Book Review: Lajja, by Taslima Nasrin

Taslima Nasrin. Via

I have been hearing about Taslima Nasrin from the time I was a child. The Muslim Bangla woman was accused of writing blasphemous anecdotes about Islam in her 1993 novel  Lajja, which drew a number of protests, including at least one group calling for her death and offering a reward; Lajja was banned in Bangladesh following widespread protest against its contents.

So it was natural that I picked up a copy of Lajja when I recently found it in a roadside bookshop, as it was hard to find a copy in established book houses in India.  Nasrin’s work over the last twenty years since the publication of Lajja has been controversial as well, but this post will focus on Lajja specifically.

Lajja is about a Bengali family, the Duttas, who are Hindus by birth, but are atheists in their belief system. The family consists of Sudhamoy and his wife, Kiranmoyee, and their two adult children, Maya and Suranjan. Though the book is written about the 1992 Riots in Bangladesh following the Babri Masjid Demolition, during which there was widespread violent riots in Bangladesh, against its Hindu minority community, it also mentions in detail two other significant events in Bangladesh history:

1. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, which was fought with the State of Pakistan, where Bangladesh fought to become an independent secular state. This is told through flashbacks from Sudhamoy’s experience as a young man.

2. The 1990 Babri Masjid dispute in Ayodhya India, during which large scale communal disturbances were caused in Bangladesh.

The book chronicles the story of the family in the 13 days following the Babri Masjid Demolition. While news of an ensuing riot fills the news channels, Sudhamoy is reminded of his grim experiences during the Bangladesh Liberation war, where he was captured by Pakistanis and tortured. His wife had to stop wearing the Sindhur, which is a compulsory custom among married Hindu women, for fear of being identified . However, following the declaration of Bangladesh as an independent state, Sudhamoy believed all his trials and tribulations would be over. Much to Sudhamoy’s dismay, Bangladesh, which was founded on secularism, was later converted to an Islamic state.

Cover of Lajja. Image via Wikipedia.

There are constant references to partiality against the Hindus in government offices. Sudhamoy, who is a medical practitioner, is not promoted duly in his jobs; Suranjan, his son, is still unemployed at 33 years of age. There is also mention of Muslims’ general disconcert with music, where Kiranmoyee is treated as unchaste because she sings in public.  Despite all of the cruelty and discrimination they face, Sudhamoy and Suranjan find it belittling to leave their motherland and move to India as most of their Hindu relatives and friends have been doing. (The Bangladesh Liberation war led to about 10 million refugees moving to India.)  Once the riots reach their door step, the Dutta home is attacked, and the rioters abduct Maya, the daughter, following which she never returns home, and her whereabouts remain unknown until the end of the book. Suranjan, haunted by his sister’s abduction, seeks his revenge, by picking up a Muslim prostitute and physically assaulting and raping her in his home. There is news that Maya’s body may have been discovered; however, Suranjan doesn’t confirm it and chooses to live with the hope that she will return. Much to Kiranmoyee’s relief, Sudhamoy and Suranjan decide to leave for India, unable to suffer anymore, in the name of their motherland.

All through the book, we can see people tortured, humiliated and living in fear for no fault of their own. People who are atheists, and who have fought for the independence of their country, being ostracized due to the religion they were born into. Most importantly, it’s written from a Hindu’s perspective, by a woman of Muslim background. Nasrin’s book is well researched and is interspersed with pages of factual knowledge of the various and immense attacks carried on Hindus by Muslims in Bangladesh all throughout history. It is also written with anger and sadness that anyone who believes in equality, human rights, democracy and secularism, would feel.From a literary point of view, Lajja is an average book, where a new writer is trying hard to bring a riot to life, but is caught up between journalism and fiction. However, nowhere in the book is any reference made to Islam, in a way that should hurt Islamic sentiments.  When reading it, I wondered if some of the protests had to do with the graphic description of rape in the book, but it runs for only about three lines, and as this woman’s rights activist points out, the sexual violence in the book is not unrealistic. Islam or the Hadith aren’t quoted anywhere in the book, and it’s hard for anyone Muslim or otherwise to understand why this book was banned.  It talks about oppression of a minority ethnic group; it just happens to be that, in this scenario, Muslims are the majority, and Hindus the minority. Nasrin questions the conversion of Bangladesh into an Islamist state, leading to the treatment of Hindus as second class citizens. For this non-Bangladeshi Muslim reader, Lajja reads as an at times boring account of a riot.  This book by no means deserves any fatwa, and if left alone, might have been dismissed as average writing, instead of getting so much attention.

  • Tec15

    What a laughably apologetic and tendentious review. Some of the “context” you miss out on was the fact that right wing Hindu Nationalists gleefully pointed to this book and instrumentalized it to say “Look at how Hindus are ‘oppressed’ in Bangladesh and how terrible Muslims are.” All this while far worse anti-Muslim riots and pogroms were taking place in India during the same time. To my knowledge, Nasrin has never repudiated the support she got from such people, and the myriad anti-Muslim comments that she has made since then has removed all doubt about what exactly she meant in the book.

    Will MMW now glowingly review the fabrications of Ayan Magan (Alia Hrsi Ali) and echo her call for a global war to exterminate Islam? Might as well go full Pam Gellar now and uncritically review the vomitous outpourings of every Anti-Muslim or Ex-Muslim crank.

  • Tec15

    BTW, you only reveal you deep ignorance when you say that “the conversion of Bangladesh into an Islamist state, leading to the treatment of Hindus as second class citizens.”

