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Taslima Nasrin’s memoir Split: A Life is a searing account of the challenges she has faced as a woman who calls out fundamentalism and violence against women.
It’s a rare Indian reader who is not familiar with the name Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi author who, for her bold writing on women’s rights and scathing critiques of religious fundamentalism, has had to live most of her life in exile.
When I first got to know about her memoir – Split: A Life, a translated version of the Bengali original about her life in Bangladesh, I was eager to read it for the authenticity and scathing critiques it offered on religion and misogyny.
The book is exactly that – a heartfelt account of Nasrin’s life, experiences, and revelations from her life in Mymensingh and Dhaka. Nasrin bares open her soul as she narrates her experiences and interactions of living in a restrictive environment.
The book is an honest account of a woman’s life, and it is not just shameful but also heart-breaking, for attempts to have been made to quieten this voice. Many of the incidents narrated in the book are appalling, and despite her attempts to stop certain injustices against the women around her, like the marriage of a sixteen-year-old domestic servant to her seventy-year-old employer, Nasrin has been unable to make much of a difference. The anger and frustration that she pours into her writing is felt keenly by the reader.
Various instances of patriarchy and tradition trumping basic human rights and codes of decency, like Nasrin being relegated to a position of lower significance despite being equal in rank as the other officers, or poor women undergoing sterilization in exchange for financial benefits, are narrated with a painful honesty that evoke in the reader reactions of anger and sympathy.
And such is Nasrin’s writing. Nasrin does not hold back while critiquing these things, and doesn’t shy away from calling it out for what it is.
One particular section of the book that reduced me to tears was the chapter – Lives. Evocative and emotional, the narration manages to bring out Suhrid’s pain and need for love, evoking similar reactions of pain and empathy in the reader.
Some examples of her uninhibited and incisive writing that sooner or later would choke your throat –
‘Suffice it to say I lost the argument because Rehman had more authority than I did – he was a man.’
‘I discovered my country’s poverty in these camps. I trembled and I wept.’
‘Geeta could never love Suhrid and neither could Suhrid ever love his mother.’
‘That day I finally tore all my rosy fantasies of love to shreds and let them be washed away by my tears.’
‘So the only course had been the one available to most women if they wishes to escape their father’s house – exchange it for their husband’s.’
The extremely personal, and sometimes, heart-wrenching revelations and confessions that Nasrin admits to, makes the reader feel they are closer to her without even knowing her in person. It gives a sense of being inside Nasrin’s head and getting to know the good as well as the bad in equal measure. Her confessions, or rather her admission of her own inadequacies and failures, make her seem more human and relatable.
Apart from the personal anecdotes, the scathing commentary on the social and political structure is thought-provoking and attempts to ask questions that may incite anger and fury for those who may not be able to view it for what it is – a reflection of the world we live in.
‘When living women barely had any freedom it was too much to ask the same for someone who was dead.’
‘It was amazing that we lived in a country where both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition were women.’
‘Do nations need a religion? It is the people who need it. The nation is not one individual; it is a guarantor of safety for people of religious and ethnic identities.’
‘A girl should smile when she wishes to, do exactly as she pleases and wear what she wants – why should she have to face rape because of these reasons?’
‘Religion was tearing the country apart but no one was allowed to criticize it.’
The line “I believe in religion but I’m not communal” although credited to someone else, also made me question a lot of things we frequently hear today, including the feminist version – ‘I believe in equality but I am not a feminist.’
My only grouse with this book is the lack of organisation while narrating the anecdotes and incidents. Dates, references to people’s names and not just initials, and more background and context to incidents than the sketchy details that are provided, would have helped provide some coherence in the reader’s mind.
For most of the book, I forgot this wasn’t about life in India. It was difficult for me to find any differences between the world and society that exists in Nasrin’s book and the India around me today, for much of what is happening around us today is what she has already raised a voice against.
It is indeed sad to note that her writing was objected to this strongly, with such alarming levels of intolerance, and led to threats to her life. As a French publisher told Nasrin while trying to convince her to allow them to publish Lajja, “Literature that acts as a catalyst for social change is equally important.”
This is something I personally agree wholeheartedly with, but, the bigger question is ‘Is anyone listening?’ And, do they even want to?
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