Still a shame

Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja turns 20 with a new translation. But the book’s power to disturb remains unchanged.

Updated - May 23, 2016 07:34 pm IST

Published - October 04, 2014 05:35 pm IST

Taslima Nasrin. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Taslima Nasrin. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Twenty years ago, Taslima Nasrin wrote Lajja , the book that brought her fame on the one hand and threats on the other. As its success grew, Nasrin was soon forced into hiding and then into exile from her home in Bangladesh. But the book stood the test of time.

By the time I read Lajja , Nasrin had found citizenship in Sweden, and the book was inseparably linked to the death threats and the fatwas it had engendered. It was a feverish single-sitting read; I didn’t pause to identify emotions and feelings, didn’t dissect and analyse. Once the last page was turned, all that accumulated horror and anger hit me like a burst of hot, viscous air. When I picked up the anniversary copy, freshly translated from the original Bengali by activist-writer Anchita Ghatak (and published by Penguin), I was not prepared to experience the same emotions again. After all, the world inside Lajja has been static, its beautiful, hard words frozen on the page; their power must have dulled; their blow softened by the passage of time; they couldn’t possibly elicit the same emotions all over again.

They don’t. This time, when I read the same words and experience something entirely different. Each sentence feels raw, new, and, surprisingly, relevant. This time, I pause and reflect; suddenly, Lajja, which is about Bangladesh in 1992, becomes a chilling reminder of more recent events.

Like books destined to survive, Lajja puts one foot firmly in its own time and, with the other, transcends it. For its growing readership, year after year, the Dattas and their story take on new meanings and whispers new warnings.

Nasrin calls her book a “blend of fact and fiction”, and remembers the Bangladesh she has documented in it. “After the demolition of Babri Masjid, the manner in which the majority Muslims in Bangladesh attacked the minority Hindus and tortured them was inhuman. The Muslims construed that all Hindus should be held responsible for the demolition and, therefore, must be punished. The gory and barbaric acts of the Muslims on Hindus in Bangladesh were unbelievable and shocked me beyond imagination. For me, the violence unleashed in the name of religion is unacceptable. It is a shame. I was terrified, moved and produced what is known today as Lajja .”

In these 20 years, the world around Lajja has changed beyond recognition. In others, Nasrin fears that it has stayed the same. “Twenty years after it saw the light of the day, religion continues to bring out the irrational in human beings to the fore time and again. Lajja is still relevant because people in the subcontinent still hate the people of different faith. The same shameful violence against Hindus is occurring in Bangladesh every now and then.  After 20 long years, Lajja is still an unfortunate reality.”

Ghatak, too, thinks that the book is relevant today because “violence against women and specifically, rape, as a means of settling political scores in a patriarchal political culture continues. The destruction of the Babri Masjid was a traumatic political occurrence in India. Can we say Gujarat 2002 and the destruction of the Babri Masjid are unrelated? The Sachar Committee Report has established that, while much is said about the situation of Muslims in India, very little is done to address those issues.”

Banned in Bangladesh since 1993, Lajja has found readership all over the world, and has been translated into numerous languages, including French, Sinhalese, German, Dutch and Icelandic. Nasrin believes that her book “represents religious fundamentalism of any community, not only Muslim. It was not actually a conflict between Hindus and Muslims. It was a conflict between secularism and fundamentalism, between rational logical mind and irrational blind faith, between innovation and tradition, between future and past, between humanism and barbarism, between those who value freedom and who do not. Lajja is not only the story of Bangladesh; it is the story of whole subcontinent. Just change the names and religions of the characters. They can fit in any damn place in the South Asia.”

Nasrin has faced anger and resentment from her community and remembers being branded a Muslim-hater. “I am labelled anti-Islam. But they are wrong! By no means am I a Muslim-hater! I always stand beside oppressed people. I stood beside Muslims when they were oppressed in Gujarat in India, in Palestine, and in Bosnia. I defended their rights to live, just as I stood beside the Hindus who are oppressed in Bangladesh and the Christians in Pakistan.”

Today, when she revisits her book, she talks about writing it differently. “I would have made it much more complex. It is not pleasant to read such a long list of killing and aping. It is, I can admit, very boring and depressing. Though Lajja is a documentary novel, there should be a limit of having a non-fiction in a fiction.”

Two decades ago, Lajja resulted in a price on Nasrin’s head. It would be comforting to think that we have changed. That if it was published today, Lajja would bring its author no grief, only praise. Unfortunately, our words are still censored, our publishers are still afraid, and our authors still fight similar battles. For Nasrin, the Bangladesh of today would not accept her book any more than it did 20 years ago. “It would have been worse if it was published in Bangladesh today. Bangladesh is much more Islamised than before. Most people in Bangladesh don’t know what freedom of expression means. They have no idea that without freedom of expression, democracy does not work.”

It is strange then, to celebrate the anniversary of a book that documents the worst kind of grief; a testimony to a cruel past and a reminder of a difficult present. And yet, it’s an important celebration for these exact reasons. It wouldn’t do to forget, not when we still have a very long way to go.

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