…………..Ma had a wooden cupboard. One shelf was packed with books, the other shelves were crammed with clothes, tossed in any old how, not a single one neatly folded. Among the books were some called Maksudul Momenin, Neamul Quran, a book of poems by Amirullah, Tajkeratul Awlia, and even a book called Who Am I? So Amirullah knew English, too! Ma had often enough said to me, “Huzur is most knowledgeable. He speaks fluent English!” When she uttered these words, her eyes would light up. Why did he study the worldly things, the question came to my lips, but I swallowed it whole before it could slip out. Ma would no doubt have found it impertinent. The truth was that in the matter of Allah and the Prophet, logic and reason had no meaning whatsoever for Ma. The same applied to Amirullah. If I simply went along with whatever she said, making appropriate noises, she was happy.
Since I was her child, it was my duty to make her happy or, at least, that was what I had been brought up to believe. Besides, if I could make her happy, it saved me from her slaps and punches. In fact, when I sat down to eat, she herself served me pieces of meat. To gain her affection I kept my lips together, sealed with invisible glue.Those who did not follow the Quran and the Hadith were not Muslims, Ma was very clear about that. Those would burn in hell. No one would be spared. It was as simple as that. The basic rules were all very simple. The fire in hell would roast you alive if you did not pray, or fast during Ramadan. Or if you went out without draping a burka, and talked to a men, who was not your relative. If you laughed too loudly, that fire in hell would get you. Or, indeed, if you cried noisily. No matter what you did, there could be no escape from that fire. Fire, fire and fire.
I wanted to ask Ma why everyone was so scared of fire, especially in this day and age. Why, in cold countries, people lit fires in all their rooms! And what about the circus? So many of their exciting shows involved playing with fire. Minor burns were easily treatable nowadays. Then why did Allah have to terrorize everyone with the threat of fire? There were so many other ways of hurting people. Surprisingly, Allah did not seem interested in any of them. Wicked people like causing physical pain. However, those with real cunning enjoy causing mental anguish. A battered mind is so much harder to bear than a battered body. But Allah, it seemed to me, was more wicked than cunning. No different from Getu’s father. Or, at times, very much like Baba, who did not hesitate to thrash me black and blue if I did not obey his every command. The difference between him and Allah was simply that he wanted to give me an education in this mundane world, so that I could be successful in life, and Allah wanted me to study the Quran and Hadith.
To me, Baba was as distant as Allah. I felt a lot happier when he was not around. Any mention of Allah — formless and shapeless as He was, poor thing — also caused me much discomfort. The truth was that I wanted both to stay away from me, their absence was far preferable. They pushed me in two different directions, so much so that I ceased to have an existence of my own. All that remained was a corpse lying in a morgue, divided in two. If Baba was pleased with me he brought me large boxes of sweets, telling me to help myself to the best pieces of fish at dinner. Allah, I heard, behaved in a similar fashion. If He was pleased with anyone, the best food was provided in abundance—the flesh of exotic birds, grapes, wine, and many other things. Beautiful pink women, their skin glowing, poured wine into men’s glasses.
Grandpa, having returned from Haj, was convinced that he would go straight to Heaven. And there, after a good heavenly meal, when he belched, he would emit a wonderful smell. I couldn’t stand anyone belching, wonderful smell or not. What would happen to less fortunate people, I wondered, who might be denied such a meal? Would they simply stand around to smell someone else’s belching? In my mind, I cast Getu’s father in the role of the unlucky man, Grandpa the fortunate one. I took the book of Hadith on my right, and put the two men on my left. One continued to belch, the other continued to smell. I felt part of the scene, too; at the same time, however, I was not. I was in the letters, in the belching, in the smelling, but I was not anywhere. There was no belching and smelling, but they were. The termites and the words were with me, with the belching too. I did not wish to vanish any of them, even in my imagination. There was a house of termites in the book of Hadith. Our house was damp. Termites often attacked books if they were not regularly aired and their pages. Seeing big fat termites I felt uneasy. As I was sitting on the floor, got a black shoe near my reach, Baba’s black torn shoe, no use anymore, pressed the shoe on the book of the Hadith and smash some termites. One of my eyes remained fixed on the dead termites, the other read the half eaten words of the holy book.
