Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin achieved bestselling fame with her novel Lajja, published 30 years ago; it also brought her a fatwa and death sentence from the clerics in her country. The threat seemed real enough to drive her into exile, which has since become her permanent condition. She has lived in Europe and the U.S. for over 10 years, and subsequently on and off in India, for our successive governments have now given her succour and now not, as has suited their political convenience.
Lajja describes how a Hindu family living in Bangladesh is hounded and attacked by their Muslim neighbours, causing deep dissensions within the family regarding whether to leave their native country or stay on; they are finally obliged to leave. Other works of Nasrin too have attracted the wrath of her nation and been banned and the fatwas renewed; osmotically, a fatwa was passed against her in India too.
Besides religion, she has aroused controversy for her views on patriarchy, gender injustice, and sexual freedom. Before publishing Lajja, she had already won a major prize in Bengali, the Ananda Puraskar, for a selection of her newspaper columns, and won that prize again for the first volume of her autobiography translated as My Girlhood (1997). A subsequent volume of her life-story offended many venerable male literary figures in West Bengal for her candid depiction of them, and she is now persona non grata on this side of Bengal as well.
Poetry came first
Nasrin began with writing poetry, had already published half a dozen volumes of poems before any controversy broke over her head, and an antahsalila or subterranean stream of poetry seems to have flowed right through her career. The present volume, Burning Roses in My Garden, offers in fluent English translation a generous selection of 103 of her poems.
These are by and large unified in tone and tenor but range over a wide variety of themes. Of these, love is supreme in its many contrary manifestations: love as longing, love requited, love in separation, love remembered after it has passed, love of a man, love of a woman (You smell like a lover but you are not, Aranya), love of one’s language (I will not utter a word in a language that is yours), love of one’s country, love of humanity, love of life. There is even a poem ‘For a Non-Lover’: My desires had drawn you, made you my lover./ My desire has now made you my non-lover.
The poems seem arranged in no particular order and their themes come thick and fast at us, surprising us with their diversity before we notice a pattern. ‘Girl from Switzerland’, about an empathetic admirer met in a foreign land, is followed by ‘Garment Girls’ who live squalid lives but boost the foreign-trade balance of Bangladesh. ‘Shame in the Year 2000’, describing a Muslim atrocity on a Hindu girl, is counterpointed by the next poem, ‘Shame in the Year 2002’, which describes a Hindu atrocity on a Muslim girl.
Reflecting on life
Next comes ‘Not a Poem’, which in stark prose describes “my ma” dying almost unnoticed in the middle of the mundane daily routine of the populous family, with someone bathing, someone eating, and with “I”, the narrator, pacing up and down on the terrace puffing away on a clandestine cigarette and groping in her mind for “strong words for a wonderful poem on feminism”.
Nasrin’s voice in these poems is never loud or strident. Rather, it is soft and even, sometimes ironic but more often wistful, as if she were recollecting her turbulent emotions in reflective tranquillity. In fact, hers is the kind of poetry that used to be everybody’s idea of poetry before the new Eliotic mode became all the rage about a century ago, with its elliptical obscurity, its allusive erudition, and its exaggerated stress on the impersonality of art. Nasrin writes straight from the heart, without artifice but with artistic control and an apt sense of form. Few radical rebels offer such a blend of staunch ideology with vulnerable sensitivity.
Burning Roses in My Garden
Taslima Nasrin; ed and trs Jesse Waters
The reviewer taught English at Delhi University.