“Everything I do don’t make headlines. No one writes about my awards. I make headlines when I get beaten up, attacked or when a fatwa is issued against me”
While controversy could very well be Taslima Nasrin’s middle name, we are pitching for fearless, crusader and relentless. In the news this time for the release of her seventh autobiographical work, we catch up with the author over phone from New Delhi, where she has been residing since 2011. The 54-year-old, who has been on the run since 1994—which is when her novel, Lajja, offended fundamentalists and was banned by the government of Bangladesh—is now forbidden from visiting her home country and has also been attacked by fundamentalists in West Bengal and Hyderabad. In fact, her latest book is an account of her tumultuous expulsion from India between 2007-08, following the Hyderabad fiasco, where she was attacked by members of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen when she was releasing the Telugu translation of her book, Shodh (Revenge).
Exile: A Memoir is the English translation of Nasrin’s Bengali version, Nirbasan, which was written and ready for launch in 2011 at the Kolkata Book Fair. But it never saw the light of day as “chief minister Mamata Bandyopadhyay had taken a less-than-kind view of the entire thing and had made sure the evening never took off,” writes the Bangladesh-born author in her book. It took five years for it to finally find its way to store shelves. The book is also available on Amazon India (`599) from this October. Thanks to Penguin Random House—who approached the writer to translate the book and make her story accessible to the English-speaking people—we can get a copy and find out for ourselves the author’s take on her experiences as she was tossed between states and countries. Having authored over 40 books and winning several awards—in her home country, in India and internationally—Nasrin has been accused of blasphemy, bad character and attention seeking by radical religious groups. But the feisty author continues to write unflinchingly. Surprising us with a child-like voice, she talks to us about her journey and her beliefs.
Do you think this was the right time to come out with a book like Exile?
I think this is the right time; in fact, any time is the right time for a writer to express their thoughts. If I care about what time is right or not, then I would stop writing and be quiet for the sake of fundamentalists and misogynists. I have written about everything that happened during that one year, and this book is for the people who don’t know what happened to me and why I left West Bengal. I am an independent writer. I don’t have influential friends or politicians as friends. If politicians get angry after reading my book, they may throw me out of the country. But I don’t want to hide anything. But I do hope that my book makes them realise that they shouldn’t have expelled me.
What about the consequences?
I am not afraid. If I were, then I wouldn’t have written the book. I have been facing such situations since the 1980s. I have protested and I shall protest against such systems. I won’t hesitate to criticise such people who prevent society from becoming evolved. Since my childhood I learnt to tell the truth and I think everyone should do the same.
So much of your life has already been chronicled and headlined.
I don’t think that everything I do makes headlines. Nobody reports or writes about the awards I have won or about my talks at literary fests.
How do you see yourself differently from other writers in the genres of social, political and fiction writing?
People who write on social issues just write on that. Similarly, people who write on politics or fiction continue to do that. But I write different things—I write love stories and love poems. I write about people and I write newspaper columns, where I focus on social issues and not just current issues. I write about language, culture, human rights and fundamentalism. My fiction writing is about relationships and about women. Except Lajja, all my other fiction works have women as the lead characters. Normally in Bengali literature women are submissive, but my characters are the opposite.
Which is that one incident from your exile that has left a scar?
There’s one incident that is still alive in my memory, like a nightmare. It was shocking when one of the ministers in the government offered me a furnished apartment in the West, a plush car, and business class tickets every time I fly anywhere in the world. His only request was for me to leave India. I refused to take up that offer. I hadn’t committed a crime, I was neither a member of a terror organisation or a political party, conspiring to harm Indian interests. If a totalitarian country had made this offer, I perhaps would have agreed. But this is India.
So, do you think politicians made use of your image?
Sometimes I’ve felt I’ve been used by certain politicians for their purpose. I am not against them, but they shouldn’t have used me or my name. I like to work in India, and my sole purpose is to write on women’s rights and liberation, and I can do it only through my books. But if certain people kick me out of the country to get votes or if they support me for their interests, I don’t appreciate either.
What drives you to take a stand and tell your stories?
I am not courageous. I wasn’t courageous. I did what everyone should do. As a woman, I dare to challenge fundamentalism and that’s why people have a problem with it. If I were a man, I would not have suffered the way I did. When I exposed men who were considered well-wishers of the society, they all were against me. Since I had the audacity to write and oppose them, they always cornered me, banned me and black-listed me. And I am still paying the price. I was thrown out of my country and then out of West Bengal. Another reason for such people to prohibit me is that they think I am influencing women and making them aware of their rights. I continue to criticise such people, but I think if men also believe in women’s rights then we will be able to achieve a status quo in our society, for which I continue to encourage people, to voice their dissent.
But aren’t you afraid, that someone might harm you someday?
If people want to kill me, they can kill me. If I was that fearful, I wouldn’t have been able to lead a regular life. But yes, when bloggers in Bangladesh, most of whom were my friends, were being killed, I was worried. That’s the only time I lived in the US for three months. But America is not for me. I feel at home in India. So I returned.
What do you think of the increasing intolerance in India, particularly the ban on Pakistani artistes?
I criticise the ban of Pakistani artistes. It is the directors’ freedom to choose actors. They should not conform to fear or to hooligans who create problems and destroy democracy. Even Pakistan has secular artistes and writers; they are not enemies. It’s the terrorists and the Pakistani government that should be blamed, not the artistes.
Is writing a kind of catharsis for you?
Of course, it is. For any author writing is a means of catharsis. I started writing poetry in the 1970s. Then I have written fiction and non-fiction, which includes my autobiographies.
What are you working on next?
I am trying to write fiction this time. But it will, once again, be a women-oriented story with a female protagonist.
Will you be working on another autobiography?
No, I won’t. I am taking a break from writing autobiographies.
Your Facebook posts and pictures give us the impression that you love travelling.
I travel, but not on vacation. I travel only for seminars and when I am invited for a talk. I have travelled across Europe and North America, but France is my favourite country. I love their culture.
What if you were invited to your homeland, to live a normal life, but at the cost of giving up being this bold, honest, frank and opinionated writer. Would you go?
(Laughs) No. I will do exactly the same thing that I have always been doing. I would like to walk freely and in a world where everyone’s freedom of expression is respected.
What do you miss the most?
I miss the Bengali language and the culture. And my relatives. When I was in Kolkata, I felt at home. But now I can neither live in the East (Bangladesh) nor in the West (Bengal).
What about food?
I love Bengali food. Particularly the fish dishes. Hilsa is my favourite.
Tell us about Minu, your cat.
I found her nearly 13 years ago, at a fish market in Kolkata. Since then she has lived with me. She is like my daughter.
Do you watch films?
I like art films and mostly watch movies from across the globe. Among Indian film directors, I like Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad.
My intention is not to talk against misogynists and fundamentalists, but I will protest against the system. I won’t hesitate to criticise such people who prevent the society from becoming evolved
Who are your favourite authors. Do you draw inspiration from writers?
I can’t pinpoint an author and say I draw inspiration from so-and-so. I am inspired by all, but my ideas don’t come from them. My ideas are from the situations I am pushed into.
By Ayesha Tabassum