‘Everything in the world is for enjoyment. The best thing to enjoy is the virtuous wife.’
‘Whatever you see in this world is for consumption by pleasure-seekers. The
most precious thing in the world is a virtuous woman.’
I was half-reclining on the floor, one hand under my chin, the other clutching the book.
‘If I were to order anyone to bow, I would certainly order all women to do so for their husbands.’
‘If a wife ever tells her husband that she is dissatisfied with whatever he does,
she will lose all the virtue she may have gained over a period of time, even as
long as seventy years. She may have her fast during the day, and done her
pray at night, but every virtue earned thereby will be lost.’
‘A husband has the right to beat his wife in four different cases, if (a) he tells her
to dress well and come to him, and she disobeys his command; (b) she rejects
his invitation to have sexual intercourse; (c) she ignores her duties,
and fails to perform her pray; and (d) she visits someone’s house without
her husband’s permission.’
‘Women who do not get jealous when their husbands take a second wife, but
accept it with patience and fortitude, are treated as martyrs by Allah and granted
the same honor.’
‘If pus and blood are oozing from a mans body and his wife licks all that ,
still it is not enough to to pay him back what he deserves.’
‘The man who would get the lowest rank in the heaven, even he would
have eighty thousands servants and seventy two wives.’
‘If a husband orders her wife to do something, and even though she is
running from one mountain to another, she is bound to follow the order of her husband’.
Some insects left the book and began crawling toward me. Were they going to eat me as well? This house was being taken over by termites and woodworm. At night, the woodworm ate through all the woodwork, making clicking noises. The termites devoured all our books in absolute silence. They even ate the words of the great Prophet Muhammad. Were these termites Muslims? No, they couldn’t possibly have a specified religion. They seemed to enjoy the complete works of Saradindu Bandopadhyay, a Hindu writer, as much as the holy Quran.
After Dilruba’s departure, books became my only companions. I had finished most of what our school library had to offer—books by Bankimchandra, Saratchandra, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore. Whatever I could lay my hands on. I took to the roof or sat on the stairs, or read at my desk and at times even in bed. When Baba came home, I hid these “unsuitable” books behind my school books, holding the latter in front of me without reading a word. When everyone went to sleep at night, I lit a lamp under my mosquito net and read every word of the “unsuitable” ones. Yasmin lay next to me, fast asleep.
Ma sometimes said to me, “What rubbish do you read all the time? Mubashwera died. You saw that, so you should think of Allah now. We have all got to die, haven’t we?”
I made no reply. Ma’s commands and instructions hung over my head like the sun in June—waiting, as if to burn me to a cinder.
Many times I was warned that if I did not follow the precepts laid down in the Quran and the Hadith, there would be Hell to pay on the Day of Judgment. However, until now, I had no idea what “Hadith” meant. Now that I knew, I did not wish to delve any deeper. I knew shit remains in the pot of shit, there was no use to search for pearls or diamond in that pot. I closed the termite-ridden book. It seemed to move under my hands, as if it was belching; as if it, too, had eaten some food served in the heaven. The sound of Ma’s footsteps made me spring back and quickly replace the book on her shelf. She had no idea that termites were silently eating away her book of the Hadith. She was busy preaching to uncle Aman. Every night, I could hear whispers from her room, also suppressed laughter. I said nothing to her about the termites. If they were hungry, let them eat what they could. Why should I try to have them killed?
What I couldn’t understand was why I was supposed to turn to Allah because Mubashwera was dead. I had no wish to think of Allah. All that business about Allah was just made up, I was sure. I was sure that the Quran was written by a greedy, selfish and sex obsessed man. If the Hadith was the words of Prophet Muhammad, then he was definitely like Getus father, nasty, cruel, abuser, insane. I could not find any difference between Allah and Muhammad and Getus father.
Even after I had put the book back, millions of termites remained deep inside me, silently eating away all the letters and words in my head, and who knows what else…………………..
( From ”My Girlhood” by Taslima Nasreen. The book has been banned in Bangladesh since 1999 )