I was being called a “shameless slut” because I had named the series of men I had slept with; the pages concerned were being photocopied and handed around as proof of my degeneration. Syed Shamsul Haque had once taken me on a trip during which I had developed a rather nuanced understanding of his character; which I had then written about in the book.
As far as I was concerned, I saw no reason for him to get upset over this. And yet he was upset and seething like a hyena, primarily because, as the publisher Mesbahuddin informed me, I had written about his secret relationship with his sister-in-law. The big reveal had perhaps been only a sentence long in the entire narrative and yet he was driven to such anger that he filed a defamation suit against me worth ten crore takas.
He even gave a series of interviews lamenting how I had ruined his life and reputation, sullied the glorious name he had earned as an author over nearly half a century.
He insinuated that there must be a larger reason behind my shameless behaviour, why else would I dare to write as I had about respected members of the civil society. Inspired to protest, he filed the suit and stated that he hoped others like him, similarly violated by my viciousness, would follow suit and take necessary action against me.
They called me from the BBC to ask for my reaction, and made me aware of the many nasty things Syed Haque and Sunil Gangopadhyay had said about me. How their voices were laced with a scathing melange of anger, disgust, sarcasm and ridicule when speaking about me! I could understand why Shamsul Haque, his secret exposed, might say vicious things about me, scream, spit, swear and cry in anger, and why he might threaten to drag me to the courts in an effort to prove my words to be untrue. However, I could not understand why Sunil Gangopadhyay had reacted so violently.
There had hardly been anything against him in the book and neither had he ever been a firebrand member of any men’s rights group. In fact, he had maintained time and again that whatever happens between two consenting individuals behind closed doors should never be made public. Isn’t it criminals who cannot reveal their actions to the public? Why should the burden of harbouring criminals always be placed on women!
The news spread like wildfire.
It spread to a section of the civil society in Kolkata, carefully nurtured, some alleged, by Sunil himself. Not because I had written anything against him in this book but in apprehension of what I might in the next. If I could be banned and prohibited, I could subsequently be discredited as an unworthy, irresponsible, unbalanced writer. I could easily be branded as a liar. No one would listen to me; no one would want to read what I write. Before the storm could die down, news arrived that the CPI(M)-led Left Front Government of West Bengal had decided to ban Dwikhandito.
Apparently, twenty-five renowned literary figures had petitioned the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, against my book, and the latter had read the book himself before deciding on bringing the axe down on it. The reason cited, however, was that I had hurt the religious sentiments of a certain section of people.
The book had already been banned in Bangladesh. Syed Shamsul Haque had moved the court with his defamation lawsuit and had passionately pleaded against the book, resulting in the high court banning it before the government ever could. Perhaps emboldened by these events, an almost unknown poet from West Bengal filed another lawsuit against me – this one worth eleven crore rupees.
Authors prohibiting authors, filing lawsuits against authors – these things are perhaps unheard of anywhere else in the world. One would assume writers would stand behind writers and speak out against the injustice of banning a literary work. The more I see the scholars of West Bengal and Bangladesh, the more it amazes me to realise how selfish and opportunistic most of them are, how dependent on being in the government’s good graces. All assertions of ethics or morality remain strictly confined to the printed page or the podium – no trace of it stains their beliefs, behaviours or lives.
So, eminent literary figures from West Bengal and Bangladesh dedicated themselves to my downfall. One only had to listen to them, or read what they had to say about me to understand how horrific and cruel slander can be. Humayun Azad wrote, “I did not even deem the book fit to be read. Even I have been abused in various ways in it; she has produced a litany of lies. However, she could at least not accuse me of anything sexual because I have never taken up on her advances. After having read about the recently published Ko in various journals and newspapers, it has seemed to me as nothing but a prostitute’s naked confessions, a sordid account of her wretched existence.”
In West Bengal too, the vultures had begun to gather.
Samaresh Majumdar wrote, “Nearly ninety years ago there lived a famous prostitute in Sonagachi called Nandarani. Nearly all of Kolkata’s high and mighty had been her regular clients. If she had wanted to write a novel about them, she could have done so a long time ago. However, in her personal life, she had known how to live in society with quiet dignity and civility. Taslima Nasrin, unfortunately, has been unable to partake of Nandarani’s sense of self-respect.
“She has changed her men like women change clothes, valorised sex over a more mental connection. Other women have thus far been unaware of her duplicity. Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech; she has fairly utilized it and we have had to hear her. It is, however, our responsibility to judge its merits the best way we can. It is fine to swear like a sailor in front of one’s friends, the same is termed obscenity when done in public. Whatever she is confessing publicly now, she had been equally complicit in letting them come to pass. In fact, her only goal had been to sell her books and garner cheap publicity.”
The poet Subodh Sarkar wrote, “She has sent a sexual bomb called Ko from Sweden which has exploded in Dhaka. The book is apparently about society, family and religion but what has grabbed the most eyeballs in this are the titillating passages on sex and the fact that sex can even trump issues like Iraq and America in this wretched world. Alas! Is she so sexually depraved that she cannot leave even her father or those like him alone!
“They are saying there will be more such lists of your sexual conquests; people in Kolkata have begun to grow anxious already. I am sure you have Italians and French on your list too. In fact, quiet soon you might even be counted one of the foremost prostitutes of the world. A handful of Bengali scholars would even write about you, about how a writer was forced by socio-economic circumstances into such a lifestyle.
