Thursday, June 13, 2002

speaking out under threat

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in June 2002).

My Girlhood: An Autobiography, by Taslima Nasrin. Kali for Women. 250 rupees ($5.10)

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin fled her country in 1994 after a newspaper quoted her as saying the Koran should be revised to give women more rights. She said she was misquoted, but religious extremists in Bangladesh--already incensed by her sympathetic portrayal of Hindus in her novel Lajja (Shame) and by her outspokenness about women's rights--imposed a fatwa, or religious order, against her and put a $5,000 price on her head.

Nasrin fled to Sweden, where she stayed until 1998 when she made a courageous return to Bangladesh to be with her mother who had cancer. The death threats and the reward were renewed, but Nasrin remained in hiding. After her mother died in January, 1999, she fled again to Sweden amid increasingly strident calls for her head.

Seven months after her second flight, the Bangladesh government, which outlaws fatwas, banned her book Amar Meye Bela (My Girlhood), published in Bengali in Calcutta. "The import, sale, distribution and preservation of all copies of Taslima Nasrin's Amar Meye Bela have been banned because its contents may create adverse reactions and hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims," a government statement said.

Now the maverick Indian publishing house, Kali For Women, has published a superb English translation of the book. The book illustrates, subtly and effectively, how Nasrin grew up to become a passionate supporter of free speech and unfettered thought--ideas abhorred by Bangladesh's fundamentalist elements.

Translated by Gopa Majumdar, My Girlhood is an almost tender and wry description not just of Nasrin's childhood but also her country's ravaged history. More in the vein of an autobiographical novel, it begins with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, when East Pakistan broke away after a bloody civil war. Nasrin and her family had to flee amid a mass exodus from cities to villages when the war started to take its toll.

At the age of about 10, Nasrin became aware that boys and girls were treated differently; that boys had considerably more freedom. "Girls stay at home in villages. They don't go out," she was warned.

The family's story is told layer by layer. The endless political intrigue that is the backdrop to the saga is effortlessly woven in. Nasrin's memories are vivid and while she is the protagonist, her presence is never intrusive. Her eye takes in events and characters that don't necessarily have an immediate connection to her, adding rich detail to the book.

My Girlhood is a mature, compassionate reflection of Nasrin's life before adulthood. The story of her adult life is awaited keenly.