It's a fact of life that Taslima Nasrin has become a legend in her own lifetime. She is hailed as the most talked about writer in contemporary Bangladesh. She is also recognized as one of the firebrand feminist writers in the world. If you travel to Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay or to London, New York and Paris as a Bangladeshi national, you cannot help being asked what you know about Taslima. Once, while travelling by train in India, I heard with my own ears some fellow passengers fulminating against the ban on one of her books in Bangladesh. Questions after questions were shot at me as to why the 'great authoress' was not being allowed to get back to her motherland. By the way, Taslima had left Bangladesh in 1994 after receiving death threats from the right-wing groups. She became a living myth after recurrent banns and proscriptions on her books and her self-banishment from the country.
Whatever it is, the point is Taslima's fame is gradually rising to a dizzy height of eminence. She managed to earn for herself a big repute. However, if we try to gauge the literary stuff she has produced, we can realize that the fame she shot to depends more on the lively controversy she had excited among her readers than on the literary merit of her work. Given the quality of her works, her achievement is not up to par. Except for her Select Columns (1990), some poems and autobiographical accounts, the remainder is not well worth considering. The mystery behind her astounding fame lies in the fact that her writings deal with heretical themes and unconventional views and they have been widely translated by expert hands.
Although a very successful columnist, Taslima Nasrin is a mediocre novelist. Most of her novels, from Lajja (1993) to Sharam (2009), bear the testimony to her nodding acquaintance with the creative genre. The best she gives us is that she tries to suggest a materialistic interpretation of our society, culture, and religion, which features mostly in her columns. The Select Columns is easily her magnum opus and can be considered as an eye-opener for the Bengali women readers. The bulk of her writing can be bogged down to atheism or secularism or extra-religious humanism. It is OK. None should smell a rat in this effort. Bangladeshi writers like Ahmad Sharif, Aroj Ali Matubbar, and Humayun Azad had done the same job with more effectiveness and poignancy. They had arguably been critical of every shade of religious persuasion in general, not of any religious community in particular and upheld the doctrine of secular humanism. However, Taslima's writing is accused of being a virulent criticism of a particular religious community she belongs to by chance, not by choice, as she claims.
This is the reason why people opposed to the Muslim community tend to take advantage of Taslima's authorship. I do not know if she is doing everything consciously or unconsciously playing a cat's paw under an extreme anti-religious persuasion. If she had been an inveterate atheist, she would have lambasted and found faults with all religions equally, and employed her talent only in unbiased secular pursuits. We wouldn't have minded. Because, this is, too, a well-accepted approach to critical investigation into men, matters, and morals and many a writers have earned global recognition trying this. But Taslima's views seem to be anything but true atheism. They are slanted towards a means which is either a fool's rush or a highly clever scheme.
The Nobel laureate VS Naipaul has a similar biased tendency. He is also prone to undermining the religious feelings of a particular community not of all communities. His Beyond Belief is a scathing criticism of Islamic people and their culture. If he had been a true atheist, or a dialectical materialist, or even a dispassionate secularist, he would have made an equal treatment of all religious communities and their cultures. We would have had very little to object to it. But Naipaul seems to take a deliberate attempt to tarnish the image of a particular religious community and provoke those who tend to cover Islam as a synonym for terrorism and confuse Laden and the Talibans with the general practitioners of Islam. He can be easily charged with playing a tool under the thumb of his Western masters, which might have helped him get the coveted Nobel Prize. We will certainly not demean Naipaul, the author of A House for Mr Biswas, but then again, we must not hesitate to accuse him of his pseudo atheism and religious bias.
Salman Rushdie too belongs to the same opportunist cult and his writing is targeted on a particular religion. He blasts Islam and keeps mysteriously silent on other religions. A true atheist is equally critical of all religions in the world. But Rushdie is always allergic to Islam while the same Rushdie carefully minds his tongue while talking about Christianity and Judaism. By attacking Islam, he might try to arrest the attention of the Christian/Zionist hegemony for literary aggrandizement.
Taslima Nasrin too may have been infected by this legacy of literary aggrandizement. Can she be called then 'a female Rushdie'! Although Taslima's writing is not as cerebral as those of Rushdie, her virulent criticism of Islam is hugely titillating other egomaniac religions leading to racial tension.
However, what real thing can she gain by all this incitements? A spectre of aspiration may be working as an enticement. She is trying to court it not by merit but by arousing controversy over highly sensitive religious matters. This is not the right path. There is no denying the fact that she has a real flair and a critical eye for writing. If she brushes up her talent, she can master creative and intellectual acumen at least to the point of being one of the most distinguished writers in Bangladesh or in the contemporary world. She should not mortgage her conscience to climb to peak of success.
As there is no reason as to why Taslima's work should be so vastly overrated throughout the world; there should equally be no reason why her books should be banned, and she should be banished from her country. We may disapprove of what she says, but we should have the mind to protect her right to say (freedom of speech). This is the hallmark of a secular democratic country-a country which we dearly achieved in 1971 at the cost of the lives of three million people. Taslima is born and bred in the same darling motherland as we are. In addition, she has not committed any offence subversive of the state. So she preserves every right to come back to her country for the asking. The Government should take all possible measures to do it. They should not bother about the chorus of indignation against her raised by the right-wing fanatics and religious fundamentalists in and around the country. The self-styled guardians of Islam should not be allowed to go too far in dealing with Taslima issue. As a matter of fact, it is they who have made her a hot subject of debate, and thus pushed her into prominence that she does not in reality deserve.
If you do not like Taslima's writings, you may jolly well shut your eyes to them; or give a flat 'No' to them; or write her off as an eccentric old bore. But you can never chase after her to put her to the sword. One has every right to be mad at Taslima, to feel aggrieved at her writing, and to find that their feelings are not spared by it. In all cases, they have to do the decent thing. They can counter her with similar writings or with other intellectual means, but not with any bullyboy tactics. If they cannot do that, they may curse her, hate her guts, or let loose a stream of abuse. But a violent move for corporeal damage is the last thing to be supported by any sensible person.
Are we doing things sensible to Taslima? We are living in such societies where voices of dissent are unwelcome and nonconformism is treated as an offence. There is, however, no harm in intolerance to dissenting voices and nonconformity if it works as a benign neglect or finds a non-violent expression and finally finishes in fun. But if it turns violent and fixes a price on the dissenter's head, it can't be appreciated anyway. We feel a sense of alarm when dissenters are threatened with extinction. To try to cow people by force is a fascist outlook, which stems from one's utter inability to counter opposing views with grace and dignity. Intellectual dysfunction leads to the exercise of muscle in order to suppress dissent.
We should not raise Taslima to the place which she does not deserve, nor should we exclude her from the list of our writers which she is worthy of. We are supposed to give her, her due. Taslima Nasrin is a symbol of dissenting voices. To stop her is to gag the freedom of speech and to gag the freedom of speech is to push the country into the Dark Ages! 25 August was Taslima's birthday. Many many happy returns of the day!
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]