On my literary travels around the world, I’ve come to Bangladesh, which, after occupation by the British and later being part of Pakistan, has been an independent country since 1971. There are about 163 million people living in the country today, and the majority (about 90%) of those are muslims.
Lajja: Shame by Taslima Nasrin is not an easy book to read. Themes in the book include religious persecution, violence, death, fear, and a general sense of hopelessness and devastation.
Let’s start with a short synopsis: the Dutta family had to sell their family home in the countryside and are now living in Dhaka. Suranjan, the son, is an Atheist and politically active, or at least was, but becomes more and more anti-muslim in the course of the book. Maya, the daughter, is in love with a Muslim boy in the neighbourhood and wants nothing more than to get away from all the troubles. Sudhamoy, the father, is a humanist par excellence, but also refuses to leave Bangladesh, whatever the cost. Kironmoyee, the mother, stays with Sudhamoy out of love, even though the rest of her family has already fled to India.
The conflicts and different opinions that are already present within the family are deepened and widened after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in India, by Hindu fundamentalists. In the aftermath of this incident, Muslims in Bangladesh start attacking Hindus and violent riots start to take place all over the country and they do not stop before the Dutta family either. When Maya is taken by some Muslims who invade the Dutta’s home, Suranjan spends most of his time looking for his sister, thinking of her, and blaming himself for her abduction. There is little hope for anyone in this book, and even the little there is come with desperation.
Lajja: Shame, p. 154:
Suranjan shuddered to think what seven men could do to a twenty-one-year-old girl. Grief-stricken and anxious, he felt stiff and dead. Was Suranjan alive? Yes, of course, he was. Maya was the one who was gone, perhaps forever. It was the way of the world that no one sacrificed his life for another. It was well established that there was no other living creature as selfish as man. And so, why should her relatives die just because Maya had passed on?
Lajja: Shame has been banned by the government of Bangladesh, Nasrin was banished from the country and now lives in the United States. I do not know enough of the history of Bangladesh to make a judgment on how accurate the depictions of civil unrest and religious persecuation in the book are, but it is quite shocking (and difficult to read at times).
Shame is an all-permeating concept in the story: Sudhamoy feels ashamed that he cannot protect his family, Suranjan feels shame at not being Muslim, at not being a proud Hindu, and not being able to “function” in a society that does not want him.
Lajja: Shame, p. 163:
‘You have never claimed to be a Hindu. Why start today?’ ‘Yes, I used to call myself a human being, and I believed in humanism. But these Muslims did not let me stay human. They made me a Hindu.’
I was impressed by how well Nasrin lets us into the inner worlds of the Dutta family, and how, in such a short book, we get to know them, understand them, and are able to sympathise with each of them albeit their many differences. The only parts I didn’t like about Lajja: Shame were the enumerations of violent acts that were committed towards the Hindu communities in Bangladesh – while they are certainly interesting and heart-wrenching through their sheer volume, after a while I skipped over most of them.
In times in which religion has once again become such a stark marker of difference, Lajja: Shame is a reminder of what we should not let the world become.
Title: Lajja: Shame Original title: লজ্জা Author: Taslima Nasrin Translator: Tutul Gupta First published: 1993