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Nasreen says she is a pure secularist, unlike the pseudo-secularists in India who criticize only Hindu fundamentalists, and not their Muslim counterparts. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Nasreen says she is a pure secularist, unlike the pseudo-secularists in India who criticize only Hindu fundamentalists, and not their Muslim counterparts. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

I’m a pure secularist, says Taslima Nasreen

The Bangladeshi author gets candid on her 20 years of exile, religious conversions and her love life

New Delhi: It’s 20 years since Bengali author Taslima Nasreen was made to leave her country Bangladesh following blasphemy charges and death threats. Thousands of people regularly marched in Dhaka in 1994 demanding her execution for allegedly insulting Islam in her writings. Today, the 52-year-old writer is the resident of a leafy neighbourhood in Delhi. Living in the capital since 2011, Nasreen’s life seems uneventful on the surface. She buys books at the Oxford bookstore in Connaught Place and shops for fresh fish at the Bengali-dominated Chittaranjan Park.

With her country refusing to renew her passport, Nasreen, who was granted a Swedish citizenship, has lived in a succession of cities in Europe and the US. She also had a long stint in her beloved Kolkata.

Nasreen’s life, however, remains under threat, even in Delhi. Armed security men sit outside her home. Inside, you may be watched over by her white cat Minu. This is a small flat. The walls are decked with the certificates of various awards Nasreen has received over the years. The balcony has pink bougainvilleas in bloom. The drawing room is filled with thousands of books (Nasreen’s library is spread across three continents). The shelf has a Tagore portrait and books by feminist writers Eve Ensler and Germaine Greer take prominent place.

One sticker says, “There is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion."

Nasreen, who laughs easily, began the chat by reading out the English translation of Charitra, one of her earliest poems. Written in the early 1980s, it feels extremely contemporary and will connect to any young Indian woman today, especially those trying to survive in a city as women-unfriendly as Delhi. Edited excerpts from an interview:

The 20th anniversary updated edition of your landmark novel Lajja was published recently.

Lajja documents the massacre of Hindus in Bangladesh following the demolition of Babri Masjid in India (in 1992). It’s about how people suffer because of religion. The novel is the story of my country but also of yours and Pakistan, and continues to be relevant because our minorities remain oppressed. I’m sure people have written books like Lajja in India too. However, Muslims here are not as oppressed as Hindus are in Bangladesh.

Should India compare its treatment of minorities to that of Bangladesh?

India has a better record than many other countries in the region.

A Hindu group recently converted some Muslim slum-dwellers in Agra.

So many Hindus have been forcibly converted to Islam in the previous centuries. You are not much concerned about that. I’m against forced conversions but some people are upset about the fact that Muslims were converted in exchange for money and food ration cards. What’s your problem if a person thinks that a conversion can improve his economic condition? Lots of Hindus took money in the past to become Christians.

You say you are a secularist.

I am a pure secularist. India has pseudo-secularists who criticize only Hindu fundamentalists, and not their Muslim counterparts. I criticize both for being against an equal society.

What I don’t like in India is the appeasement policy. Even the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government is appeasing Muslim fundamentalists. They talked of bringing the uniform civil code but are now quiet about it. The code must be based on the equality of all people irrespective of their religions. Muslim women, for example, don’t have equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. Don’t they matter in the democratic, secular India?

You plan to continue living in Delhi?

The home minister told me that he would issue me a 50-year residence permit but I got for only a year and that too after raising lots of noise.

Actually, many people ask me why don’t I settle in the more liberal West. Well, as a writer in exile, I have lived in Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, New York and Boston. I can fly tomorrow to Sweden, but it is only in South Asia where I can name all the trees and flowers that I see everyday.

Please understand that I write in Bengali and I want to be in my country but I’m not allowed to live there. I then chose West Bengal but it too threw me out after a few years to appease Muslim extremists. Delhi is the only place I’m allowed to live in the sub-continent. The other reason why I’m living here is because I write about women’s freedom and I feel it is better for me to live in a country where women are oppressed. Here I want to be an example to the people of my gender. I want to show them that it is possible to live a life of your choice.

How free is your life?

I have lived alone since my 20s. My first love affair that ended in a short, nasty marriage made me wiser. But I still fall in love. I have met so many misogynists and haramzades but nothing prevents me from falling in love again. I always hope that the new man might not be an asshole but unfortunately they all turn out to be assholes (laughs).

In the Indian sub-continent, men are raised as superior to women. They learn equality only from books and so cannot practise it easily. It is difficult to fall in deep love with them.

But I have had relationships here in Delhi. Only two weeks ago I tweeted a photo of my boyfriend who is 20 years younger than me. It was widely circulated in the Hindi newspapers. Many people were shocked to see an older woman having a younger lover—I always strive to break the patriarchal system. I tell women that you must have boyfriends younger than yourself because women grow sexually powerful as they get older while men start getting sexually weaker from their late 30s. That is my experience. When I’m talking about my relationships, I must tell you I’m strictly monogamous. You may say I’m into serial monogamy.

But I’m very picky in choosing a friend. You must not believe in religions and superstitions, misogyny and patriarchy. You have to believe in lesbianism. You have to believe in homosexual rights, transsexual rights, animal rights, you have to believe in all the good things. Only then can I consider you.

You donated your body to be used for medical research.

I did that a few years ago when I was living in Kolkata. But now they don’t allow me to go to that city. Will they allow me to go there after I die? Maybe I should donate it to AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) in Delhi. If I happen to die in some other country, then my body should be donated to a hospital in that country.

I personally like the idea of my body finding a use in some lovely city like Paris.

I’m not romantic about death but Paris is the city that honours artists and writers. It was the first place I saw in the West. Later, I lived there for two years in an apartment in Montparnasse. Paris… you cannot imagine a city to be so beautiful. I would freely walk there alone for hours during evenings and late nights. I would get lost in the streets and then I would walk more in finding the right way. Sometimes I would return to my apartment as late as two in the morning. I eventually got to know Paris much more intimately than any other city, including Kolkata and Dhaka.

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