If there is one novel which will shred to pieces ideals of equality, secularism and just basic humanity, it is Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, translated as “shame” from the Bengali word “lajja or lôjja”. The novel describes the stark carnage that broke loose on Hindus in Bangladesh after the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
The novel is depressing not only because of the political and religious demonics but more so because of the impact an incident far away in Ayodhya had on the lives of innocent people in Dhaka and the rest of Bangladesh who had nothing to do with the incident, but were driven to the brink of insanity because of the cruelty that ensued upon them.
The novel spans thirteen days following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was first published in February 1993 but banned by the Bangladeshi government soon thereafter and followed by a fundamentalist group placing a fatwa on Nasreen.
In the Preface, Nasreen has clearly said that the characters in the novel are purely fictional, but she has “included in the text numerous incidents, actual historical events, facts and statistics”. She goes on to say, “I have verified these to the best of my ability; my sources of information include Ekota, Azker Kagoz, Bhorer Kagoz, Glani (The disgrace), “Communal Persecution and Repression in Bangladesh”, “Communal Discrimination in Bangladesh: Facts and Documents”, and “Parishad Barta.”” Indeed, these details, just like a stream of consciousness, frequently intersperse the novel. Editorially, these sources have been quoted in a smaller font to show their authenticity and that they aren’t part of the fiction and often run into many pages in the novel. Following is a sample of many such incidents that are reported in the novel:
— The century old Naat mandir of Betila was attacked.
— Jeevan Saha’s home at Garpara was torched; three cowsheds were burnt to ashes; hundreds of mounds of paddy were lost in the flames.
— Hindu shops at Terosree Bazaar under Ghior police station, and Hindu houses at Gangdubi, Baniajuri and Senpara were burnt down. At Senpara, a Hindu woman was raped as well.
At one point in the novel, Kajal Debnath a friend of the main protagonist, Suranjan Dutta reports the atrocities committed on Hindus in Bangladesh because of the demolition–28,000 houses, 2700 commercial establishments, 3600 temples–damaged or destroyed. Two thousand six hundred women–molested.
“Among those temples that have been damaged beyond repair is the Gouranga Mahaprabhu temple, more than five hundred years old, in the southern part of Sylhet.” Highlighting the point that temples probably older than the Masjid were destroyed in retaliation to what rioters did in Ayodhya. The friend also goes on to say that in the two decades since freedom from Pakistan, 500,000 Hindus and other minorities have left Bangladesh and the majority of them have not returned.
Another statistic that speaks for itself is the dwindling percentages of Hindus in Bangladesh reported over the following census reports.
1941: Muslims: 70.3%; Hindus: 28.3%
1951: Muslims: 76.9%; Hindus: 22%
1961: Muslims: 80.4%; Hindus: 18.5%
1974: Muslims: 85.4%; Hindus: 12.1%
1991: Muslims: 87.4%; Hindus: 12.6%
Against this backdrop Nasreen begins the story of liberal-minded Sudhamoy Dutta, his sweet and caring wife, Kironmoyee and their two children, the erudite though not-so-responsible left-leaning Suranjan and the more practical and responsible daughter, Maya. Before moving his family to Dhaka, Sudhamoy was a doctor in a Hospital in Mymensingh, the same place Taslima Nasreen was born and raised by her mother and physician father. To that end her description of an idyllic Mymensingh with cool-watered ponds and fruit orchards and tree-lined-trails are described with a strong whiff of nostalgia.
Biased property laws against minorities made Sudhamoy sell his beloved house in Mymensingh to an opportunistic neighbour; although often more competent than colleagues, he was always the one skipped for promotions; he had to forfeit his “dhuti” for pajyamas and his wife had to stop applying sindhur. All this they tolerated so as not to ruffle feathers and to blend in with the Muslims in Bangladesh.
When the Ayodhya incident happened and Muslim groups in Bangladesh took out their anger on Hindu minorities, the Dutta family other than their daughter Maya, continued living in denial. Sudhamoy stuck with his patriotic obstinacy and refused to leave for India when all his relatives and Hindu associates had already decided to leave. He was followed by his son in believing that they were human beings first, before they were Hindu or Muslim–a feeling that changed at the end, as his son said, this incident had made a Hindu out of him. His wife was fearful about the future of her family but complied with Sudhamoy. Suranjan was the prodigal son, idealistic but not amounting to much in terms of supporting the family and Maya was the jewel of the family, had a zest for life and took her safety in her hands and went stayed with a Muslim friend’s family so she would not be targeted by the hooligans making the lives of Hindus miserable. As events unfolded, Sudhamoy suffered a stroke, his daughter was called back and was helping nurse her father back to health when their greatest fear came true, their house was ransacked and Maya was abducted by seven ruffian men never to return or be found again. The family turmoil that followed was heart wrenching, the father and brother blamed themselves, the mother froze and only at the end of the novel “the dam broke and the tears poured endlessly”. If the first half of the novel is a build up to the tragedy that was to befall the family–in Maya’s abduction, the next half is a slow death for the three, with each of them wishing their earthly life would end. The end of the novel sees a broken Sudhamoy, Kironmoyee and Suranjan leaving for India–showing the sad futility and price of stubbornness.