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NON-FICTION: MEMORY IN EXILE

June 10, 2018

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Taslima Nasreen is a well-known figure in the subcontinent — admired by some, vilified by many; and for a Western audience, a symbol of resistance. She is one of the foremost contemporary writers in Bengali and has been widely read in her native Bangladesh as well as in West Bengal since the late 1980s, when she was barely in her mid 20s. Initially known as a poetess, she switched to prose in the early ’90s, but her themes did not change; they remained focused as always on women’s issues and the various forms of injustice faced by marginalised communities.

Although always known in Bengali literary circles for her outspoken views and her unconventional lifestyle, it was not until the 1993 publication of her third novel Lajja [Shame] that she became known internationally. Lajja is the story of a Hindu family in Bangladesh, and the discrimination and hostility they face post the Babri Masjid incident in India. The book enraged the right wing in Bangladesh and was subsequently banned in the country. Her life in danger, she went into exile in 1994 and has not returned to Bangladesh since.

Nasreen occupied herself in exile by writing her memoirs. The third volume, titled Ka (as it was called when first published) or Dwikhandita, as it was renamed when published in West Bengal in 2003, has now been translated into English as Split: A Life. It deals with perhaps the most significant period of her life: the time just before and after the publication of Lajja, when her life changed irrevocably.

Split: A Life is an outspoken account that lays bare the life of its author with all its foibles and frills

Split: A Life begins with episodes from her life with her parents when she had been divorced once, had moved back home and was carrying on her practice as a physician in the city of Mymensingh. These are highly personalised accounts of her relationships with her siblings, sisters-in-law and parents — many of whom do not appear in a good light. Nasreen is equally unsparing of herself: the first chapter of the book recounts an episode where she, being the only available doctor during a cholera outbreak, goes to a friend’s house to treat the family only to face the disappointment of her friend when she asks to be paid her fee. While she justifies her move, she is also full of self doubt about what this incident says about her as a person.

At other times she comes across quite harsh, for example, when she describes a sister-in-law who, according to Nasreen, mistreats her own child because she perceives him as being too close to his paternal relatives. This is fairly typical family tension, but in the absence of the sister-in-law’s perspective, Nasreen comes across as someone who may have misinterpreted a mother-child relationship. These early chapters are somewhat disorienting, because without having read the first two volumes of the autobiography, it is difficult to grasp what Nasreen’s home life is all about.

It is not until the eighth chapter of this lengthy volume that the narrative picks up steam and Nasreen begins to delve into the life that she is known for. Tensions with her parents build up as her father, uncomfortable with the presence of a divorced, outspoken daughter with unconventional sexual mores, attempts to control her lifestyle. In a dramatic turn of events, Nasreen leaves for Dhaka, is forcibly brought back by her father and then escapes captivity (literally) to return to Dhaka and her job in a government hospital. Thereafter, she becomes an independent woman of some means, rapidly gaining credence as a writer and poet. She punctuates the narrative with stories of her various dalliances and the invariably poor treatment she gets from a number of men, one or two of whom she even contracts brief marriages with. This narrative continues for a while.

Three quarters of the way into the book, Nasreen starts the account of the repercussions of the Babri Masjid incident in Bangladesh and her reaction. This is a narrative that would be familiar to many in Pakistan: threats from strangers, mysterious phone calls, ‘visits’ from security agencies and confinement to the house with occasional breaks. In a particularly poignant episode, she — desperate for an emotional connection — calls an old flame over for dinner. She knows he is now married and has a family, but is hoping for a glimpse of some affection and remembrance of their time together. Instead, he questions her on her earnings and then asks if it is possible for her to arrange a United States visa for him given that she is now known internationally and on good terms with Western diplomats. Although not explicitly stated, it is apparent from her narrative that at this point she is isolated, fearful and broken in spirit.

The crowd of nearly 300 had begun to push the stall with all their might and the barrier of the long table at the entrance crashed under the weight. The police were standing like silent witnesses not too far away and they had not raised a finger yet. There was no time left to wait for them to do anything either. The people gathered outside were going to finish me and those inside the stall knew they had to do something immediately if they hoped to save me. — Excerpt from the book

Split: A Life is an outspoken account that lays bare the life of the author with all its foibles and frills. Few people would be inclined to write such a ruthless story of their personal lives, replete with detailed opinions on a host of people. The narrative is engaging and fast-paced, but Nasreen’s criticism of so many of her friends and relatives on somewhat frivolous and entirely personal grounds does not sit well with the reader. Perhaps an autobiographical account more focused on her political views and her commitment to women’s rights, along with a telling of her motivations for writing Lajja and the implications of the aftermath, would have been more interesting for those outside Bangladesh who are not interested in the personality quirks of Nasreen’s frenemies and relatives.

Having said that, Nasreen’s story is familiar and unfortunate. Whatever her views and however outrageous her writing, she did not deserve to be vilified and hounded out — not least because this significantly raised her profile. By her own account, Lajja was not great literature, but it certainly became an international bestseller post the furore.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

Split: A Life
By Taslima Nasreen, translated by
Maharghya Chakraborty
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0670090181
496pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 10th, 2018