Collected Furies

Collected FuriesTaslima Nasreen’s voice has been one of authentic outrage

Most famous authors overshadow their books, but Taslima Nasreen is different. The Bangladeshi poet, novelist, essayist and memoirist, as things stand, is better known to the non-Bengali world for what she says than how she writes. At 45, the woman who trained and worked as a medical doctor in Dhaka before she fled her country is probably the world’s most prolific underground writer, with at least six of her 30 books officially banned in her country and the rest selling mostly under cover.Her rise to fame did not begin, as many believe, with Lajja (Shame), a novella that described the predicament of a liberal Hindu family in Bangladesh caught in the communal backlash that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Written in her trademark sledgehammer style, with little to recommend it but her disconcerting habit of clobbering her point home with reckless disregard for style and structure, the book sold 50,000 copies in the three months before being banned by the Bangladesh government in 1993. The self-styled ‘documentary novel’ failed on both counts: as document, it was unashamedly biased; as novel, it was trash. But it went on to sell over 95,000 copies in its English translation alone, thanks largely to a massive campaign by fundamentalists in her country who demanded that she be hanged in public. Funnily enough, Lajja is possibly the only book where Taslima’s blasphemous prose is not directed against her favourite punching bag: Islam and its mullahs. Instead, she takes on the Bangladeshi government for failing to protect minority Hindus.

But if the English-reading world discovered Taslima through her hastily written, pedestrian novella, she was already creating a storm in Bengali literary circles during her medical student days. She took the usual route of women seeking self-expression: through poetry. But the raw anger and shocking outspokenness of her poems were impressive enough to make several newspapers approach her for writing regular columns for them. These were purportedly on women’s issues, but instead of the usual “love stories, cooking and daycare”, Taslima directed her writerly muscle on crimes against women under the garb of religion. It had the mullahs baying regularly for her blood, but turned Taslima into the writer she is today: blunt, fearless and outrageous. It was with the collection of these columns, Nirbachita Kalam (Selected Columns), that the 28-year-old burst into the Bengali literary world, winning a prestigious literary award by the Ananda Bazar group.

For a writer of her age—and for an author who has been on the run for 13 years now—Taslima has an astounding body of work already behind her: a dozen collections of poems (with defiant titles like Amar Kichu Jaye Ashe Na—I Couldn’t Care Less); four collections of essays (including Noshto Meyer Noshto Godyo—Fallen prose of a fallen woman); seven novels and five volumes of autobiography, all so inflammatory that few English-language publishers are willing to risk their neck by publishing them.

It says much about Taslima’s writing that at least four of the six awards she has won so far for her books are for human rights and not literary merit. As a reviewer in the literary magazine Biblio writes: “It is commonly said that Taslima Nasreen is an overrated writer. This notion is so strong that it is repeated unthinkingly by people who can neither read nor write Bengali! It is also said that her books sell because of their explicit discussion of sex and sexuality…. Future generations will not dispute that Nasreen has been one of the most important Bengali writers of contemporary times. Moving away from ornate and euphemistic rhetoric, Taslima deploys language that is direct, even ruthless. Her feminist politics emerges not out of victimology but rage, her sexual explicitness is daring and unembarrassed.These traits are neither traditionally feminine nor desirable by Bengali canonical standards. Therefore, her writings assail the canon itself and problematises the notion of ‘literary merit’.” But if many doubt her literary merit, few would dispute that Taslima has emerged as one of the most powerful voices of the subcontinent. It may be stubborn, shrill, foolhardy, compulsively attention-seeking, but what a voice!

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