At one level, Taslima Nasreen’s new novel Shameless is about an author in search of characters she had written about earlier. It’s also a sequel to Lajja, as it carries forward the story of the Dutta family that had faced multiple atrocities in Dhaka. The family has now shifted to Kolkata, where the author Nasreen, who introduces herself as a character in Shameless, is living in exile. Assuming the twin roles of the author as well as a protagonist, Nasreen revisits the characters she had created in the previous novel.
The Bengali novel that appeared in Hindi last year as Besharm has now been translated into English by Arunava Sinha, who is credited with a range of remarkable translations from the Bangla.
The Duttas came to Kolkata hoping that the Hindu land would be generous to them, only to find themselves in greater despair. Their family assets get stolen; they find little support from other Hindus.
Suranjan Dutta has become cynical and the idea of raping a Muslim woman as a mode to seek revenge from the community dominates his mind. His sister Maya, having survived a gruesome rape in Lajja, can no longer trust Muslims. Their father Sudhamoy has died heartbroken in Kolkata.
Effectively, it is a novel by an exiled writer about exiled people. “Did Suranjan feel the same way when he was driven to exile?” Nasreen writes in the author’s note, “That was when I decided to write a new novel about Suranjan and his family.”
But writing about the past characters can be an incendiary affair. Suranjan and Maya accuse Nasreen of distorting their lives by writing a novel on them. The author received fame and money but the characters were stigmatised forever. They remind the reader of Umrao Jan Ada, the eponymous protagonist of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s famous novel, who returns in a subsequent novel Junun-e-Intezar to settle scores with the author.
Making the author a protagonist who converses with the characters she had created in a previous work, and faces their unsettling questions is a potent narrative tool. The textual tension between the real and the imaginary nourishes and complicates the narrative. But Nasreen, who wrote it in “one inspired burst” before she had to tragically leave West Bengal, doesn’t really pull it off. The novel gets its politics right; there are a few tender moments as well, but the rest comes across as a cluster of flabby episodes and doesn’t make a compelling narrative.
The text appears the most powerful when it unravels that most horrendous violence of patriarchy, rape. Suranjan derives a perverse pleasure that his Hindu friends raped Zulekha, the woman he seems to be in love with. He is always unsure whether it is love or a sense of guilt, a mode of atonement for having wronged her. He also recalls that he “had raped Shamima purely for psychological pleasure, not physical”.
In words that may shake any reader, Suranjan explains an evil distinction: “What I do with Hindu women is lovemaking, and what I do with Muslim women, that’s rape…My relationship with Zulekha is one of a rapist.” And Zulekha? “She had been so helpless that she had been compelled to take her rapist as her lover.”
If Lajja plunged into the underbelly of Dhaka, Shameless exposes the hypocrisies of Kolkata, the distrust and hatred that exists between the two communities. The RSS-BJP tries to appropriate Suranjan, the victim of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh. Suranjan is perplexed because the Hindus in Kolkata, including the communists, are far more religious and ritualistic than their counterparts in Dhaka. The CPI (M) members even ask him to not have any relation with Muslims. He soon realises that this is “not the Calcutta of his dreams”.
Towards the end, realising that her characters have a life of their own and their choices may often leave her disheartened, Nasreen enters into a monologue: “I am lonely—frighteningly lonely, actually. I have no one I call a friend, but this is an ugly truth I reject with all my heart.” This could be a wonderful novel about the inescapable loneliness of a novelist as her characters return to confront her. But the often predictable prose manages to deliver a political message in parts, falling well behind in various other aspects.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer & journalist