Taslima Nasrin revisits writing Amar Meyebela in exile: 'It is the story of millions of women, not just mine'

Speaking from her home in New Delhi, Taslima Nasrin travels back to the time when Amar Meyebela was another solitary thought, keeping her company in exile

Anvisha Manral March 27, 2020 09:17:22 IST
Taslima Nasrin revisits writing Amar Meyebela in exile: 'It is the story of millions of women, not just mine'

It is said that the contents of a daily diary carry a disarming honesty. People with ordinary lives often chronicle their everyday tasks and thoughts by emptying them onto a paper, with no intentions of taking it to a publisher. However, how could someone with a seven-part autobiography written over 10 years not maintain a diary while growing up? Taslima Nasrin cultivated that habit only when she went into hiding in Bangladesh after receiving death threats from radical fundamentalist groups. "I was living in different people's houses to stay safe, and writing a diary helped me a lot," she says.

Years later, parts of what had been written in the diary made up Sei Sob Ondhokar (later translated into English as Those Dark Days), the fourth autobiographical account in Nasrin's seven-part series. Her entire oeuvre comprises 45 books, one of which has been freshly translated into English by Maharghya Chakraborty. First published in 1998, My Girlhood is set against the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. In revisiting her childhood, replete with war, displacement, gendered violence, and the rise of fundamentalism, Nasrin paints a desperate picture of growing up Muslim in present-day Bangladesh.

Speaking from her home in New Delhi, she travels back to the time when Amar Meyebela was another solitary thought, keeping her company in exile. Excerpts from the interview below:

What do you remember of the day you sat down to write Amar Meyebela?

I wrote it in 1997 while living in exile in Sweden. One day, I felt like writing about my childhood as I was looking back on the life I had been forced to leave behind. I was remembering where I was born because I wasn't allowed to go home. In a foreign land, away from my country, society, family, and friends...I was alone.

Taslima Nasrin revisits writing Amar Meyebela in exile It is the story of millions of women not just mine

File image of Taslima Nasrin; cover for the newly-translated Amar Meyebela.

When did you begin to actively chronicle your life?

While writing Amar Meyebela, all the memories from my childhood came rushing back to me. That's when I first considered writing a thin autobiography, but I later realised that I would need multiple books to chronicle my whole journey. Even though I never imagined it, I've now written seven novels about my childhood, my life in hiding in Bangladesh, the years spent in exile, the death of my mother, getting thrown out of Calcutta, and so on.

What made you pick up the pen after the events of 1993, marked by unusual resistance against you amid no support from the State?

I continued to write even after leaving Bangladesh because I knew it was not just my story. It was the story of millions of women. I was painting a social picture of the times I grew up in. It was important to keep doing that because many people related to my story as their lives had also evolved in a similar way. The younger generation, which had not seen war, was able to familiarise itself with that history.

Many people write non-fiction about war and displacement, but if it's a woman telling a story, it's always different because our experiences are unique. I do not think many women writers follow that 'unique' voice. I knew I did not want to write a love story with a male protagonist and submissive women. The women in my novels may be perceived as 'bad' but they are rebels who do not strengthen misogyny.

...and how did you develop that literary quality?

When I started writing, I hadn't read feminist literature at all. No one taught me not to accept patriarchy. However, I was still able to address women's rights because I had constantly questioned everything around me — specifically the oppression I faced because of being a woman. When I was in Europe, I asked Gloria Steinem [writer, political activist, and feminist organiser] one day, 'how come I was writing about women's equality even before reading you?' She said, 'Because you were conscious about your rights, and that runs parallel to feminist writing.'

You have led a life of unprecedented conflict due to your writing. How important is it for a publishing house to stand by the writer in such times?

You know, a writer doesn't die when they are living in exile. They die when they stop getting published. When I was in exile, I was dead to the publishers too.

I was a popular writer in Bangladesh until 1994. I was regularly contributing to publications which would carry my poetry, essays, and short stories. However, in August 1994, I had to leave the country after because the fundamentalists were on the streets, demanding my execution. All of a sudden, all the newspapers which would eagerly wait to carry my writing, went incommunicado. Publishing houses were afraid to publish my books; editors were afraid to give me space in their papers. So that did contribute to my isolation.

How has the landscape of gender justice changed in the last 20 years? How do you respond to feminist debates being reinvented due to changing social times and context?

I have always been critical of misogyny. It's nothing new for me. I have been struggling to make women free from regressive practices because laws should be based on equality and not religion. You can't be a feminist if you accept religious oppression. I have been termed aggressive for opposing the burqa. However, there is no land beneath my feet. How come I am the aggressive one when it is me who has been living in exile for 25 years? Atheists are not aggressive, we just have scientific temper. It is not atheists who issue fatwas. Whenever we are critical of a religion, our books get banned, we get attacked. So how come we are extremists?

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