“And his voice cracked as the shame swept over him. But he had said it, he had forced it out, he had compelled himself to say that they would go; and he had realized that that was the way it would have to be because the strong mountain that he had built within himself was crumbling day by day.”
These lines from Taslima Nasreen’s highly acclaimed and controversial novel ‘Lajja’, echo the emotions of Sudhamoy, a once affluent and respected doctor, who loved and fought for the sovereignty of his country and his fellow countrymen. After a long and torturous battle with himself, with his uncompromising faith in a country he loved and lived for and the perpetual setbacks sustained over and over again, he finally cedes to his son Suranjan. He finally falls for Suranjan’s demands to leave Bangladesh with whatever is left of them. But Sudhamoy acknowledged the inevitable migration to India too late and at a price too high – the loss of his daughter Maya, the sanest and rational voice and naturally the most vulnerable of all the characters.
You can sense the building up of this imminent loss right from the beginning of the story, and while the narrative develops and the character of Maya fills your imagination, you cannot help but cling to the hope that she might, at the end, be spared the horrors of this communal frenzy. But her abduction by seven faceless men, who broke into Sudhamoy’s house, comes swift and unpredictable, and leaves you smitten, bewildered and devastated like her mother Kiranmayee who throws herself on the street to save Maya from the clutches of her abductors. Suranjan returns home, contemplating an evening of unrestrained and intimate conversation with his family towards whom he has been so indifferent lately and in such trying moments, finds his home looted and his sister abducted. It is then, in the story, that you begin to feel the ‘crumbling of the mountain’ to have become more obvious than ever. By the time I reached these lines, I had gone through a story of horror and pain, of broken dreams and devastated trusts and certainly of an indifference that shamed me to the deepest of my soul.
The forces of communalism have always been there in our society, and few people have always been fighting overtly or covertly against these forces in both public and private spheres, even at the cost of their own lives and families. What is surprising though, is the well-established trend that runs through the stories unfolded in different times and at different places, and the failure of the general mass to recognize this in the budding stages of communal development, or is it our lethargy that allows us to look in the other direction when the elephant in the room is still a seemingly innocuous corpulent calf?
“But Suranjan’s enthusiasm had waned when he saw that the station called Ramlakshmanpur had been renamed Ahmed Bari. Soon after that he noticed that Kali Bazar had been renamed Fatema Nagar, and Krishnanagar was now called Aolianagar. The whole country was being Islamized and now they could not even spare the small railway stations in Mymensingh.”
The agony of a thirty-something idealist Suranjan, torn between reality and idealism, as he helplessly watched his faith in his country slipping through his fingers like the fine particles of sands, struggling to hold it tighter and keep it from falling to the once fertile soil of diversity to turn it gradually into lashed barren land of monotonicity, is something that should be felt by everyone to mitigate the inevitable pain that fundamentalism nurtures. It is then, before the idealists start losing their faith and hope, that the alarm should start buzzing, because it is the last resort, a point of no return after which the social fabric can never again be patched.
The loss of those who are at the receiving end of the communal frenzy can never be fully understood. Those stories of horror become just that- a story in the consciousness of the public. They become the headlines blared by the newsrooms, stacked in the fact files, cold and meaningless numbers that can be used to prove a point but do not convey the smell of blood, the stench of burning flesh, the taste of tears, the helplessness of a mother – the death of Kironmoyee, who had to live not because she wanted to, but for the hope that someday, maybe someday, her daughter Maya, raped and brutalised and torn into pieces, would return.
“Will Maya never come home again? Why couldn’t they have burnt down the house instead? I suppose they didn’t because the landlord is a Muslim! Why didn’t they kill me instead? At least the innocent girl would have been spared. My life is almost done, her’s was just beginning…”
A story like this is not just to be read and put back in the closet, it is a living reminder, a prophecy to be heard before it is too late.
Amidst the cacophony of political euphemisms when a polity fails to discern the undercurrents of the rising communalism, the product is a nation that is abhorred for its collective responsibility of atrocities of men against men.
The idealist, leftist, and atheist Sudhamoy naively believed that his motherland will not disappoint him, and fed his son, Suranjan, the same opium of idealism. But Suranjan had to learn his lesson the hard way. And in a fit of shattered faith in his father’s teachings and in his country, he burns what he could – his books that made him what he was.
“Kironmoyee stood at the door and watched Suranjan’s flames of sacrifice. That she should rush to the bathroom and fetch water to douse the flames, did not occur to Kironmoyee. Against the thick dark flames, Suranjan’s body could hardly be seen. It looked, Kironmoyee thought, as though Suranjan himself was on fire.”
This appalling story of our neighbour brings me back to the state of my own country, India. I can only hope that we will realise well in time and listen to what the eerie sound of the wind has to say when our cities fall silent after some episode of communal blood shedding is over and elections are fought and won. I hope at the end we will be able to douse the flames of communalism before the Kironmoyee of my country loses her daughter forever and a Suranjan of my country is forced to set himself on fire.