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.
Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.
The Invisible Spyis a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology?
actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author
and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I
began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but
that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first
novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was
several times the length of The Invisible
Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off
more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld
and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that
all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and
only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at
the time and William Golding’s Lord of
the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance
of five decades I would describe it as Lord
of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.
finished Childworld but I continued
writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling
dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the
biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of
the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time,
Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting
at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page,
completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades
later, I’m still writing.
I wrote at
least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several
books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of
them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the
confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at
which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of
the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting
someone to read my work.
I was a
published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in
journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga
in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other
outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour
interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging
poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular
contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine
that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The
Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other
names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in
Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National
Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging
rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never
stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some
of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)
coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers
and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin
Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think
he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and
was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing.
You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie
and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I
did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The
Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my
homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every
book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller
and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he
gave me some insights into Indian publishing.
persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every
year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint
called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of
St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun
named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what
was my first fiction book, Amazing
Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s
was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which
was more than I ever expected.
adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film
Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting
with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money
for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a
copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV
shows such as Saanp Seedi and
docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting
and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a
zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.
(One of my
quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I
always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems
like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I
believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)
time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he
published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was
titled The Missing Parents Mystery and
while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any
of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author,
and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a
small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really
stopped writing children’s books.
Then I met
my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined
Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three
titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate
My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.
some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.
picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in
March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be
illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book
series called Superzeroes illustrated
by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of
my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September
2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on
the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist
called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika,
a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade
fantasy adventure series starting with Pax
Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And
those are only my children’s books, of course.
And I’m only
getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for!
Besides, I LOVE writing and few books
give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more.
2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day?
Oh, I don’t
write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You
see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write
in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while
reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be
careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me
someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized
hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my
family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the
week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book
and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes
out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the
result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing.
I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.
3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader?
It’s kind of
you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I
have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books
a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books
I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It
includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I
prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library
system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never
before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!)
But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the
library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email,
cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day,
I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with
Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.
Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!
4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations?
Oh yes, it
changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In
India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book
authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially
delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.
instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now,
with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima
Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar,
Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the
Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden
Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.
all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a
great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said
that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through
the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally
laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and
5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand?
daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes
together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure,
all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”,
and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from
an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with
grace and piety.
6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes?
I read. At
some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally
have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track
of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no
assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write.
Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.
7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing?
America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally
approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first
started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The
Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels
that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to
attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was
born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again.
On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing
about the US.
8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?
Oh, I could
never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory
that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature
right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly
come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home,
otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!
9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead? (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.)
question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing.
All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one
of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to
you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no
clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves
breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped
stories, characters and all.
10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?
first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who
reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book
career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well?
every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and
say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and
another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books.
Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I
keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later.
I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name
mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative
experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.
12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time?
Too many to
count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless
appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through
entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books
are life to me.
…the director general [ of the Bangla Academy] raised his eyebrows and turned to me…’Despite being a woman why do you try and write like a man?….’
‘Why should I write like a man? I write what I feel,’ I countered immediately.
This exchange between the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and the Bangla Academy director general Harunur Rashi takes place at a book fair where a procession had been organised by the Taslima Nasrin Suppression Committee, “to quash the nefarious ‘sex writer’ Taslima Nasrin”. This incident happened on 17 February 1992.
On 6 December 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid there were communal clashes in India and Bangladesh. Taslima Nasrin was deeply disturbed by the riots and wrote Lajja ( Shame). It was a book which made her an international name even though it was banned in Bangladesh shortly thereafter.
Her memoir Dwikhondito ( 2003) now translated as Split: In Two by Maharghya Chakraborty met a similar fate when it was banned in West Bengal, India. It was banned by the West Bengal government for allegedly hurting sentiments of the Muslim community. The government lifted injunction after the ban was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2005. Yet in the English edition of the memoir published by Penguin Random House India there is a blank page with a note by the author.
Split is a memoir by an author who achieved fame fairly early on in her literary career. It is not very clear if the memoir was written at one go or over a period of time. There is no author’s note or a translator’s note in the book making it a little challenging to figure out the context. The memoir is presented as more or less a chronological narrative of a writer’s awakening, not necessarily an autobiographical account of Taslima Nasrin. Reading it from cover to cover a confident tenor to the writing is discernible particularly after Taslima Nasrin wins the Ananda Puraskar in early 1990s. It is a watershed moment in her literary career not least because she was the first writer from Bangladesh to have been awarded what is considered to be the Nobel Prize of Bengali literature. Writers senior to her in age and work had been ignored. The change in her writing style is apparent not only in the manner in which she asserts herself in company with other writers, shares her views on a variety of subjects and takes the social responsibility of an author seriously. She is at the same time grappling with the very serious threat to her life on the basis of her writing and despite her mother’s pleas Taslima Nasrin never tempers her tone.
A snippet from her acceptance speech of the Ananda Puraskar illustrates why her feminist views were not being tolerated in an increasingly conservative society.
Our scriptures and ther rules governing our society would like to reinforce one primary fact: that women cannot have independence. But a woman who is not physically and mentally independent cannot claim to be a complete human being either. Freedom is primary and a woman’s freedom has now been put under arrest by the state, with religion being the chief impediment to her natural growth. Because religion is there most women are still illiterate, deprived of property, more are married off when they are children and are victims of polygamy, talaq and widowhood. Because men wish to serve only their own ends, they have defined and valourized a woman’s feministy, chastity and maternal instincts.
There are many sections in the book that are fascinating to read for the insight it offers in the evolution of a woman writer particuarly when Taslima Nasrin chooses to reflect. There is an almost meditative quality to her writing in those passages that haunt her writing. These are the better parts in Split as compared to the long sections about her relationships and her family which tend to meander. These instances are significant for her growth as an individual and as a writer since with each relationship she realises what exactly she desires, and it is not always male companionship. Unfortunately these sections are not as well written as those in which she comments upon literature, Bengali literary society in Bangladesh and West Bengal and reflects upon what interests her as a writer.
Split will probably be viewed in coming years as seminal as the writing by other women writers from the subcontinent such as Salma’s Hour Past Midnight and Bama’s Karukku. Taslima Nasrin’s Split‘s relevance to contemporary politics in the subcontinent and not just Bangladesh for the issues it raises about censorship, women’s rights, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, right to live and equality among men and women are critical particularly in this age of religious fundamentalism blowing across nations.
Spare some time and read it.
Taslima Nasrin Split: A Life ( translated by Maharghya Chakraborty) Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2018. Hb. pp. 502. Rs. 599