Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Taslima Nasreen: The fine line between Private and Public

Something never to hazard is judging a book by its cover, or forming an opinion based on reviews of the same. However in the case of Taslima Nasreen's latest offering "Caw", Bangladeshis faced a virtual blitzkrieg of deft excerpts of the books being blazed across cover stories in front pages of tabloids and serious newspapers. Reaction ranged from angst to the angry. In any event, most people commenting on "Caw" have actually read half or quarter baked newspapers accounts, analysis or opinions than the book itself, and by look of things a storm most unwarranted has hit the sanctified sanctum of Bangladesh's cultural literati, the repercussion's and reverberation to be felt, for a very long time to come.

Importantly a debate on sex and sexuality and what ideally constitutes morality, is hopefully the net gain if at all, in the process. It is yet left to be seen if the parochial Bangladeshi middle class, uncomfortably shuffling between outmoded terms such as `modernity' and `progress' will garner the stamina or `vitality' to carry this debate forward, to effect any imminent or meaningful change in our mindset.

Abjectly "Caw" is about what Taslima does best: a bruising 'tell all' and it is not as if, this is the first time she has done it. Her previous offerings have been titillating tales of her apparently insatiable sexual `appetite'. It wont therefore be an unfair assessment to say that being `long and hard' at it, she has reached a nirvanical point in her career where terms like `slut' or `whore' lashed most rudely across her, are terms she has crossed the threshold of worry, and has probably learnt not to take too seriously at heart. No crusading warrior can or should get bogged down by terms that are meant only to shift the focus, but what is surprising is the Kolkata `duh-duh's who championed Taslima all along are the ones foul mouthing her the most today. Some fall, but a perfectly desirable fall from favor!

A self proclaimed `Wasted Women', where she probably went wrong in "Caw", is a failure to realize that not many in Bangladesh's so-called egalitarian `civil society', the ones mercilessly brutalized this time around i.e. writers, thinkers, poets, pressmen, politicians and other good-for-nothings et al, while privately in agreement with her rights to free speech and actions as to `do' whatever she thinks fit to do with her body, are unwilling to make that fine transition of a PUBLIC stand to the whole gamut of sex and sexuality.

The pain, humiliation, hurt and feelings of betrayals, and the incessant hee-haw start rights here!

In all honesty, and in some perverse way Bangladesh's meandering journey into the realms of a `Global Thought Process' to charge the imagination of the most enlightened of our times have had sordid pitfalls. "Caw"' is unprecedented, because it goes beyond what may be termed bad precedence. It is a glove-off, knuckles bared, hell hath no fury than a women scorned, demolition derby. It signals a wake-up call, that a new generation of men and women will provoke and whiplash society, ask uneasy questions, and will gore no-holds-barred, till such time we have gotten rid of a hypocritical and conceited bunch of shamans who masquerade as `image leaders, role models' while shamelessly beguiling themselves honorific of `conscience of the nation', `do-all-ers and know–all-ers', and the buck simply doesn't stop there.

It permeates civility when gray haired monoliths churn out their fossilized ejaculations in pages after boring pages of newspaper columns, lay siege to all TV channels, and hob-nob with the political hierarchy of every political party in and out of power in Bangladesh's destiny, without realizing that they are only contributing to collective societal hatred of their known, yet unaccounted for impropriety. The grapevine in a sexually repressed republic is often cause for more undoing than do die-hard facts: a sore case of the bad breath in that – the one having it is usually the last to know that he/she has it!

Winds of change blowing far too fast have a singular message - Iconoclasm is the new religion. This irksome routine of playing God at the cost of a hostaged citizenry obliged to mindlessly `wah-wah' the select has crippled truly radical aspirations of the society at large. A society whose unheard and deliberately suppressed pulses wish to demolish the many `sanctioned pretensions' of the so-called powerful, at the first given opportunity. If Taslima is an opportunist, she can rightfully claim credits for seizing an opportunity at age 40 (when some get naughty), a `mid-life' crisis sort of, to take up once for all, many unspoken matters concerning `reproductive organs' sitting pretty in the mid-sections of the Bangladeshi male and female species! For the physician Taslima, it ought not to be any other way.

So there we are – in the do we DO IT or DON'T we flux?

The average Bangladeshi `bhodroloke' will have one ejected from any company solicited, when the slightest hint dropped is a desire to discuss matters of the `below the belt' category, or SEX.

For the Bangladeshi male however, he may wishfully have a coterie of `like minded' chums, rollicking in laughter when the term AIDS for easier understanding means, `Ass infected don't screw', to tongue in cheek inquiries of the Maal or the `new game in town' – and how to make a bee-line to her cell-phone, with opportunities for a `rollicking romp' at a friends apartment in a desolate afternoon. As Taslima will tell you, in selection of a makeshift `love-nest', men have barged in on her privacy to use her bed, and by that, it was not as if, it was always her they wanted to `use'!

For females indulging in such `nongramee' (read filth) is only to have aspersion cast of being `cheap' or `horny', as also the hazardous possibilities of otherwise docile males, to turn into predatorial hyena heat, and in the first opportunity, go for a `plunge', when on the advantageous flip side it becomes difficult to determine the term consensual sex, and really if there is as such a `guilty party' in the two? Date rapes – Bangladeshis haven't even heard about it. The discussion of sex between the male and female species in Bangladesh by the way is taboo, and you certainly don't need a mullah to enforce orders. Our `enlightened' lots (bidhogdojohn's) wield the same powerful yet identical `sword' of authority!

