In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.
Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.
More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.
Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.
The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.
Chitra Banerjee Divakurni and I first met some years ago when I had to interview her at CMYK bookstore, Mehrchand market, New Delhi. Ever since then we have remained in touch and I have enjoyed reading and interviewing Chitra’s books published over the years. This time too I read The Forest of Enchantment and discovered that the book was unexpected. Given below is an extract from our email correspondence as a background to the interview that follows.
It has been such a pleasure to read your latest novel, The Forest of Enchantment. It was unexpected too. Over the years you have raised readers expectations to create strong women. Women who learn to make choices while in the prime of life or later while reflecting upon their lives as they age. The reader is privy to the heroine’s inner thoughts and formulates for his/herself an image of a strong woman. In the long run perhaps these heroines offer a role model of behaviour to many of your readers. I do not know for certain but I am sure it does have an impact when a hugely successful author like yourself is read worldwide. This was obvious in what you did in Palace of Illusions too. As the author you had inserted yourself many times in the narrative (at least that is how I recall it) but allowed the heroine her ground too. To my mind that was the turning point in your writing. Surely and steadily your heroines through a combination of action and inner thought processes began to evolve and offer a new generation of readers a fresh new way of approaching life. More so when modern life is not so stable anymore and inevitably cuts across cultures and continents. Physical movements happen (a truth many women learn to accept as part of their life’s journey), so the experience of migration while traumatic itself is an experience that the woman has been “trained” from girlhood to foresee and brave. It will happen. It has to happen. At least for millions of those women who are taught in childhood that marriage is a social milestone they must cross. But it is the marital life that you excel in detailing, Chitra.
Then you create The Forest of Enchantment. In the first few pages I felt it was a writer’s treatise on how to approach a retelling of a well-established story. It is oh! so tricky “converting” an oral tradition into the written and fixed narrative on the printed page. Your opening pages are like the opening invocation to the powers-that-be before embarking on a spiritual journey or like a prayer seeking blessings before telling the story as you wish to. It is a story to make your own. It left me with a mixed bag of feelings. Your retelling of Sita’s story comes precisely a decade after your super bestseller about Draupadi, The Palace of Illusions. I was expecting a Sita more along the lines of Draupadi. Gently strong — a quality that one does tend to associate with the two women. And then you create a woman who at first glance comes across as compliant, ever humble and always giving of herself. Exemplary qualities for any individual to possess, irrespective of gender, but these are what Sita is classically associated with. You imbue your character Sita with them as well. The story crafted reiterates this at every step of the way. To read this novel immediately after the #MeToo movement as a reader in the modern age has a disquieting impact. Then I decided to read it from your perspective of writing it. I have no idea if that last sentence makes sense. I decided to drop all my expectations of this book based on your previous heroines and read trying to align myself with your meditative discipline of writing and focused attention to detail, hoping I will learn something new. Perhaps I did. Perhaps I did not. But what I did discover was that it is best to pay heed to Sita, feel to some degree what she experiences, and it is like coming to terms with the battering women get through life. They learn to make their choices but also compromise a lot in the long run for the peace of those around them especially their husbands. It is a conservative approach that many enlightened women may not agree with but at some levels I suspect I understand why you chose this option. Was it a conscious choice to capitulate to an acceptable version of Sita rather than challenge it any way as say Volga has done with her retellings? As I said in my opening remarks that The Forest of Enchantment was unexpected. Nevertheless, it did give my much to dwell upon for which I have to be ever grateful to you.
Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s reply:
Thank you dear Jaya for reading so carefully and for your very thoughtful comments and questions. I have lots of answers. And also for your support of my work and your friendship from ever since we first met.
did it take you so long to write about Sita considering you wrote about
Draupadi a decade ago?
Sita is a very different character. Where D is flamboyant and
direct and headlong in the way she fights injustice, and not above doing wrong
things herself when overcome by anger and the desire for revenge, Sita is an
old soul and much more complex in her approach to problems. I had to grow
myself to understand her particular kind of strength, because I had grown up
resisting her as an icon. But hers is the strength of endurance, of never
giving up or giving in, no matter how few external choices are available. It is
the strength that flourishes and makes space for itself even in the most
hostile of environments–much like a tree that grows amidst rocks and stones.
It does not stray from its principles. Together, D and S provide Indian women
with two complementary ways of being strong and self-respecting in the world.
Sita’s way may not seem as exciting at first, but upon reflection one realizes,
I hope, that it is the way more suited to, and more doable, for most women–in
India and in the world. Because often we, too, are struggling to thrive in
unhospitable circumstances. And we, too, would like to be good human beings in
Sita isn’t defiant by nature, but when faced with dire situations she is perhaps stronger than Draupadi is. For centuries, patriarchy has chosen to interpret her quietness as meekness. I hope I’ve managed to show in my novel that it isn’t so. What is it but her inner strength, and her conviction, that prevents Ravan from harming her once she is in his power? What but her inner strength allows her to stand up to Ram and say that he cannot dictate how she will lead her life, even if he rejects her? She is the one who calls for the fire into which she walks at the end of the battle in Lanka. She is the one who pulls herself together when abandoned in the forest, to promise herself and her unborn sons that she will bring them up as the best of princes–and the best of men, who will know how women should be treated. She is the one who refuses to compromise and speaks her mind in the court of Ayodhya before she chooses to leave this mortal earth and the happiness of queenship, family, husband and children. She does it because she has deeply-held values and stands up for them. And she does it without anger or vengefulness because she has come to realize that these are destructive–and ultimately useless–emotions. I don’t think Draupadi could have done it.
