When I first visited India in the late ‘80s, I did not for an instant think I was in another country. I felt I belonged here and that it was, in some fundamental way, inseparable from the land I called my own. The reason for this was not my Hindu forebear. The reason was not that one of India’s many cultures is my own or that I speak one of her many languages or the fact that I look Indian. It is because the values and traditions that define India are embedded deeply within me. These values and traditions are a manifestation of the history of the subcontinent; I have been enriched and enlivened by it. I am also a victim of its poverty, colonial legacy, communalism, violence, bloodshed, partition, migrations, exodus, riots, wars and even theories of nationhood. I have been hardened further by my life and experiences in a poverty- and famine-stricken, ill-governed country called Bangladesh.
The intolerance, fanaticism and bigotry of Islamist fundamentalists forced me to leave Bangladesh. I was forced to go into exile; the doors of my own country slammed shut on my face for good. Since then I have sought refuge in India. When I was finally allowed entry, again, not for an instant did I feel out of place. Even after spending decades in Europe, it never felt like home. However, I felt a deep connection with India; I felt I knew the people; I had grown up somewhere very similar, almost indistinguishable. I felt the need to do something for this country and its people. There was a burning desire within me to see that women become educated and independent, that they stand up for, and demand their rights and freedom. I wanted my writing to invigorate and contribute in some way to the empowerment of these women who had always been oppressed and suppressed. Moreover, I wanted to do everything possible to make people aware of the need forsecular education to become enlightened, tolerant, rational, and peace loving.
Not many people understand why I, as a European citizen and a permanent resident of the U.S., am so eager to live in India! I know it is not easy to live here; my book was banned in this country, five fatwas were issued against me, prices were set on my head, religious fanatics physically assaulted me. I was bundled out of West Bengal, I was thrown out of Rajasthan, I was put under confinement in a “safe house” in Delhi, I was forced to leave the country — but I did not give up. I came back again and again to live in the land that abandoned me and humiliated me.
I asked why the world’s largest democracy, a secular state, could not shelter a person whose entire life has been spent for the cause of secular humanism, a person without a country to call her own, someone who regarded India as her home. I have been struggling to settle in my beloved country; it has now become a challenge. I want India to prove that a secular state can honour a secular writer. I want India to honour the nation’s tradition of great hospitality and its democratic principle.
India is a land of plurality, with people from different religions, ethnicities, languages and cultures coexisting together. I want her neighbouring countries to learn from India how to secularise the state and how not to violate anyone’s right to freedom of expression. I believe that India, unlike Bangladesh, will triumph over all kinds of fundamentalism. The love and respect I get from Indians makes me feel this is my true home. I still believe that for a sincere, honest, secular writer in the subcontinent, India is the safest refuge.