Sunday, September 5, 1999
BOOKS by the controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen are meant to provoke their readers. And her latest, Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood) in Bengali is no exception. The Bangladesh government has promptly banned the book brought out by a little-known Calcutta publisher on the ground that "its contents might hurt the existing social system and religious sentiments of the people." It seems that Taslimas scathing attack on local godmen perpetrating fraud in the name of religion as well as her brutally honest description of the sexual exploitation of the girl-child have invited the ire of Bangladesh authorities.
Not surprisingly, the banning of Taslimas autobiography by the Bangladesh government has sent sales of the book soaring on the other side of the border. In Calcutta, the publishers, Peoples Book Society, are quite pleased with the books turnover. "The first edition of Taslimas autobiography is almost exhausted and we shall soon bring out a new edition," says a representative of the publishers. "But it is serious book to be studied seriously,"he warns.
The cover of the book flashes a picture of Taslima Nasreen, the exiled Bangladeshi author and a staunch feminist. In fact, the word meyebela in the title to denote girlhood, is not to be found in the Bengali lexicon. Bengalis use the word chelebela (literally boyhood) to describe the childhood of both men and women but Taslima has coined her own word to protest against the prevalent male bias in linguistics, explains Siuli Guha, a Bengali poet and writer at Calcutta.
Although the explicit depiction of the sexual assaults on Taslima when she was merely a child might appear titillating to one section of readers and obscene to another, many eminent Bengali literary critics acknowledge it has been written with rare courage and honesty. That such sexual exploitation of the girl-child often takes place within the family has long been known by children rights activists, feminist groups as well as child psychologists and other professionals. But it has hardly ever been written about with such bluntness in Indian languages, say these critics.
The real beauty of the Taslimas autobiography probably is that the author has managed to successfully weave together the personal with the social and political happenings of her childhood. As Taslima grows towards puberty, the former East Pakistan also grows to become an independent Bangladesh. The story of the travails of coming of age of a girl-child in a conservative Muslim middle class family gets entwined with that of the birth of a new nation.
As one goes through the pages of the book, the terror perpetrated by the Pakistani army in former East Pakistan and the mass euphoria following the liberation of the country come alive. Taslimas young neighbour, who is killed by military bullets and the first hoisting of the national flag of Bangladesh in a distant village, evokes bitter-sweet memories. Taslima remembers seeing Sheikh Mujib, the architect and father-figure of independent Bangladesh. She is, however, also unsparing in her criticism of Mujibs authoritarian rule. Taslima shows how the unpopular policies of Mujib create the ground for revival of anti-Indian feelings and Islamic fundamentalism among a significant section of Bangladeshs population.
At the personal level, Taslimas tale of her girlhood revolves around her own family and that of her mothers family as well as close neighbours and friends. The third child of her parents after her two brothers, she was not exactly an unwelcome addition to an urban middle class family. Her father, a doctor who rose from a humble peasant background against immense odds, is the typical patriarch running the family with an iron hand. Taslimas uneducated dark-skinned mother, the wife of a fair and handsome as well as professionally successful man, suffers as the husband gets involved in extra-marital relations. The hapless woman even discovers her husband in bed with the housemaid. In Taslimas version, her father comes off in a rather poor light.
In frustration, Taslimas mother takes refuge in religion. And the local godman, Pir Amirullah, takes the opportunity to cast his spell over her. Taslima is at her pungent best while detailing how the godman exploits his female disciples financially and emotionally. The story of the godman in a town of Bangladesh will sound familiar to many Indian readers acquainted with a variety of sordid acts of persons masquerading as godmen. Although some may term it as an attack on Islamic belief, in reality it is an attack against the abuse of religion in general by vested interests, argues Nilima Bose, a Calcutta-based writer.
Another remarkable aspect of Taslimas autobiography is the sympathy expressed towards the underdog in Bangladeshi society. The child housemaid of Taslimas age is mercilessly beaten in her home for a minor fault. The plight of the famine-stricken people is also portrayed with rare sensitivity. Taslimas is a questioning mind and she records her protest against economic and social injustice without being too vocal.
Yet, controversy will perhaps continue to plague Taslima because of her views on sex and religion. Appreciating her boldness and honesty of purpose, it may still be debated whether it is necessary to give a detailed description of various kinds of sexual perversions within an almost medieval social milieu. Her descriptions of sexual assaults by family members, molestation by strangers while on a walk by the riverside and depictions of her fathers affairs might seem a little too crude to some readers.
Similarly, statements like "My grandfather went to Haj in the year Neil Armstrong went to the moon, " may not endear Taslima to a section of the readership. Some Muslims may also claim that Taslima is only intent on ridiculing Islamic rituals. But Taslima does not relent. She will call a spade a spade, come what may.
Literary circles in Calcutta rate Amar Meyebela as a far better literary work than Lajja, her first novel which the government banned in 1994, for alleged blasphemy against Islam. Sudeshna Chakravarty, an eminent Bengali literary critic speaks highly of Taslimas beautiful prose style. "It is a book which will provoke debate and make one think, laugh and cry, she writes in a leading Bengali newspaper while reviewing the book.
autobiography has already been translated in French, and
it is expected that the English translation will also be
available soon. And till translations in English and
other Indian languages are available, readers beyond the
Bengali speaking world will unfortunately have to wait
before forming their own opinion on a very controversial
book by an extremely controversial author. ANF
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