at night,
sleepless, full of anxiety,
clutching at the window grille,
I would wait for him and sob,
My tears rolling down, I would bake homemade bread;
so that I would drink, as if they were ambrosia,
the filthy liquids of his polygynous body.

So that, loving him, I would melt like wax,
not turning my eyes toward any other man,
I would give proof of my chastity all my life.

So that,
loving him on some moonlit night
I would commit suicide
in a fit of ecstasy

I feel violated just reading this aloud to an empty room. The farther I get, the more I am convinced of the inevitability of these events, even in the context of my life. Good writers make us feel that impending sense of inevitability—it’s why Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale still makes my ovaries quake. It’s why books like 1984, Brave New World, Clockwork Orange, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest make such an impact on readers. It’s also why depictions of rape frighten readers. There’s this deep, almost biological attraction/revulsion to the idea that this might happen to us.

There’s a lot of condemnation of her in India for being insensitive to Muslims–but I have a feeling that a lot of it is from a criticism of other Bengali writers rather than her sensibilities themselves. There was Khushwant Singh who was a dirty, dirty old man that people just took in stride. Insulted everybody, whatever, nobody cared.

“But all this was over 10 years ago, and Nasrin thinks the timing of this flare-up of violence is very suspicious. In recent years she has been directing her frank prose not towards Muslim fundamentalists but at Calcutta’s literary circles, with kiss-and-tell autobiographies describing, in detail, sexual encounters with prominent Bengali poets. (She caused one furore when she claimed that one renowned poet was having an affair with his sister-in-law.)

‘I’m writing a lot, but not about Islam,’ she explains. ” ‘It’s not my subject now. This is about politics. In the last three months I have been put under severe pressure to leave Bengal by the police.’ ” (this was from McCaul’s article in the Guardian immediately after the Nov. riots in Calcutta.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that people don’t pay much attention to the Theo Van Goghs and the Singhs of this world because they entertain more than they intend to shock. They piss in our face only because they can laugh at what they’ve done. It’s rarely to make a point. The literary circuit was upset that she was trying to make a point. They are similarly upset at Hirsi Ali for being serious and fanatical. Humor is sly–harder to get upset about. It’s earnestness that’s easier to attack because by understanding wholly and completely the seriousness of someone’s opinion a reactionary response becomes much easier to formulate.

*

And they had that day I picked up the newspaper and found that she was almost killed a mile away from me. “But I won’t leave,” she’d said, “I’m not going anywhere. You can’t make me.”

*

A cousin of mine — whom I’ll call the Maverick — had an interesting opinion when it came to this. “You just can’t attack a particular faith in a country where it is the majority religion– and not expect to get hurt.” She didn’t say much else after that, which is pretty telling to me because normally she’s absorbed in the ultra-feminist Marxist rhetoric about the oppression of women by patriarchy and society. It’s just hard for her to contextualize this particular attack on Taslima, I feel, because she’s turned off by the vitriol of others. A personality thing, I think, but in her case it’s okay for her to have a “strong opinion”, but when someone exhibits the same thing, it’s considered crude and beyond her scope.

My aunt was of course, deeply affected. As a government minister for child protection and services, she’s pretty much in tune with women’s issues and seeks the attention of women glorified or vilified by the Indian media which can’t seem to process nuance. Not that, of course 24 hour news networks would understand nuance if it kicked them in the crotch, but women are typically evil or good and embodiment of certain Bollywood stereotypes. The macho heroine thing is making a comeback, maybe, but as a society they can only take HER in small doses. They wonder when she’ll take off the cape, wash her hands, and get food on the table. Or get that bloody cook to get the food on the table while the erstwhile heroine sits down to an episode of Saat Phere.

“I just can’t believe we haven’t come further than this,” she kept saying, and I thought about that when I read Murder in Amsterdam. What happened to the sophistication of 16-17th century Central to Eastern Asia when it came to processing cultural interaction? Our lexicon, our tolerance, our views on the world have been narrowing to fit our desired perceptions and the Taslimas get heart attacks in the process.

*

(I’m not an automatic defender of Taslima’s sometimes radical positions –but it was gut-wrenching to see her attacked. I can’t even explain my deep visceral reaction to this except that it existed and that for a second I looked into what I could see of her eyes in the grainy Times of India picture. I wanted to tell her that whatever it was, it would get better soon.)

8 Responses to “Attack on Taslima”

  1. Very good read, thanks for that.

  2. A wonderful post–thank god you’ve been keeping such a meticulous archive all these years! 😉

    That poem is so visceral I don’t want to read it again. It is a novel and a lifetime all on its own. You’re right, it does bring home that awful sense of how close we all are to death, to a beating, to loss.

  3. Hm. I have to say that I do agree with your friend. In most places you can’t seem to be attacking the majority religion without expecting to get her. However…that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue what you’re doing. It just means that there are some things that you have to expect are going to happen if you’re going to be some sort of trail blazer. And the world needs trail blazers. Someone has to get the ball rolling, and others have to take up the torches and keep it going. That’s the ONLY way things change. It sounds like Taslima understands this herself, because despite what happened she refuses to buckle under their insistence that she stop or go away or both. I admire her for that, most certainly.

    People naturally dislike being uncomfortable or feeling as if they’ve been insulted or invalidated in some way, so its interesting that when faced with such emotions they do not stop and think about why they are feeling that way or if the other person’s arguments or points have merit, but rather they seek to do the very same thing to that person in order to scare them into stopping. Perhaps this is primitively ingrained within us in some way, but while humans are animals by nature we also have the ability to reason and logical thinking. It would be nice if we’d engage that ability more often than we currently do.

    • Exactly what I was thinking–it’s true that you can anticipate a backlash, but that’s no reason not to try. It just means one must take calculated risks.

      • Exactly. 🙂 How else will anything get changed if nobody is willing to go against the grain despite the risks involved?

  4. get hurt* (yay for typos -_-; )

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