It took me ten years of contemplation to realize all this.
is the Bengali Krittibasi Ramayan from the fifteenth century your favourite?
What are the elements in it that stand out for you as exceptional?
Krittibasi Ramayan is much more interested in Sita’s inner life and gives us
more of her thoughts than Valmiki. It portrays little intimate moments in her
life. It portrays Ravan as a more nuanced character. It also doesn’t shy
away from depicting disquieting scenes like the mutilation of Surpanakha in a
way that makes us question the act. I was attracted to all these things.
your crafting of your women protagonists drain or enrich you as the case maybe
in understanding the character of Sita better?
immediate writing is draining because it is so consuming. But ultimately,
understanding my characters always enriches me. Certainly this is true of
is beloved to many. Hindus consider her to be the epitome of an ideal
woman. As a result did the creation of her character for The
Forests of Enchantment become a tough negotiating act for you? How do
you retell a story that has been told for centuries and yet make it so much
exactly these reasons made this a challenging book to write. As I read and
re-read the Ramayana, I felt that we
haven’t understood Sita properly. We’ve interpreted her actions in the way that
patriarchy finds most useful. I tried to make the story my own by
examining–and feeling–Sita’s motives. One simple instance: when she
“follows” Ram to the forest, she is generally judged to be a
“pativrata” who follows her husband wherever he might go. But really,
when you look at the scene in both Valmiki and Krittibas, she is going against
what all her elders are asking/telling her to do. Ram, Kaushalya–everyone–says,
please stay in the palace. She says, “No. I want to be by the side of my
beloved. I want to live the same life, experience the same adventures. I love
him and refuse to be parted from him.” It is an action of great agency and
rather romantic. So, ultimately, Sita is also very human. Another example: The
things she says to Lakshman when she thinks Ram is in danger when he goes after
the golden deer! The way she accuses him of desiring her!
do you stop reading past narratives and create your own?
I feel they have missed something important. But in the case of our epics, it
is important for me to stay with the original story line. Otherwise readers
might (rightly) say, “You are just making up this story. It has nothing to do
with the ‘real’ Sita.” It is also more challenging to transform the reader’s
understanding of a character without changing much of anything external about
her life and, instead, illuminating her thoughts and motives. This is why,
although I really enjoy and admire writers such as Volga, I don’t want to write
that kind of story.
p.2 of the novel Valmiki says “I wrote what the divine showed me.” Is this a
sentiment that you share too with regard to your writings?
truly believe I couldn’t write even one word without divine help. Like a flute
that makes music only when the master musician blows into it. But sometimes the
holes are blocked (ego? ignorance? lack of effort?) and the music doesn’t come
out sounding so good. Then I have to rewrite!
you record your own audio book of this story? If not who would you like to have
as the voice actor?
I have no interest in doing that. Better to have a professional. I’d love to
know who readers think would be a good narrator.
the years has your writing style changed as you tackled the crafting the inner
self of your women characters?
it changes with each book. It has something to do with the subject matter and
the narrator. I can’t really explain it. I spend a lot of time in the first
chapter trying to find the book’s “voice.”
have your readers responded to the two books published exactly a decade apart
but both dealing with the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics?
Any noticeable shifts in readers responses to The Palace of
Illusions and The Forest of Enchantment?
Some readers like Draupadi better, some like Sita more. Many write to me that they have re-read Palace numerous times. But more (hundreds!) of women have written to me saying the story of Sita in Forest has made them weep and changed something deep in themselves. I am grateful for that.
fiction is known to explore the different aspects of love. Do you have a
testament of love?
Forest is particularly focused on trying to make sense of the amazing and complicated emotion of love. I think my current understanding of love is what Sita realizes at the end of the novel: love and forgiveness have to go hand in hand. (This doesn’t mean that you will accept wrongdoing, only that you forgive the wrongdoer. In any case, I believe more and more than vengeance is a hugely harmful emotion). And that the best, truest love is between mothers and young children–because they want nothing except to make each other happy.
Sorry, Best Friend!is a collection of stories edited by noted writers Githa Hariharan and late Shama Futehally. The stories are about children discovering / encountering friends and neighbours who are different from us in some way or the other — the way they look, their dress, languages they speak, even the food they eat or even pray to different gods. Ultimately we need to remember that we are all part of one big jigsaw puzzle that is India. According to the editors if we forget that all of us are a part of this puzzle then “very quickly, as if we were never one, we break into a hundred pieces”. The contributors include eminent writers such as Swapna Dutta, Poile Sengupta and Zai Whitaker. Given that this book was published in 1997 they refer to two major incidents of the immediate past when communal violence broke out after the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi (1984) and later destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (1992). Subsequently India has experienced many more and regular instances of communal violence notably the riots that broke out in Gujarat after the burning of the train in Godhra (2002). Now communal intolerance is a regular feature of daily existence with lynchings becoming the horrific new normal.
Sorry, Best Friend! has been published many times over; testament to the frightening relevance of these stories for young children. It is a book that needs to be read widely by children and adults widely.
Githa Hariharan and Shama Futehally (eds.) Sorry, Best Friend! Tulika Publishers, Chennai, 1997, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 70 Rs. 85