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Lingering Shame

Taslima Nasrin wrote Lajja, previously translated as Shame, in 1993, after four novels and several collections of poetry and essays. By the time it came out, she was well-known in her homeland, Bangladesh, for her strong views against patriarchy and religious bigotry, expressed in a popular newspaper column, though it was Lajja that changed her life dramatically. The novel, initially conceived as a documentary, was banned in Bangladesh. It earned her a bounty on her head from Islamic fundamentalists, forced her to flee the country, and turned her into an international icon for human rights as well as one of the most controversial literary figures from the subcontinent.

Written as a response to the wave of communal violence that rose in Bangladesh after the demolition of Babri Masjid in India in 1992, Lajja is not only an invaluable historical document but also a text whose relevance has—unfortunately—not been diminished in the two decades it was published. The novel’s central concern—the evil of communalism—continues to plague the subcontinent, erupting from time to time like a dormant volcano.

Lajja chronicles the terrifying disintegration of a Hindu family living in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the riots that break out to avenge the destruction of the mosque in India. Hundreds of temples across Bangladesh are ground to dust or desecrated, Hindu men are butchered, women raped, houses burnt to cinders, and property confiscated. Nasrin brings out the sufferings inflicted on the “minority" community through the trials faced by Sudhamoy Datta, an upright physician who had fought in the Liberation War of 1971 at immense personal cost, and his family.

Lajja: By Taslima Nasrin, Translated by Anchita Ghatak, Penguin Books India, 325 pages, 299
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Lajja: By Taslima Nasrin, Translated by Anchita Ghatak, Penguin Books India, 325 pages, 299

The Dattas, as Nasrin reveals, are divided on the question of staying on in the land they have always thought of as their home. Their ancestral seat in the village, once thriving and prosperous, has been usurped by their Muslim neighbours, forcing them to seek refuge in a rented house in Dhaka. However, Sudhamoy stubbornly, desperately, and naively holds on to his faith in the inherent goodness of fellow human beings, even at a time when his allies are turning against his family. His son Suronjon is more vulnerable to the circumstances. Like his father, Suranjon refuses to run away from the country of his birth or give in to communal sentiments he had condemned all his life, but his feelings begin to shift after a terrible tragedy visits the family.

Sudhamoy’s wife Kiranmoyee and daughter Maya are far less squeamish about making an exodus to India for the sake of their lives and dignity, but the women, as Nasrin insinuates, are but pawns in the hands of the men. Maya’s prayer for security is beggared by the lofty ideals of her “indifferent, irresponsible, vagabond" brother, who remains unemployed for refusing to take orders from anyone. Kiranmoyee nurses a “deep, intimate pain", sacrificing every chance at happiness for the sake of her husband’s unshakeable resolve to remain rooted to the land of his birth, even as the consequences of his choice are horrible.

While focused on the plight of the persecuted, Nasrin’s plot never departs from an area of moral discomfort, never pitting one community against the other or shying away from showing up the prejudices that infiltrate the minds of both Hindus and Muslims.

Yet, in spite of its sustained ethical complexity, Lajja is not a literary masterpiece. Far more nuanced accounts of communal violence have been fictionalized by writers from Bangladesh, such as Akhtaruzzaman Ilyas and Selina Hossein. Nasrin’s plot is interrupted by long roll-calls of the damages and killings every few pages. Frequent discourses on politics and power also slow down the pace, and the sub-plots, especially related to Suronjon’s jilted romantic life, perhaps deserved more attention.

The new translation by Anchita Ghatak, an improvement on the previous one in its attempt to preserve the flavour of the original (including the title), is competent, though not without lapses. Some of the phrases stick out as uneasily colloquial or too literal—“I’m not feeling good" (for “I’m not feeling well"); “child of a pig"; or “Does that mean she’ll always need to find shade under the umbrellas of Muslims?" for instance. Apart from a couple of typos, the quote on page 265 from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations is repeated twice.

For an excerpt from the book, visit www.livemint.com/BookExcerpt

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