Sitting on a sofa in her aesthetically done-up drawing room in her Rawdon Street flat, clad in jeans and a jacket, you could almost miss the angst and tension of being an author in exile.
But controversial author Taslima Nasreen pines for a peaceful home — not her ancestral home in Dhaka but far away, where her heart is — Kolkata.
Bangladeshi doctor-turned-litterateur Taslima Nasreen lives dangerously. Her past has been tortuous, her present uncertain and her future imperfect. With her six-month residential permit expiring on February 17, she is not sure whether the Union home ministry would renew the permit and allow her to stay on in Kolkata.
“I have been globetrotting since 1994, and I am really tired, both physically and mentally. Finally I have found a place very similar to my own country. Here I can speak and write in Bengali. Can’t this great democracy provide a small place to this author in exile?” she asks.
Taslima has faced vitriolic attacks from fundamentalists for her caustic comments and writings against Islam. “I cannot help if talking and writing against fundamentalism troubles someone. I will always fight for secularism, humanism and women’s rights,” she says.
She jeopardised her chances of getting her residential permit renewed for six months in August 2006, when at a seminar at Bangla Academy in June, she allegedly made defamatory statements against the Prophet and Islam. At the seminar, she said that she felt insecure living among Muslims as they don’t like her and have driven her out of Bangladesh.
“She even abused Allah. No god-fearing Muslim is going to tolerate her. Bengal has 2.5 crore Muslims and if Taslima feels insecure living here, she should leave,” said Muslim Council leader Ahmad Hasan Imran.
And then came the fatwa. The shahi imam of Tipu Sultan Masjid, Nurur Rahman Barkati, announced Rs 50,000 to anyone who would blacken her face. Muslim leaders also approached Union ministers, requesting them to cancel her permit. Fortunately for her, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee recommended the renewal and Taslima escaped another banishment.
Taslima, however, has her own version of the entire episode. "What I said was from my book Aamar Meyebela. That I was scared of fundamentalists, and that being an atheist, I don’t believe in Allah and Islam."
Things were not too different back home too. In 1990, fundamentalists had launched a scathing campaign against her writings on the streets of Dhaka and issued fatwas against her.
The Bangladeshi government confiscated her passport and asked her to quit writing if she wanted to retain her job as a doctor in Dhaka Medical College and Hospital. Taslima left her job.
By this time, she had become a best-selling author both in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Lajja became a hit. But the Bangladesh government banned it. "In the novel I talk about atrocities against Hindu minorities by Muslim fundamentalists."
This, of course, was too much for the fundamentalists in Bangladesh to swallow. They demanded Taslima’s execution by hanging. The government issued a non-bailable warrant against her and she went into hiding. Fundamentalists issued two more fatwas and demanded her head.
"People from all over the world came to my support, and the US and Sweden even offered citizenship. European countries also came forward to provide me a home during this turmoil," said Taslima.
It was in 1994 that Taslima left her country, but she forced her way in when her mother was seriously ill. She recounts that it was in 1998 when her mother died.
She was a religious Muslim, but by virtue of being the mother of Taslima, no one came from the mosque to lead her funeral. Then, when her father was on his deathbed, Taslima wanted to see him, but the government refused entry.
“While I was shuttling between Kolkata, New York and Stockholm, I wrote Aamar Meyebela, Utol Hawa and Sei Sob Ondhokar. Then came Ko and Dwikhondito. Taslima’s latest release, Aami Bhalo Nei, Tumi Bhalo Theko Priyo Desh is selling like hotcakes.
"Staying here, I want to create awareness among the women of Bengal. I want to make them aware of their rights in a patriarchal society." As long as she is alive, she says, she will never keep mum, even if a particular community or country does not accept it.