It is an interview.
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.
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. All around her are bookshelves, all packed with books. Stickers screaming messages such as “Atheism cures religious terrorism” are pasted on the shelves. Honorary certificates bestowed by foreign institutions, framed beautifully, adorn a whole wall in the study.
It has been almost 20 years since she was exiled from Bangladesh for “anti-Islam” writings and six years since she was ousted from West Bengal following communal disturbances in Calcutta’s Ripon Street. It was thought that she would return — in the shape of the serial called Dusahobas or unbearable co-existence, which was to be aired on Aakash Aath and promoted as a serial radically different from the regular saas-bahu stories.
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.
Nasreen alleges that her ouster from Calcutta was premeditated. “Few people know that I was actually put under house arrest for about four months before the November incident,” she says, adding that she had to leave her 7 Rawdon Street residence in Calcutta with just her laptop and a one-way ticket to Rajasthan.
“From August that year, I was repeatedly asked by the Left Front government to leave the country. They even used to send the then police commissioner to coax me; he asked me to go to the jungles of Madhya Pradesh.” Nirbasan (Exile), the seventh part of her autobiography, documents her ouster from the city where she lived from 2004 to 2007.
She stresses that the Ripon Street incident was not a “Muslim uprising” against her. “The original plan was to agitate against the violence in Nandigram,” she says, referring to the 2007 police firing in which several villagers were killed. “The outburst was actually against the government for doing little for the community. The CPI(M) was losing popularity at that time — so they wanted to use me to score some political brownie points.”
She says she was “deeply hurt” by the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s behaviour. “I tried to meet him at that time, but he didn’t meet me. But Jyotibabu (ex-chief minister) supported me right through the end. He was also against banning my books in Bengal,” she adds.
Nasreen believes that the present state government is also following in the footsteps of the Leftists. “It never criticised the way the Left Front government wronged me.”
The author believes that her “persecution” in West Bengal began in 2003 when her book Dwikhandito (Split into Two) was banned by the state government. The book, it was alleged, was “anti-Islamic”, which was the brush that she was tarred with in Bangladesh.
Nasreen — who fled Bangladesh in 1994 after threats to her life — is, however, happy to have found a platform for her views in her motherland. She has been writing for a daily called Bangladesh Pratidin.
“I write a bimonthly column for the paper. I write generally on women’s issues, politics, etc. But I have been requested by editors not to write anything on religion,” she says. “For 20 years or so, they were afraid to touch me. But now I can reach out to my fans in Bangladesh.”
However, Nasreen is worried about Pan- Islamists, believers in Muslim brotherhood, who, she says, have been “growing at an alarming rate” in Bangladesh. “They are far more radical than what they were in 1971,” she says. At the same time, she is concerned about the path being taken by the “secularists” of Bangladesh.
“They are rejoicing at Abdul Kader Mullah’s death,” she says, referring to a Bangladeshi Islamist leader who was hanged earlier this month for war crimes in 1971. “But my point is that death penalty to such people won’t solve anything unless a forceful attempt is made to secularise society.”
Her “secularist fans” in Bangladesh, she adds, are “shocked” by her opposition to the death penalty. “They say these are the same kind of people who drove you out of your homeland. So how could I write against the death penalty,” she says. “But I forgive these fundamentalists — I want them to change and be better human beings. I want jails to be classrooms where such people could learn humanism.”
She, however, is in favour of banning the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party because she feels it works “exactly like a terrorist organisation” in Bangladesh. “They kill people — take blogger Rajib Haider’s death,” she says. Haider was a Bangladeshi anti-fundamentalist who was allegedly killed by a group associated with the Jamaat.
She is critical of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “so-called anti-Islamist” stance. “If Hasina was truly anti-fundamentalist, she should have first brought Taslima Nasreen back to Bangladesh,” she says.
These days, Nasreen has found new a forum for her views — the Internet. “I rely on Twitter to update myself on developments around the world. You see, I don’t really have many platforms to express myself these days,” she rues.
She also blogs on topics that range from violence and politics to science. She has been spearheading an atheist movement in Calcutta. “It’s called Dharmamukto Manabbadi Mancha and it’s unique because all its atheist members — 400 or so — are Muslims working for gender equality and other issues,” she says, adding that her blogs sometimes attract 1-2 lakh readers a day.
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?