Taslima Nasrin; A Cry for Tolerance Brings New Hatred Down on a Writer

July 3, 1994

Word for Word/Taslima Nasrin; A Cry for Tolerance Brings New Hatred Down on a Writer

Barbara Crossette, The New York Times

FOR much of the last two weeks, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has been the scene of demonstrations over the fate of a 31-year-old writer, Taslima Nasrin. Now in hiding, she has angered Muslim zealots by calling herself a humanist in a country that calls itself Islamic. Worse, she has written an Asian best seller, "Lajja," ("Shame") that tells a story of the intolerance and violence of Bangladeshi Muslims against Hindus and other religious minorities.

With this theme, she has touched a central fact of life on the Indian subcontinent: For 50 years, hatreds between fanatical adherents of Hinduism and Islam have repeatedly provoked slaughter and undermined the principle of secular government. Bangladesh, which is 90 percent Muslim, separated from predominantly Hindu India as East Pakistan when Britain left in 1947, and seceded from Pakistan in 1971.

Militants have variously demanded that Ms. Nasrin, who was born to a Muslim family, be tried for disrupting religious harmony, or killed for heresy. "Lajja" was banned last year in Bangladesh, but was quickly pirated, translated from Bengali and widely circulated in India by militant Hindus; this year it was published in New Delhi by Penguin Books India.

Bangladesh has a secular civil law code, but it is perennially challenged by Islamic fundamentalists and the Government often bows to the pressure. The Islamic crusade, Ms. Nasrin says, has fallen hardest on women.

Ms. Nasrin, a physician who became a columnist, poet and novelist, has been divorced several times. Her books contain erotic passages that Islamic fundamentalists find especially offensive, though Bengali-speaking culture, which Dhaka shares with Calcutta, is known for sensuous poetry and sophistication.

Officials are seeking her arrest on charges of blaspheming the Koran. Meredith Tax, head of International PEN's Women Writers' Committee, says Ms. Nasrin wants to find haven outside Bangladesh but is afraid to emerge from hiding.

"Lajja," which has not yet been distributed in the United States, covers 13 days in the life of the Dutta family, Bangladeshi Hindus, after the Hindu fanatics' destruction in 1992 of a 16th century mosque, the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya, India. In revenge, Muslims are attacking Hindus in Bangladesh. These excerpts are from the translation by Tutul Gupta published by Penguin Books India. BARBARA CROSSETTE

Sudhamoy Dutta, the father, is a physician who has become an invalid. He long ago moved to Dhaka from the countryside and chose to stay even after it became clear that his wife, Kironmoyee, wanted to flee to India. Their grown children, Suranjan and Maya, have close Muslim friends. As violence rages around his home, Sudhamoy reflects:

And so it all came down to the same old question: Was he afraid, by virtue of being a Hindu, of being an insecure, fearful human in his own home? Sudhamoy was afraid to ask himself this question out loud. Sitting in his cramped little house at Tantibazaar, he would wonder time and again at his reasons for fleeing his ancestral home to come to this alien place. Was he running away from himself? Why did he feel like a refugee despite having been the owner of vast property? . . . He had lost many friends to emigration and death. Those who were still in the area and alive, seem to have lost all hope.

The Dutta family and their acquaintances want to know why communal violence in in India should disrupt the peace of Bangladesh. In this conversation, Belal, a Muslim, and Birupaksha, a Hindu, discuss how fanaticism breeds fanaticism and is harnessed to malevolent political ends:

Belal sat on the bed and lit a cigarette. He said, "I really don't know what's happening all around us. The crooks and thugs are having a field day. Meanwhile in India they are continually killing us."

"What do you mean, 'us'?" Birupaksha asked.

"'Muslims. The B.J.P. [ the Indian pro-Hindu Bharata Janata Party ] is hacking us to pieces."

"Oh, I see."

"When they get such news from India these people naturally lose their heads. Whom can you blame? We are dying there, and you here. What was the point of breaking up the mosque? Such an ancient mosque at that. The Indians have dug up a mosque in order to find the birthplace of Rama, an epic character! Some days later, they might say Hanuman [ the Hindu monkey god ] was born at the Taj Mahal. So why not break the Taj Mahal too? And they are supposed to practice secularism in India!"

Suranjan thinks about Bangladesh:

Secularism was supposed to be one of the strong beliefs of the Bengali Muslim, especially during the war for independence, when everyone had to cooperate with one another to win victory. What had happened to all these people after independence was won? Did they not notice the seeds of communalism being sown in the national framework? . . . How could they nurse the impossible notion that democracy could come to stay in a country in the absence of secularism?

The Duttas' nightmares materialize:

In a flash, seven young men barged into the house, pushing Kironmoyee aside. Four of them were armed with rods but everything happened so quickly that it was difficult to see what the rest were carrying. . . . They wasted no time, and began methodically breaking up everything in the room. Chillingly, not one of them uttered a word and the only sounds were the shattering of tables, chairs, the television set, glass-fronted almirahs [ cupboards ] , bookshelves, the dressing table, pedestal fans. Clothes and fabric were torn to shreds. Appalled, Sudhamoy tried vainly to sit upright. His daughter screamed 'Baba!' . . . As they neared the end of their ghastly task, one of the group pulled out a chopper and menaced them. 'You bastards!' he said. 'Did you think you could get away after destroying the Babri Masjid?'

A despondent Suranjan, drinking with friends, hears his mother (whom outsiders address as Mashima, or "Auntie") weeping:

The sound of Kironmoyee crying wafted in from the adjacent room.

"Who is crying? Mashima?" asked Birupaksha.

"Being a Hindu, there is no way to avoid tears," said Suranjan.

The three young men present fell silent.

The novel includes opinions on male-female relationships, particularly marriage, that are considered bold if not revolutionary by many in Bangladesh. Here Suranjan recalls talking with a friend, Ratna:

"Why haven't you married?"

"No one has chosen me."

"No one?"

"Someone did, but ultimately she didn't take the risk."


"Because she was a Muslim, and as you know, I am called a Hindu. To marry a Hindu, she would not have had to convert to Hinduism, but I would have had to call myself something like Abdus Sabber."

Ratna laughed when she heard this. She had said, "It is best not to marry. After all, life is short, and it is best to live without any ties and commitments."

"Is that why you have not married either?"