Thursday, 9 April 2015

Book review: Lajja

Taslima Nasrin
(Translator: Anhcita Ghatak)
Penguin Books 2014

21 years after it was first banned, it seems that the theme on which Lajja is based will never go out of vogue.  Taslima Nasrin says as much in her introduction to this 2014 edition: 'Lajja will remain relevant as long as the incidents described in it continue to happen...Lajja waits for a time of equality, empathy and freedom'.  Both Lajja and its creator are still waiting.  And like the fate of the characters of the story, it appears that it is futile to wait.  As things stand now, one cannot quite see any end to fundamentalism, intolerance, or bans.

Speaking of which, there is something strangely alluring about all things that are banned.  A certain sense of curiosity compels you to look behind the screen to find out just what the government is trying to hide.  It is with this sentiment that I bought this book.  Having gone through it, one can understand why the Bangladesh government wanted it banned.  But what about the Indian government?  The West Bengal government of 1994 banned the book, and Nasrin was not even allowed to seek sanctuary in India - ironically - unlike the characters of her story.

Nasrin uses the backdrop of the 1992 felling of Babri Masjid to narrate a harrowing tale of violence, bigotry and intolerance.  A Hindu family of four is caught in the whirlwind that is unleashed when its own countrymen resort to looting, pillaging and killing in the name of seeking revenge for the demolition of the mosque.  The fact that the incident happened in another country, that the Hindus of their own country are not responsible for the destruction of the mosque, and that by killing them there cannot be any peace, is lost on the murderous mobs.  

Nasrin highlights the silence of the government and the denial of the well-off intellectuals with regards to the overwhelming display of religious intolerance.  Through her characters' narrations, Nasrin recounts the minute details of destruction of temples, houses being set alight and looted, kidnapping, and rape and murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children. As one of the characters puts it, there is no riot in the country; riot implies that two communities are fighting each other - something that is likely to occur in India when the majority and minority communities face off.  Instead, what is unleashed in Bangladesh is pure terror and subjugation, because Hindus are not allowed to retaliate even as their houses are plundered and women ravaged.

One has to get used to Nasrin's use of the Bengali names, with their generous dose of 'o's; the principal characters are called Sudhamoy, Suronjon, Kironmoyee and Maya.  Anchita Ghatak, who has translated from Bengali, has retained the Bengali spelling and pronunciation of names of people and places.  However, the translation on the whole is excellent.  

Both the father and son, Sudhamoy and Suronjon are idealistic and leftist to begin with.  While the father takes an active part in the 1971 liberation war, the son is into helping people and atheism.  So much so that they disallow the mother, Kironmoyee from keeping her gods in the home.  They nurse a hope that one day Bangladesh will shed its communal politics and adopt a policy of equality and secularism.  This hope is shattered as the communal segregation and Hindu persecution sets in.  

Suronjon is unemployed (he doesn't like to be at others' beck and call, as he puts it), buys cigarettes with the money he gets from his parents, has no real aim in life other than to wander and chat with friends, and does not attend to the needs of his parents or his younger sister, Maya.  For me, he is the most unlikeable character, and, by the time he realises the folly of his ways and the futility of his dream of a secular country, the unthinkable has already occurred - Maya is kidnapped by a group of fundamentalists and never returns.  

His father's denial of the fact that the state and the society are communal, and that there are good people willing to help them, even after suffering so much of religious intolerance throughout his life, and losing his daughter, irks not only Suronjon, but also us.  In all this, the most pitiful character is the mother, Kironmoyee, as she sacrifices her every wish and serves her husband and children till the bitter end.  In the end, the decision that should have been made much before they lost everything, is reached, as Sudhamoy agrees to migrate to India.  

Nasrin exposes what it is like to be an outsider living in a land that has based its constitution on the teachings of one particular faith, at the cost of secularism.  So you find that the characters have always had bitter experiences with the neighbours, friends and society, much before the precipitating event.  Maya is made to recite hymns of the state religion and excluded from school if she does not.  Suronjon is tricked by his friend into eating beef, and is addressed as 'son of infidel' at school.  Sudhamoy is forcibly circumcised, after which he is incapable of union with his wife forever, his land is usurped by a neighbour, and he is frequently overlooked when it comes to promotions at work.

The title, Lajja, probably pertains to the shame that a nation has to bear as it fails to safeguard its own children due to its partial state policies.  

Of late, several activists and writers have been silenced or killed; mostly in Asian countries.  Perumal Murugan, a writer in Tamil Nadu was forced to tender an apology for a book he had written, which apparently 'hurt the religious sentiments' of a group.  He went on to announce his own death as a writer in the social media.  Another writer, Murugesan was attacked by a mob in the same state as he had written an 'obscene story'.  Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy, both lost their lives within a span of a month for blogging on secularism and against religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh.  Both were hacked to death with crude weapons.  The police, in a manner that animates Lajja's content, initially refused to reveal whether fundamentalists belonging to the state religion were behind the attacks.

Truly, freedom of speech, although guaranteed by most states, appears to be confined to the papers that the words are written on.  Its detractors might suggest that there is a limit to what one can express, and that it should not needlessly malign a person or a community.  This may be so, but if one wants to retaliate, one can do so by coming up with a counter-point that challenges the original notion.  Instead, what the bigots usually resort to is violence, intimidation, banning and killing; and in theocratic and fundamental societies they are allowed a free run.  That is the real lajja.

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