Taslima Nasreen is surrounded by guns'and roses. Outside the Calcutta apartment of the exiled Bangladeshi author, gun-toting bodyguards pace the corridor. Past them is a heavy wooden door. It opens into a plush living room smelling of roses. The roses are everywhere ' there are bouquets in pink and red and single stems of scarlet roses crammed into glass vases. After the Calcutta High Court verdict lifting the ban on her memoir, Dwikhandito (Split in Two) on September 22, the flowers just keep pouring in. Like the congratulations.
As her Man Friday ' a woman named Malati ' knocks on Nasreen’s bedroom door to inform her that there is someone to see her, you can hear her on the phone talking about her ‘victory’.
“Yes, this is Taslima,” she says in Bengali, pronouncing it ‘Toslima’. And then, “Khub bhalo lagchhey ( I’m very happy).”
Yes, Taslima Nasreen is indeed happy, she tells you, settling down on an armchair in the living room a few minutes later. But then, she also feels that “it is only a return to the natural state of things. The imposition of the ban on the book was an unnatural act and now things are as they should be.”
So, while she is happy, she is not elated. The judgment, to her, represents “a victory of the freedom of speech and expression of every individual.” And she feels that justice has been done.
Sujato Bhadra, a professor of history and general secretary of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights in Calcutta, had filed the petition in the Calcutta High Court, challenging the 2003 state government ban. Says Joymalya Bagchi, counsel for the petitioner, “Taslima Nasreen was so involved in the case that she attended hearings regularly.”
But something still disturbs Nasreen. To her, the ban was more than an attempt to suppress the voice of an individual. It was also an attempt to suppress the voice of an individual as a woman. Dwikhandito is not about religion. As in all my other works, the references to religion or religious fundamentalism occur only when they are brought in to reflect how they affect women’s lives and how they often impinge on their rights. But the real issue in the book is an individual’s ' who, in this case, happens to be me ' experiences as a woman.”
Nasreen feels that one of the main reasons the attempt was made to control her ' which is what the ban was for her ' was because she was seen to be stepping beyond the limits of “decency” set for women by patriarchal society.
In Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood) ' the first in the series of her yet-to-be-completed, seven-part memoirs ' I wrote about how I was a victim of molestation and rape,” says Nasreen. “Though it raised the hackles of fundamentalists, who were baying for my blood as I had questioned the so-called religious practices that kept women down, it went down well with society in general. This is because what I wrote conformed to the idea of woman as victim. But the moment I wrote about my evolution into a mature woman, in control of my body and vocal about my desires, everyone was suddenly on guard.”
She says they tried to find “reasons” to suppress the voice. They picked out by-the-way references to religion and said that the book was dangerous because it could incite religious violence. “But what they actually meant,” Nasreen says, “was that the book was dangerous because from its pages spoke out the voice of a woman who lay bare the secret desires of her heart. A woman whose thoughts were not cloaked in the garb of social niceties. And one who did not want to hide her wounds because these wounds had been inflicted on her and she wanted to expose them for the world to see.” But, instead of pointing accusing fingers at the perpetrators, it’s she who was derided for “indecent exposure” and branded a wanton woman, says Nasreen.
But then, Nasreen doesn’t crib about being called anything. She says, “Okay, call me a prostitute. It doesn’t make me one. And even if I am, so what'”
It is perhaps this nonchalance that sets her apart from the multitude of women who lament about being misunderstood. She recites a few lines from one of her poems, called ‘ Meye Shono’ (Listen, Girl). “They’ll tell you ' ‘Slowly, softly, don’t talk, quiet’'They’ll say ' ‘Sit down, keep your head down, cry’' But this is what you will do ' you will stand up right now'They’ll call you shameless'And you will laugh'They’ll say you’re a whore'You’ll laugh louder'You will say, ‘Yes, I am’'It will shock their wits out'The men among them will tremble'The women will dream of being a whore like you.”
Taslima has her eyes closed. She is transported to the past, to the days before she was banished from her “beloved Bangladesh”. “When I was a child,” she says, “I longed to run out and play, but I was always told to stay in. When I was a doctor, working in the gynaecological ward, I heard the pitiful cries of mothers ' who gave birth to girls ' who said, ‘My husband will divorce me’ or ‘beat me’ or ‘kill me’. When I wrote about how religious dogma stymied the lives of women, they wanted to hang me.”
Taslima recalls the days of fear, when there was a price on her head. “I was at the mercy of a few friends, who moved me from one hideout to another, transporting me ' covered under layers of blankets, held in place with suitcases ' in the backseats of cars.” Until, under international pressure, her life was spared on condition that she would leave the country.
Today, she is comfortable in her cozy Calcutta cocoon, going abroad once in a while to attend conferences, lectures and seminars. Though she doesn’t know what the future will bring, she has appealed to the Indian government to grant her permanent residence or citizenship. There is a sign on her double-door refrigerator that says “Beware of Dogma”. And she has a cat, which she picked up “when she was just a kitten” from the Gariahat fish market. “I can’t keep a baghini (tigress), you know,” she smiles. But Minu the cat is as fearless ' leaping at visitors to grab attention if she has to ' as her mistress, who says she ‘has never compromised’ in her life.
“If they had asked me to change or delete even one word as a precondition to lifting the ban, I would’ve gone to the Supreme Court,” says Nasreen. “To me, changing two pages and changing one word is one and the same thing.”