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Taslima Nasreen’s ‘Lajja’ Was Published In 1993. But It’s Relevant Even In Today’s India

More from Dr. Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi

By Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi:

“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.”

taslima nasreen lajjaThese 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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