Taslima wonders if anyone is listening.
It’s hard to miss her in Calcutta these days. She beams at passers-by from king-size hoardings at several busy junctions, anxiously marking her “return” to Bengal after six years.
But Taslima Nasreen is not returning to the city. Not in person, certainly — thanks to embargoes on her travelling and living in India. And not on television either, which had been promoting her as the writer of a mega serial that was to have been aired from December 19.
Despite the grand announcements, the show has been stalled. And Nasreen is furious. “Hating Taslima is an essential part of politics in the subcontinent. I feel pity for those who need to violate a writer’s rights to get votes,” she tweeted. “Whatever I write is hated by ignorant anti-women, anti-human rights bigots. Because they are afraid of the truth and the power of the pen,” said another tweet.
Of course she’s furious. Who wouldn’t be?!
She walks into the drawing room-cum-study of her apartment located in an upmarket area of Delhi, where she has been living since 2008, full of misgivings. Just days before the serial was called off, she’d heard that the Calcutta police had met the producers of the serial.
“Some bigoted individuals asked for a ban and the state acquiesced — I don’t think this will happen even in Saudi Arabia,” she says. “But fundamentalists are anti-women and anti-freedom of expression, and for political reasons the government might side with them. But why are the people in Bengal silent,” she asks.
Dressed in grey winter pants, a black sweater and a blue embroidered stole, the maverick writer looks younger than her 51 years with her bright eyes and dishevelled short crop. She sinks into a reclining chair with a blue iPad in her hand.
That’s Taslima all right – that iPad is never out of her hand.
This is the second time the soap has been stalled. She began writing it in 2006, when several episodes were also shot. “But then the 2007 drama happened and I was summarily thrown out of the city on November 22 that year,” she says, referring to the Ripon street violence. “That brought the production to a standstill.”
She had then urged her producers not to give up on the series merely because she had been ousted by the Bengal government, which cited her as a problem for law and order. “Why should the producers, or any creative person for that matter, be afraid of negative forces? These are just fringe elements who would oppose anyone who talks about gender equality and social change because they are misogynists.”
She cites the treatment meted out to reformists Vidyasagar and Raja Rammohan Roy by “anti-progress groups” for their pro-women measures. “The same thing is happening to me — I speak about new ideas, changing society, gender equality and humanism.”
What riles her more is the lack of protest in Calcutta. “This is a dangerous sign — if writers, intellectuals and other creative people keep quiet after this, something is wrong with society. Society is on the path of decline — this is what the silence signifies.
“But intellectuals do not keep their mouths shut when Hindu fanatics attack writers or artistes, or even when Muslim fanatics attack male writers such as Salman Rushdie. Misogynistic society shows solidarity towards victims, provided the victims are male, macho or anti-feminist,” she says.
And then there’s Twitter.
Her tweets too have landed her in legal wrangles. Two cases — one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Bihar — have been lodged against her. “The complaint from UP was against a tweet saying those who issue fatwas and rewards on beheading were anti-Constitution, anti-women and anti-freedom of expression,” says Nasreen, who has had three fatwas issued against her in Bangladesh and five in India so far.
“What have I said wrong? These people who issue fatwas are roaming scot-free while I am the one who is confined to one place,” she says, adding India’s home ministry has helped her with the cases.
She hasn’t stopped tweeting, though. “I will write more tweets. Let me see how people can stop me.”
Does she ever feel like giving it all up in India and settling down in the West? “I travel to Europe and America frequently. But I want to stay in India for the sake of this country,” she says. “I want to tell the world I can stay in India because this country is a true pillar of secularism and a standard bearer of freedom of expression in the subcontinent.”
Is anyone listening?
Yes! Whether India is or not, though…I don’t know.