In 1993, Taslima Nasreen published the novel Lajja (translated into English, most recently in 2014 by Anchita Ghatak, as Shame), which changed her life forever. Hounded out of her homeland Bangladesh by Islamic fundamentalists for allegedly offending their religious sentiments, she was forced to go into exile, with a fatwa on her head. After an itinerant life in Europe and the US for several years, she moved to Kolkata in 2004, where her outspoken memoirs caused more outrage, leading the state government to ban some of her books.
In 2007, she published Besharam, a sequel to Lajja, while she was forced to live in house arrest in Kolkata, a move that was intended to keep her safe from her potentially violent detractors. Recently published in English as Shameless, elegantly translated by Arunava Sinha, the book continues to chime with the moral tenor of our times, when sectarian violence still wreaks havoc all over the subcontinent.
Shameless is a far more marinated novel than its predecessor but to fully appreciate its sophistication and complexity, it is useful to read Lajja first, in spite of the flashbacks and recapitulations in the text of Shameless that convey a sense of the parent novel. Nasreen, who appears as one of the key characters in Shameless, literally forces herself to confront her characters. These men and women demand answers from her, accuse her of leaving them in the lurch, and making art out of their tragedies. The emotional seesaw between the creator and her creations gives the plot a cerebral intensity, even as it brims over with corporeal feelings of lust, sex and violence.
The immediate trigger for the wrath that Lajja incurred was Nasreen’s criticism of the communal violence that broke out in Bangladesh in 1992 in response to the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya that year. However, her columns and books had been riling conservatives for far longer. In Lajja, a Hindu family living in Dhaka is devastated by the riots that erupt in the city after the destruction of Babri Masjid. Once praised as patriots, Sudhamoy Dutta, a doctor who fought in the Liberation War of 1971, and his family, who have lived in the city for generations, are reduced to pariahs overnight. The son of the family, Suranjan, finds his Muslim friends becoming antagonistic towards him. After his sister Maya is abducted, Suranjan expends his impotent rage by assaulting a Muslim woman in revenge. In the end, the Duttas flee their ancestral home to seek refuge in Hindu-majority India, hoping for a safe haven.
Shameless begins with Suranjan meeting Nasreen in Kolkata, the city they are both exiled in. Suranjan’s father has died, in mysterious circumstances; his mother, Kiranmoyee, is struggling to make ends meet by selling saris. Suranjan is divorced, barely employed, and keeping questionable company, while Maya is married to a brute. From being a committed socialist, Suranjan has turned communal, which isn’t surprising given the horrors his family faced in Bangladesh and the protection they are given in India by a Hindu nationalist party. Yet he continues to cultivate Muslim friends and decides to live in Park Circus, which is home to many Muslims. Most worryingly for his mother and sister, he forges a relationship with Zulekha, an Indian Muslim woman abandoned by her husband after being raped by Hindu goons. As in almost all of Nasreen’s novels, the women in Shameless also emerge in the end with their nobility and humanity intact, in spite of being bruised and battered by social and patriarchal forces.
Into this fraught scenario enters Nasreen, trailed by her desires and demons. Unmoored in a foreign land like the Duttas, she reaches out to the familiar characters from her past for comfort and solace. The dynamics between the creator and her creations keep shifting, each in turn getting the upper hand over the other. If Nasreen tries to wiggle her way into the lives of the Duttas, using her wealth and privilege to express her affection, Suranjan and Kiranmoyee exert their control over Nasreen by granting and withholding access to their lives as they please. This ironic tug of war between the family and Nasreen becomes apparent early on, and evolves sinuously through the course of the narrative. While the so-called safe haven of a Hindu-majority nation seems to bring only poverty and misery to the Duttas and robs them of the vestiges of dignity, the same place entraps and diminishes Nasreen in a different sense. She is kept inside a gilded cage by the state, trailed by the police every hour, with little or no agency at all to do what she wishes.
The politics of Shameless is not hinged on Hindu-Muslim enmity alone but on the deeper anguish that is precipitated by fundamentalist beliefs. Nasreen’s opposition of institutional religion and atheism goes beyond her own faith. She recognizes, with searing honesty, that the move from Bangladesh to India, for both the Duttas and her, has been a transition “from one country of religious fanatics to another”. Religious extremism isn’t contained by borders; it is a contagion that exists across the world, irrespective of community and culture. In Shameless, Nasreen distils this hard-hitting truth through her lived experiences, transforming her individual predicament to strike a universal chord through her deft storytelling.
Shameless (296 pages, Rs399) is published in paperback on 22 June by HarperCollins India.