Taslima Nasreen

Photography: Sharad Shrivastav

Taslima Nasreen A Portrait of an Artist as a Woman

On the author's birthday today, we present our complete interview with her, an exclusive feature from our all new Platform bookazine.

As one reads James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the emancipation of the artist from the ideological clutches of society feels like an empowering liberation for the reader as well. I felt a similar surge of inspiration and awe while I was interviewing eminent writer, Taslima Nasreen. Her story is testament to why the written word is revolutionary. Even after her novel Lajja (Shame) led to her suffering a number of physical and other attacks — and eventual exile — for her critical scrutiny of Islam and her demand for women's equality, Taslima never stopped fighting for justice through her writing. 

With the recent release of the English translation of her sequel to Lajja called Shameless, readers will see her unabashed and subversive writing come to life once again. Her narrative, exploring the lives of the protagonists of Lajja, after they flee from Bangladesh to India, in hope of a better life, slowly gets subsumed by Taslima’s feminism. 

What is your first memory of writing?
My first memory is that of writing poems. The title of my first poem, as far as I remember, was A Free Bird. I was about twelve years old and we were just allowed to go to school and come back. We were not allowed to go to the fields, like my brothers, to play football or cricket. I always wanted to go out but couldn’t. I always wanted to have freedom to go wherever I wanted to go. So the poem was also about how I wanted to fly free and see the sea, the nature, like a free bird because my parents said that it was dangerous for girls to go outside and I was confined within the walls of my home. The poem was actually published later. My eldest brother used to publish a little magazine. In both East and West Bengal, the little magazine was a type of literary magazine, which was very popular among young poets and writers who were kind of rebellious — and whose works were not accepted by larger, national newspapers and magazines. It was very revolutionary, filled with the voices of rebels with new ideas. So when I turned around seventeen or eighteen, I also started publishing a literary magazine. 

What led you to pursue writing as a career?
It began as my hobby. I used to read and write a lot when I was in school. I used to go to public and school libraries and read all the books available there. I was a kind of a bookworm. I couldn’t go outside to play or to friends’ houses to chat and spend time, so I used to spend most of my time reading. Over time, I developed a passion to write about my feelings and thoughts. Also, my father was very domineering so I couldn’t express my feelings a lot. My father was a well-known doctor. He was actually an atheist, as I later discovered. So he didn’t want us to pray or read the Quran, instead he wanted us to get educated in the field of science and become doctors or engineers. I spoke a bit to my mother but she was very religious and I did not like religious thinking as much because I would always ask questions. Like, ‘why do I have to read or pray in Arabic? Allah knows everything so He should know Bengali! Allah claims He is merciful but He will throw them into hell who don’t worship Him, He is then anything but great and merciful!’ I never got a good answer to these questions so I never actually believed in religion. Initially I was agnostic and then I became an atheist, after reading all religious texts, including the Quran

I began by writing poems and many people liked my writing. I got published in local literary magazines and I was really encouraged to write more. When I was seventeen, sometime in 1978, I started publishing my magazine as I had learnt publishing literary magazines from my elder brother. My magazine was called SeNjuti in which I published both Bangladeshi and Bengali poets. Subsequently, my first poetry book was published in 1986 and the second was published in 1989, which sold very well. This led different newspapers reaching out to me to write columns for them. At that time, I was a doctor and I began writing these columns, which became very popular. They were about my story and my oppression as a woman, which many, many women related to. Many women wrote to the newspaper editors and me as well that I was writing their stories and I must not stop writing because these columns encouraged them to fight against their oppression. So, a well-known publisher published a collection of my articles, which received the Ananda Award in West Bengal in 1992, one of the most prestigious literary awards. This was a big encouragement for me to continue my writing. 

I continued writing while working as a medical officer in a government hospital, Dhaka Medical College Hospital, whenever I could make time. I had to eventually quit my job because they imposed the condition that I could only write for medical journals and if I wrote anything else, I could only publish it after getting the government’s approval. They even confiscated my passport when I was going to attend a literary program in Kolkata. My writing was controversial because I critically scrutinised Islam and Islamic oppression of women and also because I was simply writing against patriarchy and misogyny. I was also questioning the government for not protecting the ethnic minorities through my writing and I wanted laws based on equality and justice, not religion. I quit my job, only in protest, because government should not stop me from expressing my views. Private clinics did not employ me because they were so afraid as the protests against my writing had begun. There were demands of my execution by hanging, so no one was ready to employ me. Then I became a full-time writer and I ended up earning much more money as a writer than my job as a medical officer. 

