Although I have not read any other book by Taslima Nasrin, it was difficult not to approach this book without expectations, because who hasn’t heard of her? Also, like her I grew up in a middle-class South Asian Muslim family. In the end the book was both better and worse than I expected.
Nasrin is an accidental author. The need to send out her message often overwhelms the message itself. She didn't become a writer because she wanted to write (in fact, the book describes her first desire to be an artist). She became a writer to get her message to the people. This may explain why the “literature” will always be secondary to the story in her writing, and particularly so in this autobiography. The book is like the author -- brash, straightforward, irritating, relentless. Some readers may react badly to those qualities while others may ignore them. Stylistically, the story is easy enough to read, the translation flows quite
naturally, and it captures a slice of middle-class Bangladeshi life in the late '60s and '70s. (I think it is a credit to the translator that her role is not remarked upon - that she allows us to hear the author's voice without intruding on it. Majumdar deserves such credit.)
There are hardly any literary details or fancy wordplay, except for the jumps in chronology. There are no great illuminating passages that make you reflect on life. On the other hand, the book did make me pause because of the sadness of the events she describes.
The book chronicles the first 13-14 years of the author’s life, though not in a linear fashion. It opens with events occurring in her life during the 1971 War of Independence, when she was 9 years old. These events in particular are related in a confusing manner, perhaps reflecting the chaos of that time. The child Nasrin seems to be a diligent recorder of events around her. However, there is little she sees or hears that does not involve some adults around her. I looked in vain for some islands of joy or learning that came to her unfiltered through any other person.
Taslima Nasrin has an unhappy childhood. Her mother is married at an early age, in spite of wanting to study further, to her father, a medical student. Her mother is thin and dark and insecure about her husband’s attentions. Not without reason; she finds him one day in bed with the wife of another man. The husband and wife have raging fights and hardly get along. There is a relentlessly downbeat quality to her prose -- we are continually moving from one crisis to another as her mother copes with her husband’s inattention and he copes with his clinging wife.
The mother seeks refuge from domestic discord in movie theaters. She gets into the habit of going to the cinema every afternoon, abandoning her children after school to their uncles and aunts. This sparks one of the two molesting incidents that Nasrin reports, both at the hands of uncles. She never utters a word to anyone. The adult Nasrin’s anguish at this incident is real; the pain comes through quite clearly.
When cinema fails to keep her in thrall, Nasrin’s mother turns to religion. She discovers a Hazrat baba, a sort of Muslim guru with legions of women as his followers. Some of the practices followed by the baba are quite perverse and made for the most nausea-inducing reading in the book. The women regularly wash his feet and drink the water; they swallow his phlegm, and there is sexual abuse to follow. (It goes without saying that these practices of the baba are not Islamic, but of course the women followers, and some men, believe in him completely.) Nasrin portrays quite vividly how this barely literate baba is accorded great respect in town.
The baba's supremacy does not sit well with at least two persons - Nasrin’s father and her oldest maternal uncle, two Muslims who are “different” from the others in the book. This maternal uncle is disenchanted with Islam though he majored in Arabic and theological studies at Dhaka University. He rejects the “superstitious” practices that are adopted by his family, including their blind worship of the baba. Nasrin’s father is a confusing person. He
wants his children to study secular subjects, does not want them to be dragged to the baba for religious instruction and wants his wife to be around during the afternoons to look after the children. At the same time he is a womanizer, sends most of his money home to his farmer father and siblings, and cannot seem to understand his wife or his daughter.
Sadly I think the author’s agenda overtakes her writing in many instances and belittles her rightly pointed observations about life and Muslim society. (She rarely talks about Hindu neighbors except in the context of how her mother was barred from visiting them.) In her zeal to make her point she caricatures the people around her, including her family. In one instance she writes about the death of her dog, yet we were not introduced to this dog before and are not told what the dog meant to her when alive, except that she wept at the dog’s miserable lingering death. She uses this death to make a point about the callousness of her parents. This reductionism is what bothered me most about the book. There are hardly any instances of childhood delight or play or wonder if the author is not busy making the point that the older boys did not want to play with her, a girl, or some such similar sociological observation. The author seriously catalogues the litany of discrimination and abuse she has witnessed, and in the end numbs the reader so much that I began to lose my sense of outrage and could anticipate another episode of abuse (as in the case of the Baba) coming from miles away.
After reading this book, I thought of “My childhood” by Maxim Gorky and “My brother” by Jamaica Kincaid. Certainly not in terms of the style, but in terms of the sheer sordidness and magnitude of the story they have to tell. Some of the scenes of physical abuse meted out on women in “My Childhood” are echoed here. The connection with Jamaica Kincaid’s work comes in the inability of the mother to understand the daughter, the preference of the sons to the daughter, the benign indifference accorded to the children by the mother. All these themes make their appearance in Nasrin’s book, though it is far from the spare style of Kincaid.
While Gorky blamed capitalism and Christianity for the abuses he saw, mostly suffered by women, Nasrin systematically blames Islam. It is hard to understand how the elders in Nasrin’s life could have been so knowledgeable about Islam or the hadith. Much of the religion that South Asian Muslims learn, for better or worse, is based on hearsay. Primarily for the reason that Nasrin states: we are taught how to read Quran phonetically and understand not a word we read. So we have to rely on translations, but very few people take the trouble to actually read translations. In my experience people did not always use religion to justify their actions, because they just didn’t know enough. But in this book, everything that anyone does (usually bad) can be traced to Islam. Sometimes the author repeats an incident a few pages after first stating it, in case we missed its significance vis-à-vis Islam. Sometimes the statements made by the elders to justify their actions seemed after-the-fact, as though the adult author, reaching back into her childhood, supplies their words.
But this does not in any way take away from her story. And she does have a story to tell. She makes some pertinent observations about Muslim society - the patriarchical nature, the mullahs and babas being accorded more respect than doctors and engineers, low marrying age of women, the low status of women in society, less recourse to justice if you are a woman, etc. A thread of deep disappointment runs through the book, of failed expectations from her family, her society, her religion. I just wish she had found a better way to tell her story.
Published August 20, 2003
by Fatima Husain. She is a cognitive neuroscientist based
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