At 7 am on 22 August, Taslima Nasrin, feminist writer, poet and critic sat sipping tea without sugar at Shirley’s Home Stay, run by KV Thomas’ daughter Rekha at Maradu, Kochi. Taslima was scanning the morning papers carefully. (What are they writing about me? Perhaps she wondered.) "What Kamala Surayya said was a bomb. And when journalists questioned me in front of her I was careful not to say anything against Islam because I did not want to offend her. But Kamala had other things to say when we talked in private."
She looked up from the paper she was reading to tell me this. And there I was waiting patiently for her to stop reading about herself.
I got about five -ten minutes alone with Taslima. She was casually dressed in a black and white salwar kameez. When at ease "she shivers her legs".
Then a horde of journalists descended on the scene but I hung around for a little while longer before leaving. One lucky journo knew Bangla so he fired questions at her privately. Ahh what a way to disconnect the rest of us.
We sat down for breakfast. I managed to get a seat at the small table and helped myself to breakfast shamelessly. Some journos had to wait outside the bungalow. Hot steaming Puttu (steamed rice cakes) arrived and K M Roy( an old time journo) and MLA K V Thomas explained at length the history of puttu, very interesting- things i had never heard about in my life time. Taslima Nasrin was impressed too. She took hold of a log of puttu and took a bite of it like as if it was a banana. She then looked at the tastless puttu in total astonishment.(What's this?!!!) Then the next set of explanations and demonstrations flowed forth.
The repercussions of the Babri Masjid demolition in India were felt across the border in Bangladesh- the minority Hindu community in Bangladesh was targeted and out of this tragedy emerged the sad story of Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja (Shame). The sensitive portrayal of a young Hindu man and his family’s struggle to survive in their homeland in the midst of riots and her criticism of Islam brought the wrath of religious fundamentalists. In 1993 Islamic fundamentalist pronounced a fatwa on her head and in 1994 the government filed a case against her for hurting religious sentiments. Taslima has been in exile ever since.
My Few minutes with her....
Taslima, who has been in exile was given permission recently to stay in India for another six months on a tourist visa but she hoped the government will extend it further. “I have been in exile for twelve years and I have lived mostly in Europe. I feel at home in West Bengal. If I cant go back home I hope I will be allowed to stay in Kolkata. There I can write in my language and only there will I be able to survive as a writer.”
Taslima, referred to sometimes as the “angry young woman” has been a strong critic of the use of religious identity as national identity. She has maintained it is dangerous. When asked to comment on the “War on Terror” which was reinforcing an Islamic identity that crossed all borders.
She said, “This is happening because United States started bombing Islamic nations. Muslim countries feel that the world is against Islam. This is not so. And the young people who are rational human beings are becoming fundamentalists. It should be a war between secularism and fundamentalism, between rationalism and irrationalism, between people who value freedom and those who do not. I feel the super power is only greedy and they are not against the so- called Muslims. They will be against anyone who stands in their way when they try to fulfil their greed.”
Aren’t more women all over the world slowly going back to tradition and choosing to wear the burka or the head scarf?
Taslima replied, “This is a religious dress. Tradition is different and tradition in Arab countries and India are different. It is a political thing to wear a religious dress. As a minority, people have an identity crisis and they grab their religious identity as their identity. And that is why they wear the religious dress.
Aren’t women the keepers of the culture and tradition who perpetuate the patriarchal system?
Taslima explained, “Women have no personal choice. They have no proper education and they are taught for centuries that they are the slaves of men. Women are the carriers of the system. Religion is patriarchal and in the patriarchal system women are treated as sexual objects and child bearing objects.”
(The Kerala Muslim Jama-ath council (the apex body of the mosque committees) has urged the government to send Taslima back to Kolkata. They demanded that she should not be permitted to attend the release of the Malayalam translations of her novels.)
(First published by The New Indian Express. Changes have been made.)