I have known Kolkata since my childhood, through children’s books and stories my parents told me. I came to know it better during my youth, when I finished reading the works of as many superb Bengali writers and poets as I could gather, and also when I published the poems of many contemporary Bengali poets from the East as well as the West while editing and publishing my poetry magazine since 1978. I remember, I visited Kolkata for the first time in the late ‘80s and it was like a dream. I felt I knew and loved Kolkata more than many native Kolkatans. In the early ‘90s, I was the first writer from Bangladesh to receive West Bengal’s most prestigious literary award, the Ananda Puroshkar. Since then I have felt closely related to Kolkata. I got the opportunity to personally meet and come close to many authors and intellectuals whom I held in great regard. I was fortunate to receive their love, sympathy and solidarity. Annada Shankar Ray, Shib Narayan Ray, and Amlan Dutta were the true secular humanist intellectuals in Kolkata.
Something else happened in the early ‘90s, too; I was forced to leave my beloved country and live in exile. I could not accept the idea that a Bengali writer had to leave Bengal simply because some ignorant, insane persons did not like my writings, and therefore, I made several attempts to return to my country, or at least, to West Bengal, which shares a common history and traditions with my country. Sadly, each time, I failed miserably, which left me no alternative but to stay in Europe or America. But whenever India gave me permission to enter, I did not waste a moment; I rushed to Kolkata and met all my friends there: a homeless felt at home, for the first time, while living in exile. I tried a lot and eventually got a Residence Permit to reside in India. No more a constrained tourist, I was a resident in this great country, and I thought that my travails were over. I received my second prestigious literary award for the first part of my memoir, titled My Girlhood (amar meyebela). But, there was to be no respite for me; just a few years thereafter, the West Bengal government banned Dwikhandito, the third part of my memoir. I personally knew Buddhadev Bhattacharyya, then the Chief Minister of West Bengal under the Left Front government. He was initially very friendly towards me, and that is partly why it was so shocking to me that he had banned my book, which was about my struggle opposing religious fanatics. Upon being asked, Mr. Bhattacharyya declared that as many as 25 intellectuals had asked him to ban my book.
But that was not the end of it. What I didn’t realize in my shock and grief was that this information, involving a few authors in Bangladesh, was a secret and not supposed to come out. The late Sunil Gangopadhaya, an accomplished writer and close friend of Mr. Bhattacharya, was the most displeased and excoriated me, saying that it was very bad form to disclose the things that happened behind the closed door between two people. Anyway, I didn’t think that the book was banned because I honestly told my life stories; some other reasons must have been given to justify banning the book. Then I found out that it was banned on the charges of ‘hurting religious feelings of Muslims’. Now Muslims got to know that a book was written by an author named Taslima Nasreen who hurt Muslim religious feelings. That was when Kolkata began to change. When the government bans your book, the fundamentalists are encouraged and enthused; they are inspired to find you a soft target. They feel the government will side with them. The Islamic fundamentalists started issuing fatwas against me; they set prices on my head. It happened in Kolkata first, and other cities followed suit.
Yes, other cities must have been inspired by Kolkata fatwa; I was physically attacked by Islamic fundamentalists in Hyderabad. The fundamentalists won’t dare touch a writer if they are not convinced they will go scot-free after such acts. To be honest, it was the politicians of the Indian subcontinent who had labeled me ‘anti-Islam’ by referring to my books as ‘controversial’ and banning them. Suddenly, everyone was concerned about the ‘feelings’ of the fundamentalists. I was a lone exiled writer, not a member of any political party or any large organization; I became an easy target of the fanatics, as well as of the governments of two countries. The West Bengal government used me for diverting the attention from the political fallouts of their dastardly actions in Nandigram and Singur, and then decided to throw me out of the state, eventually out of the country. Fanatics and fundamentalists, amongst the Muslim folks who took to the streets to protest against the killing of Muslims in Nandigram and Singur by the goons of the ruling communist party, had held up a piece of paper that said, “Taslima, go back.” This demand by the Islamic fundamentalists to deport Taslima was fulfilled with alacrity by the West Bengal government; the officials had started asking me to leave West Bengal since August, and they were desperate to make it happen by the end of November. They did get their wish: the attention of people was diverted for a few days. Ultimately, however, the CPIM could not win the election, but they did successfully send a signal to the Muslim fanatics that they managed to throw an ‘anti-Islam’ apostate like me out of their precious state.
The CPIM party used me in order to secure the Muslim votes during the past election; the Muslim fanatics used me in order to demonstrate the strength of fundamentalist faith even in a supposedly secular country. Ms. Mamata Banerjee, the current Chief Minister of West Bengal under the Trinamool Congress government, is inexplicably walking the same path as did her predecessors, the CPIM. She might oppose everything that CPIM did in this state, but agreed on one idea – that Taslima must not be allowed into West Bengal. Because both political parties do the exact same thing, that is, appease the Muslim fanatics, in order to retain their votes. Salman Rushdie was not allowed to reach West Bengal. The current West Bengal government prevented his entry into Kolkata. The Left Front parties, currently sitting in the Opposition, do not object to this decision of the government. How can they? Because what Ms. Banerjee is doing with me and Rushdie is not at all different from what they did with me just a little while ago.
I am thankful for the fact that India, as a country, has shown a degree of commendable religious tolerance in my case; I have at least been allowed to live here. Had it been Bangladesh or Pakistan, I would have been most likely dead by now. At the same time, I do believe that had my book not been banned in 2003, I would not have been thrown out of Kolkata in 2007; had I not been thrown out of Kolkata, Rushdie could have gone on to visit Kolkata, this wonderful city of intellectuals with a rich literary history. The sad fact of life is that once a government bows down to the fanatics, the fanatics are immeasurably encouraged and emboldened – and the trend is set.