    Since when was Bangladesh an Islamist state? WTH is an “Islamist” state in the first place? It seems that far from questioning the dominant media media paradigm through which Muslims are viewed, this site merely reinforces them by throwing about demon words like “Islamist” willy nilly.

    And incidentally how is Indian “secularism” working out for India’s minorities? I can tell you that despite what the self flagellating activities of Bangladeshi “secularists” might tell you, noting comparable to the 1984 Anti-Sikh pogroms or 2002 Gujarat pogroms have ever happened in Bangladesh, no matter how bad minorities might have it here. Of course that’s not even mentioning the rapes and mass killings that occur in Kashmir, a subject that seems to never be covered here anyway.

  • Indian Muslim

    The blogger, it seems, is portraying a very bright picture of this writer, who declares to be an Atheist.

    I haven’t read the book Lajja, nor i do wish it. Rubbish remains to be kept under the garbage bin. The emergence of TN etc. owes to the fact the recent post-colonial attitude of kicking Islam out of the family lives of Bengal and wider South Asia, where education of girls and women on a strong Islamic manners are non-existent, even if its present just for a cosmetic beautification.

    The major problem being in this era, South Asia and the wider Muslim societies has been reeling under “modernists” influence where anything “Islamic” being dubbed backward, Mullaism & poor fellow stereotypes. And it is no surprise that Lajja could be given so much credit for a writer who flaunts her credentials with Islamophobes living a life selling the bodies of practicing pious Muslim women, that i remember an Indian non-Muslim editor of a journal term her “sex writer of pornography”.

    This comment has been modified according to MMW’s Comment Moderation Policy.

  • Krista

    I wanted to respond to some of these comments, as MMW’s editor, because it is partly due to the editing process that this post is coming across as it is. Izzie had originally submitted a post that included this review of Lajja, arguing (as she does here) that in her view, this book in particular did not deserve the response that it got, and would have been better off forgotten. She continued, however, with more of an analysis of some of Taslima Nasrin’s more recent work, and was really critical of the anti-Islam and anti-Muslim tone that this work (including recent writing and speeches) takes.

    Because that post was quite long, and because there was an obvious split in writing styles between a review of a book from twenty years ago and an analysis of recent speeches and writing, I asked Izzie to divide the post in two, which is why you’re only seeing the analysis of Lajja here. Evidently, this implied that Izzie was less critical of Nasrin’s work overall than she is; that’s largely my fault, not hers, and I apologise for that. I’m hoping we’ll be able to continue this conversation once the second part of this post is published.

  • Linda Binda

    I want to say a few things, since I was trying to stay out of this, since I being African American and an ex-Christian atheist, this post doesn’t really have anything to do with me, but I’ll say it, anyway.

    First things first, as someone who reads both this blog regularly and Nasrin’s own blog on Freethought Blogs occasionally, thank you for the relatively unbiased, fair-minded book review. In my opinion, there’s little cause to link one’s current politics and modus operandi with one’s product(s) of work unless it can be proven that one is so linked with the other that they serve each other in promoting a very demonstrable, undeniable agenda. For instance, you can’t read a Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter book without noting that each book exists to promote the Republican, right-wing agenda they each support and bash liberals. Just reading a cover of any one of Coulter’s books makes this self-evident. The onus is on the critic to prove that Lajja promotes an anti-Islam/anti-Muslim agenda so obvious and undeniable that bringing up her current activities is worthwhile and not full of bias, not promoting its own self-serving agenda. Also, one has to prove that Nasrin was already who she is now before the Lajja controversy or she became more radicalized later as the controversy went on, or that she’s anti-Islam in the way than Ayaan Hirsi Ali is (last I checked, Nasrin’s pretty left-wing; she wants nothing to do with Hirsi Ali and her involvement with the American Enterprise Institute), and isn’t just a strict secularist in general. (In my opinion, you can be against religion yet respect other people’s right to exist: I haven’t read anything from Nasrin that wants to take away the right of Muslims to exist or practice their faith; she just seems to believe that Islam, Christianity and all other world religions are false, wrong, and anti-feminist/anti-woman. Hirsi Ali, however, has said quite a few things to argue for taking away Muslims’ right to live in the Netherlands and other parts of the ‘West,’ (she keeps claiming that Muslims support terrorism and want to destroy the West), versus the rights of other believers who follow other faiths, and not that it ultimately matters, but I find Hirsi Ali infinitely more obnoxious and unhelpful in the cause of promoting equality and secularism.) I haven’t read the book, and I’m barely counting the Wikipedia entry I read on Nasrin some time ago, so I’m primarily going by Izzie’s review. Sounds to me that Lajja is just a critique upon Bangladeshi social politics more than anything else, unless you really want to *go there* and assert that to claim that Bangladesh’s treatment of its religious minorities is negative in any way is somehow anti-Muslim. If you really want to say *that* with a straight face, then, that says more about *you* than about anything else. I’ll just stop there, because like I said, I’m not Muslim (although, I would prefer, Bangladeshi Hindus are the only ones who can satisfactorily disprove the notion that they have it bad in their home country — I’m just saying), I’m not Bangladeshi, I have more in common than the writer anike than many others on this blog here because I’m Nigerian, too, but my family’s Christian and Igbo, and I grew up in the Atlanta area but I was never allowed to get out much as a kid and I’ve never known many Muslims, so the last thing I want to be is presumptuous and say regretful things.

    Lastly, I think what Krista did was a good call. Krista, you did the fair, responsible thing of separating the book review from the later-coming critique of just Nasrin herself. I think there should’ve been an indication somewhere that this was a two-parter post; other than that, there’s nothing to apologize for.

  • घायल पिडित माईला

    Very nice novel