“People from the seamier districts will soon inquire about which currency you get paid in. Is it in US dollars? Swedish krona? Rupee or taka? You had wished to give a voice to women who have never had a voice of their own. So what went wrong with that righteous image? Now those very women will disinfect their hands if they even accidentally happen to touch you. Even all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten your little hands ever again.”
Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, when asked about me, commented: “From what I have heard she has described her sexual relationships with a number of intellectuals. While I find nothing wrong with that per se, especially if she has been true to her own self, what I do find appalling is that she has done so simply to create a stir. This I cannot condone. A part of an author’s responsibility is to recognize the fine line between literature and obscenity.”
While such cruel assumptions and accusations were being levelled against me by intellectuals and writers from West Bengal and Bangladesh, I received a request from the Bengali magazine Desh to write a rejoinder. Written one midnight in New York, the article began with these famous lines by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
After all these years, when I look back at the hazy grey road I have walked down, when sudden flashes of memories, tiny fragments of forgotten dreams, shake me to my core, I cannot help but stumble helplessly and sift through cold, forgotten things lost in time. What use are these reminiscences? Those dreams were cast aside a long time back, so much so that they are barely recognisable now. To dredge them back up again, to clear the clutter and the cobwebs off places long abandoned, is an entirely futile exercise. Yet, my exile has forced me to turn to my past again and again, made me spend long, terrible nights in a sort of dazed stupor, immersed in the darkest despair.
And on such nights, I have written about that girl.
I have written about the timid, bashful and self-effacing girl who, brought up within the strictest confines of a traditional family and its everyday rules and petty injustices, got used to her dreams and desires being tossed aside without a word, while struggling to keep the preying hands of male relatives at bay. I have written about that rather plain little girl who grew up with long-nurtured dreams of a love that she finally found in her youth, who secretly got married and wanted to spend her life just like any other woman.
I have written about the girl who, betrayed by her husband, the love of her life, had been compelled – by grief, regret, pain, despair – to contemplate suicide as her fragile world came crashing down around her. I have written about the girl who painfully gathered her shattered dreams in an effort to go on living, who wanted a place of her own in this cruel, unforgiving society, and who was forced to submit repeatedly to the guardianship of men in accordance with social mores.
Yet she was hit by an onslaught of such cruelty, spite and viciousness that it destroyed her unborn child and made her bleed every night. I have written the tale of how she gathered what little strength she had left to stand up on her feet again, not once leaning on someone else this time, fighting and living alone and only for her own self.I have recollected how she became her own refuge, how she learnt to snub social censure and archaic customs, and how every mistake she made, every stumble, every fall, only made her stronger. She gradually learnt to consider life, with all its wretchedness, as her own, and not be beholden to someone else—this is the tale I have written, of evolution, of her creation, as she was burnt to steel by the fires of patriarchy.
Did I do anything wrong? I don’t believe I did but many people around me felt that I committed a grave offence, a heinous crime, by writing such a tale. And so, I was put to a public trial. It would have perhaps not been such a big deal if I had not revealed that the girl was me, Taslima, and not an imaginary woman whose tale I had concocted.In fiction, I am allowed to fabricate a life story, celebrate a woman’s difference, and her journey of self-discovery. However, the moment there is a whiff of truth in the tale, the moment I have asserted that this is me, this is my tale of overcoming what life has put in front of me, of becoming my own person, of living life on my own terms, it is not surprising that I have offended so many people. Indeed, how can a woman speak like this! I am truly a sore misfit in this patriarchal environment.
I am a forbidden name in my country now, as well as in my beloved West Bengal, a prohibited person, a banned book.
My name cannot be uttered lest the tongue catch fire, I must not be touched as I might pollute, and I should definitely not be read lest it spark rage and unrest. This is me; thus I have always been. Even if Dwikhandito leaves me shattered into a thousand fragments, I will never admit that I have done anything wrong. It is not wrong to write one’s autobiography, to want to share one’s deepest and darkest secrets. The first condition of writing an autobiography is the complete transparency regarding the facts of life, and not sly compromises to avoid uncomfortable truths and proverbial skeletons. With my last ounce of integrity, I have tried to adhere to this principle and not hidden anything.
While the first two volumes, Aamar Meyebela (My Girlhood) and Utol Hawa (Restless Wind), did not cause any dispute, the third created a furore in Bengal. I did not engineer this controversy, others did. People have accused me of deliberately choosing controversial material, which is simply not true – especially in the case of a memoir.I have only been candid regarding the significant events and people that have contributed to my life and my growth. I have spoken frankly about my world view and my blind spots, my dreams and my despair, my joy, my tears, my love, my hatred, the beauty and the ugliness that surrounds it all. I have not chosen a sensitive or controversial issue to write about, I have chosen my life. If that life has been sensitive and controversial, then how do I possibly make it staid and uncomplicated while writing?
I have been accused of having written the book as a gimmick, primarily to cause trouble – as if the sole reason for wanting to write must be something nefarious, as if honesty and truth cannot be sufficient incentives, as if courage, the same quality that people apparently used to appreciate in me once upon a time, cannot be a reason either. I am used to debates over my writing; that is how it has been for me since the very beginning. Is my disinterest in making compromises with patriarchy not sufficient reason for controversy?
Excerpted with permission from Exile: A Memoir, Taslima Nasrin, translated from the Bengali by Maharghya Chakraborty, Penguin Random House India.