Which authors or books were your early formative influences?
I don’t think I was completely influenced by any writer. I began by reading Bengali literature and translation of many international books in Bengali. When I had started writing on women’s rights and oppression, I had not read feminist literature. After I had to leave my country and I went into exile in Europe, there I started reading about feminism, like writings of Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan. All the sixties and seventies feminists wrote exactly what I was already writing. They’d written about feminism much before I did but without even reading their work, I was writing pretty much the same thing. I asked Gloria Steinem one day that how could our writing be the same even though we wrote a decade apart and I wasn’t even aware of her work. She told me that if you are aware of your rights, you don’t need to read any books, you just need to listen to your intuition and the words will come to you. It is human nature. When I am attacked, I will fight. If I am whipped, I will snatch away the whip. You don’t need to learn this from any book. The first question I asked, when I was very little, was that why do they get the freedom that I don’t? A book didn’t teach me to ask this question. I was always questioning everything around me, be it religion or the social system and the answer that I got was very stupid. It was, ‘because you are a girl.’ After I questioned what the difference between girls and boys was, I realised that it was a social difference that was artificially created. So I protested against all kinds of injustices against women and defended human rights whenever I saw ethnic minorities being persecuted in my country. I did not learn all this from any book or anyone. I just did it because I believe that everyone should oppose the inequality faced by anyone. 

What propelled you to write the sequel to Lajja through Shameless?
After I moved to Kolkata in 2004, sometime in 2006, I realised that since the Dutta family also moves to Kolkata by the end of Lajja. I could write about it now because I know Kolkata and I can imagine how their lives would turn out here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process behind this book?
I don’t actually think before I write. Many people tend to draw pictures or write summaries beforehand, et cetera. I don’t do any of these things. I just go to my study, sit in front of my computer and write.

Taslima Nasreen is also a character in the book. What was your intention behind placing your authorial persona in the story?
There was no intention as such. I simply wrote that I, the writer, was living there too and that I met the character that I had created in fiction. I found it very interesting. It was a nice experience to meet the fictional characters I’ve created and also the fictional me. It was like a creative exercise. You don’t see something like this happen in other books, writers don’t generally write about themselves as a character in their books. Everything I write about myself in the book is true, like where I lived and that I have a cat or that I have police protection. Even the name of my maid is real. So in this way, both reality and fiction are intertwined in the book. 

There are many thematic concerns at play in the book, ranging from migration, religious fanaticism to toxic masculinity and sexual politics. What, for you, was the main driving force while you were writing the book?
I think one of the most important issues was the lives of the women after moving from one country to another. You find that it is more or less the same. A girl could be raped in East Bengal and a girl can be raped in West Bengal as well. Another thing I show is that Maya, the daughter of the family, is raped by Muslims in Bangladesh and she is raped by Hindus in Kolkata. So a Hindu country is safe for Hindu girls is a myth. There is no country for girls or women. I believe that country means safety, if I don’t feel secure in my country, then it is not my country. More or less, the patriarchy, the misogyny, the communalism, is same for them even in this country. This book is not really a political book. It is very personal and social. The end is very feminist. 

What is the biggest challenge that you faced while writing the book?
The biggest challenge was the rape scene. The question that kept bothering me was whether I should write about it or not. I thought that, if it is a reality, if it actually happens in the society, then I would write about it. Ultimately, I did not write clearly about it and left it as a question mark. Did it happen and who did it? It depends on the reader to make their own conclusions. I had to really think a lot while phrasing it. 

Also whenever I have described rape, cruelty and brutality, some people always call it pornographic. I have a book titled Nimantran, in which I showed that a very young girl falls in love with a boy who ultimately, with his seven friends, rapes her brutally. When I described the brutality, everyone except the intellectual readers, started commenting that I write about sex, but it was about rape, it was about the torture. They don’t see it as torture, they see it as sex. So, when I was writing about the rape in Shameless, I was writing about torture and I don’t care what people call it.

What do you wish for your readers to take away from this book?
I was trying to show that nobody is perfectly good or bad. A person is made of both. It is not fixed that a certain person is hateful and bad. Sometimes that person is also good. This can be applied to more or less everyone. I tried to show the reality of human nature. No character is ideal. Everybody has faults and they have some niceties also. I want readers to think about this complexity of human nature.

If you had to give one advice to budding writers right now, what would that be?
I am nobody to give advice to writers. Writers should write whatever they want to write and however they want to write. I don’t take anybody’s advice so I don’t give advice to anybody. 

Lastly, what are you working on next?
Always new writing. 

This is an exclusive from our Platform Bookazine June-September 2020.

Text Nidhi Verma