In all probability the above paragraph is drawing a brush far too wide, because what we have here is a common parameter of the man-women relationship in any society, especially ones as sexually repressed as Bangladesh.

To our utter dismay are terms like `progressive' or `enlightened' been played about with wanton recklessness when the issue in question is religion, specially Islam. It was after all fair, to lash out at myopic mullahs when they viewed Taslima's opinion with contempt, when her attack was against the religion she was born into, and caused her ultimate exile from Bangladesh in the nineties. Tragically none were seen to be more vocal in support of her alleged `blasphemy' than the ones Taslima has set to socially murder in "Caw".

After all it was the proper thing to do, everybody has a right to free speech, but then the vicious cycle of `what goes around – comes around' also has this uncanny tendency to hit back mercilessly when it is least desired. It was for instance, perfectly all right for our `progressive literati' to support Taslima's right to free speech and expressions, when debates revolved around the sexual life of Muhammad (PBUH) and have the mullahs screaming for her blood.

What more can we possibly expect from such moron-ized `fun-da-mentalist' i.e. those foolish and `intolerant' enough to scream themselves hoarse about a `mere Prophet' who died some 1400 years back, and is physically unable to defend his reputation or the lack of it, or take Taslima to a Court of Law for slander – how illogical? Yet on the flip side the mentality is: it is NOT perfectly all right to slander a `renowned poet' happily alive and able to defend himself, without an injunction being served on the sale of "Caw", with pains of a lawsuit of nearly 100 million Takas hanging like a chopper over the publishers and publics collective head – very logical? Spoilt sport and party poopers those.

The illogic's of the logic here is it really boils down to the question of who will judge our `intellectual' judges?

In some roundabout way, the public at large has been reduced to accepting whatever the `great' amongst us decide is the RIGHT thing. The media remains entrapped within the trivialities of boon the `great' endorse: commercial contracts, soap-script manufacture, NGO affiliations and commissioned works – and importantly to be savaged by their repetitive `presence' in all matters of our lives, as if they are the end all and know all, of our very existence. The rut that has set in needs a thorough overhaul – a regular dry and wet-wash of the "Caw" variety and possibly even a purge is the demand of the hour. Mere expiation will not help for our `great' have no clue to the existence of the word retirement; neither do they have the urge to buy new eyeglasses to be able to see either the wide OPEN door, or read the sign EXIT marked clearly on top of it!

In breaching the fine line between the private and the public, Taslima unfortunately capitulated to the male status quo. Her `feminism' as such is a product of the male chauvinist establishment. Detailing sexual libidos of the male as much as her own, demonstrates an eagerness to play to the gallery, when a more mature, reasonable and realistic approach would have been worthwhile on her take on sexuality in Bangladesh. A take that would have had academic consistency and weathered the tides of time, instead of being destined to a long list of cheap thrillers.

The US University that has Taslima as a willing student will have nothing to offer a free world, other than an unreliable and peripatetic whistle-blower. A Joan Collins in the US did not change the perspective of sexuality, it degenerated to the concept of `selling sex' to a point, where people started wondering if the next 'great' offer would be for her to bottle and sell her own excrement. Taslima clearly seems to have exhausted her stock of what may titillate readers in the future, and even if it does, the more important aspects of meaningful and responsible discussion on sexuality will have been lost.

Not to be outdone, a news story in a Dhaka tabloid suggest a poet spared the murderous ignominy in "Caw" is so upset about this `oversight' that he has all set detailing into hard words his many sexual exploits with Taslima. As if that is not enough, he claims to have images of Taslima in the flesh, captured in candid camera!

Acceptability of poor taste is set to be the next big Bangladesh middle-class haute couture.

Having said that, in matters of drawing the fine line between what is private as opposed to public, Taslima seems to have gone dangerously overboard. In blasting those with whom she certainly enjoyed her sexual tryst and in naming them while she might have committed a `great service to society,' her insinuations of a poet having an affair with his youngish sister-in-law (which if true, is non of her business in the first place), is devised to wreck havoc and cause immense and irreversible mental agony. Taslima has every right to punish whoever she feels needs punishing, but the consequence of it all on women in our society less well known that her, and the vulnerable children they may have, should have been fathomed with some degree of respect and compassion. Suicides more often than not, is an alternative choice for those humiliated.

Finally the greatest misconception about Taslima is this impression of her being `courageous'.

Courage becomes a misnomer when people have to resort to fleeing than face up to their actions and deed. It is an insult to the imagination of those that are standing their firm ground and fighting fundamentalism or sexuality in Bangladesh, to have somebody create a furor and then disappear. The word agent provocateur is never a term of endearment or respect.

For all practical purpose Taslima should have the temerity to come to Bangladesh, face a Court of Law that jailed her and fight her way out or about, as much as she owes it to the poet that sued her this time around and the people of Bangladesh a clear explanation of what really transpired in a motel room in Rangamati – and to what extent did the 'alleged tryst' really go, or was she gripped by paranoia of her own making, or was she plain LYING?

Unwillingness to answer any of the above in a Court of Law is indication of blackmail most foul.

End of the day; disrespect for the law is not an enshrined credo in the laws of any state. Freedom of expression does not preclude the absence of civility nor does it permit wanton recklessness, and unless Taslima mends her ways, it wont be long before she is either booted out of the US, or rubs somebody so bad on the `wrong side', that extradition proceedings may logically be effected against her.

Caution is a peripheral freedom that must be exercised.

17th November 2003

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