A survivor's tale

A survivor's tale

Split by Taslima Nasrin is the story of her life, an autobiographical account of the personal, the political, her poetic and pariah days. Though everyone knows she was exiled from her country, Bangladesh, not many are clear on the details. Split - banned when it was first published in Bengali in 2003 - goes into every little minutiae that made up her tumultuous days in and out of her motherland.

Early on as a doctor in her hometown Mymensingh, she "had relinquished all her domestic dreams and broken out of the family cage to live as a free bird - hurt, tired, alone, with nowhere to go, but free nonetheless." Family life had its ups and downs; "Father was afflicted with masculinity, Mother suffered from Religion and Dada was obsessed with his wife Mumu." Her love for her nephew pushes her to hide her feelings so as to not upset her sister-in-law. Her only sister's early marriage and moving away upset her deeply too; she had high hopes of how her sister's life should have turned out to be.

Stormy man-woman relationships around her lead her to muse: "Our bodies are very cheap. When there is nothing else in us to love men think our bodies too will be easy to violate." R, her first husband who died unexpectedly after they separated, is always on her mind. "Deep in the night when I felt his arms around me, when he brought his face near mine to kiss me, I let him... Did marriage truly bring people together? Then could divorce drive them apart just as easily?" Even when he was in love with other women, it was Taslima he confided in about them. R's death is one of the more poignantly described passages in the book.

She recalls when Nirad C Chaudhuri was forced to delete 'so-called' from 'so-called Bangladesh' in his article in Desh. Her visits to Kolkata convey the warmth and affection she feels for the city, plus her disbelief at the Ananda Puraskar. Disturbed by the nexus between writing and money, she was puzzled by the commercial success of her books, as was she taken aback by the protests when they came, the banning, the burning, the fatwa. Nothing, she implies, prepared her for the adulation, but it was the hatred that tore at her heart, had her fear for her life, especially when some goons violently tried to barge into her house one day when she was alone with a domestic help. She was even asked bluntly: "Can a woman ever write in the sort of language you write in?"

Employing first cousins as maids, beating up her lover K, treating her mother in a casual and indifferent manner, her crush on Amitabh Bachchan, her reaction to religious riots after the Babri Masjid incident as a doctor, as a writer, as a human being - she lays bare all she can think of. When asked if she was bothered by her book Lajja, which caused a furore and saw her passport being confiscated, she said, "I am never troubled by what I write. The only things that bother me are my weak descriptions, my immature use of language and my inability to chart the depths of a character."

Non-fans of her writing may be put off by the verbosity and lack of coherence now and then, the feverish urge to offload without observing strict narrative rules. Fans of confessionals, on the other hand, will appreciate that she withholds nothing. Indeed, if anything defines her, it is her inability to stay passive, to not react. She is never still in her thoughts.

Translated from the Bengali original by Maharghya Chakraborty, the book in 500 pages gives the reader a surfeit of particulars; everything about Taslima is here, including her pet name Bubu. There is perhaps too much information, and repetitions and loosely strung paragraphs. The mystique and the enigma evaporate, but in their place is her honesty, warts and all, arching through third-world feminism, fundamentalism, and the sheer will to live.

Her regrets and longings are summed up by her beautifully thus: "Life felt like a feather at one moment and heavy as a stone the very next. I had never really felt this weight before, the full weight of life, and before I could make sense of things it had crept down my back and slowly bent my spine. I could not recognise this life; it was mine and it was not. Without pausing to consider I had given away everything life had offered to me to another."

One is left at the end of her reminiscing with a feeling of empathy. Here was someone who had to take on unbridled hostility from her nation, readers, and her own family when she should have stayed focused on writing.

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