What happens when an author becomes the character in her novel? Taslima Nasreen caught the world’s attention with her novel Shame about the exploitation of women and religious minorities in Bangladesh. Her recent novel Shameless is a venturesome attempt by the author to become a character of her own fictional world “in [her] true self”. Her struggles in Bangladesh are hidden from no one. Nevertheless, the question she asks in her recent novel Shameless is equally poignant. What can we say about the religious persecution in contemporary India?
Suranjan, the protagonist of Shame, turns up one day at Taslima’s door. His family has left Bangladesh, the country of their origin following the religious persecution against them and have settled in Kolkata. Taslima, curious yet concerned, entangles herself with their struggles in their new home.
In the novel, Nasreen’s lucid prose recounts the family’s exploitation in the hands of people who promise to help them in the process of immigration, their failure to find work that matches their ambition, and the sexual exploitation of Maya, Suranjan’s sister in India.
As the fictional characters explore the realities of the country of their refuge, they are disappointed more than once. Maya, Suranjan’s sister, was raped in Bangladesh by Muslim mobs because of her religious identity, in India she is raped by the man who gives refuge to her family.
Simply put, the author asks ‒ What will the Hindu immigrants, escaping persecution in Bangladesh, make of contemporary Indian politics? The answer is not what we, Indians are often made to believe every day in news debates. Nasreen’s task is even more interesting because she is a refugee herself. Moreover, as a character in the novel, she wants to narrate the consequences of India’s failing secularism to her reader.
The novel is short but emotionally charged. One tragedy weaves into another before the reader has the time to recuperate. Suranjan involves himself with right-wing Hindu groups and is not above rape. At the same time, he develops romantic feelings for Zulekha, a Muslim woman that he has abducted. Suranjan tells her that he is in love. When she leaves her family to marry Suranjan, he abandons Zulekha.
Rapes translate into revenge murders, which then lead to more rapes. A woman is raped because she belongs to this community, another because she belongs to that. A man is murdered because he is Hindu, yet another because he is Muslim. The only victims in this continuous war are the vulnerable: the women, the children, and the dispossessed.
The violence that Taslima writes with piercing details tires the reader. The cynicism of the characters, their justification of the abominable acts repulses the reader but at every page, the narration reminds us of the various such crimes today. As I read the novel, I asked myself, why? Why is the cynicism of the characters so persistent? We have been made to believe in newspaper reports and numerous press conferences that these crimes, although condemnable, always have other reasons: “It was a personal and not religious dispute.” However, Nasreen remains adamant. Religion and politics are increasingly the cause of India’s problems. Hence, she writes this complex story, dragging the emotionally fatigued reader with a false simplicity ‒ short dialogues and facile descriptions of violent conflicts as communalism becomes increasingly convoluted.
Nasreen’s prose is earnest; she does not bother herself with the verbosity. She does not make the divided politics of contemporary India more complex than it is. She states ‒ events, affairs, vitriolic speeches ‒ with a uniquely piercing simplicity. There is no denying that Naseen’s language is sometimes dry. She has the capacity of resuming Maya’s rape in Bangladesh and India and then, her decision to become a sex worker in a few pages. However, the English translation of the novel deserves more credit than it has received. The translator, Arunava Sinha, has done a brilliant job of converting Bangla syntax into English. An Indian reader will watch him join small, dramatic sentences (a tendency in Indian languages but very awkward in English), with impressive dexterity.
In the novel, Nasreen takes many risks. She does not shy away from questioning the structural assumptions of the novel. What is a fictional character? Does she personify an idea? If not, then is she a real person? While the author-character states her thesis on communal quarrels, Suranjan and his entourage scream for “personhood” ‒ to be able to feel hurt, to reject, and often to hurt others because they have been wronged. The author-character does not always prove to be right but she refuses to give in to cynicism and manages to ask all the difficult questions that are seldom discussed in works of fiction.
Avoids certain important topics
Nevertheless, the novel avoids certain important topics. There is a substantial class difference between her characters and herself. Consequently, it is almost impossible not to identify with the anger and vulnerabilities of Suranjan, Zulekha and Maya, barely able to survive the realities thrown at them. The well-off Taslima talks to them with disconcerting calm and tries in vain to reason between the good and the bad. She lectures them on what she had argued in the many conferences that she had been invited to. However, there is no resolution between the two realities: the ire of the characters and the composure of Taslima as a character.
More importantly, Nasreen criticises all political parties of West Bengal, except for one: the ruling party. This lapse is difficult to ignore.
Despite these gaps, the novel is a must-read. As politics-as-usual resumes after the pandemic-induced lockdown was lifted, we may have to come back to the topics of religious division and citizenship in India. If such is the case, listening to the voices of the refugees is necessary. We should ask ‒ In what conditions are they arriving here? What exploitation are they facing here? What do they make of the increase in communal violence in this country? The answer to many of our dilemmas lies in these questions. More importantly, we must ask these questions to the refugees rather than to our citizens. On this point, Taslima Nasreen has hit the nail on its head.
Shameless could not have come at a better time.
Gargi Binju is a book critic based in New Delhi.