'Humanity must unite to survive': Taslima Nasrin tells us about 'the unseen enemy' of COVID-19
Taslima Nasrin wasn’t expecting us to find relevance — however oblique and remote — to the novel coronavirus pandemic in her book, My Girlhood. With a faint laugh and a resigned sigh, however, she did admit that nothing can escape the virus at this point of time.
The book, of course — first released as Amar Meyebela in Bengali in 1998, and now a re-release in English by Penguin Hamish Hamilton — is set in a world far from the current global crisis and is, in fact, the first of her seven-part series of memoirs.
In the book, she begins her story from just before her own birth in Bangladesh, going on to recount her childhood memories until her early teen years, through the mass movement in the country against Pakistan in 1969, and their 1971 War of Independence.
Still, when we got through to Taslima over the phone from New Delhi, where she now lives in exile — we couldn’t help but re-read certain passages from My Girlhood back to the writer, and we did try and pick out some ironic contextual references to the ongoing pandemic.
For instance, sometime close to when she turned 15 years old, and towards the end of My Girlhood, an ever-curious Taslima finds herself almost being swallowed up by an infestation of termites and wheat weevils silently munching away on the woodwork and all the books at her home, including a copy of a holy book, which she was being forced to read by her mother.
“The book that I was reading was completely eaten up by termites,” recalled the writer, just as she describes it in the book. “Termites do not know if they are holy or unholy books. Yes, it is just like the coronavirus — it’s everywhere, and it’s affecting everybody — no matter if they are white, black, yellow, brown or Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or of any other religion,” she agreed.
She continued, “But across the world, we are all the same people — even with national boundaries, with religion, ethnicity, colour, creed… people try to divide the human species. Actually we are all the same. We are exactly the same as we became equally vulnerable in front of this deadly virus — like in front of termites, or in front of anything against humanity. I believe humanity should be united to fight this virus, if we want to survive as a species.”
‘This is an unseen enemy’
Picking up on the book from the top, we chose a passage where a young Taslima confronts a relatively harmless form of fear — the fear of ghosts, as she moves with her family from the city to the village of Begunbari.
A few chapters later, as she finds herself trapped in the middle of a war, Taslima offers the falsely comforting thought of a schoolgirl — that ‘war was perhaps not a bad thing after all’ as the schools were shut, there were shelters to take cover in, and her father wasn‘t around to scold her much. We asked the writer to revisit those moments in her childhood for us.
“I was nine years old, and my uncle told me those ghost stories. I was very fearful, because that time I didn’t know. But afterwards, by asking a lot of questions, I got the answers myself, nobody taught me anything. All the superstitions, ghost stories and whatnot, I found that all of it was not from reality.”
But the fear of war isn’t something we can compare to the virus, explained Taslima. “Today, more than 75,000 people have died, and more than 1 million people have been infected in the world — this is a fear of something very real. Humanity might even go extinct.”
The writer related to having read books like Contagion, adding, “But this is very, very scary. It is not like the fear of say, ‘Saddam Hussain is coming to kill us!’ It’s not that kind of created fear. It is a very real thing that is happening, which is very dangerous for humans.”
“If people see a tank coming and bombs falling, then they will feel that it is a real threat. But this is a virus, it is an unseen enemy - and with an unseen enemy, people normally don‘t take it seriously. Lots of people don’t even understand what the virus is. And they don‘t want to stay at home, they don’t like to wash their hands, they don’t want to wear masks…”
Around New Delhi, Taslima says she finds many people not taking the threat too seriously. “I see people don’t have that much fear — they’re taking it easy, going outside, walking around… The writer went on to say that she had personally handed out nearly 100 masks to people outside her door. “But many of them didn’t like it, they didn’t think it was that serious, and that after a few days it will all be okay,” she said.
Taslima continued, “I never could imagine that something like this would ever happen. I feel like I’m living in a surreal world or in a book of science fiction — sometimes I think that everything is happening in my dreams. And if I wake up, this nightmare will be forgotten.”
“But this is real — the whole world is in lockdown. It is so unimaginable and unbelievable, that we don‘t know how long we have to stay in isolation. Humans are social beings, but now we need to have social distancing. And once there is a vaccine available, how long will it take to produce it for seven billion people? That is surely going to take a long time. It’s very, very scary.”
A few lines of poetry
Back to My Girlhood, we picked out a line she quotes by Sukanta Bhattacharya, the late Bengali literary giant: ‘Khudar rajye prithibi godyomoi, purnimar chaand jeno jholsano ruti’. Taslima described the line in translation as, “‘In a hungry land the world brims with poetry, the full moon as if a charred roti.’”
She explained, “You know, the full moon, it looks so bright and beautiful. But for a hungry person, he or she will look at that as a roti.” In the book, she also lives through the disastrous famine of 1974 in Bangladesh.
As for the right here and right now, Taslima reflected: “This is an important time, as we don‘t know what will happen. I hope that humanity will survive and we will survive. I‘m so sad for the people who have died, and who are dying. Every day I watch the news, and I cannot concentrate on my writing, because I’m so worried for people across the world. But I also realise, if I’m worried, it will not actually help me, and rather, I should concentrate on my reading and writing.”
Though, just like in her writing, Taslima never shies away from pinning down the good along with the bad. “This is a good time for reading and writing, and doing artistic things like painting,” she offered.
“But then, so many people are saying just exercise, exercise… why? You don’t exercise the whole day. I have my exercise sessions set aside, but I’m not doing that much right now, because I’m cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, and mopping... that becomes my exercise, when I‘m cleaning the house.”
‘Science will save us, not god’
For anyone who has read Taslima’s writing, or been even fairly familiar with her ideas over the decades — her inclination to pick on religion should come as no surprise. She has been in exile for over 25 years, with a fatwa issued against her.
But the matter of being an atheist runs deep for Taslima, and the pandemic, for her, only provides validation for her anti-religious ideas.
“Nowhere is it easy for anyone to be atheist,” she related. “I was born and brought up in the city, but most girls were forced into submission. Now, of course, you can go to the internet from anywhere and get enlightened. I will always continue to raise questions about religion, because the critical scrutiny of religion is absolutely necessary.”
In My Girlhood, Taslima deftly brings in her earliest run-ins against religion in her own household. “My father was a doctor, he was secular and an atheist, and my mother was very religious — so, I was stuck in between. That is how I became an atheist. I was never a believer. I was an agnostic, and I always asked a lot of questions.”
Now, more than ever before, it is important to conduct discussions of scientific temper versus religion, affirmed Taslima. Making reference of the deserted sites of the Ka'bah in Mecca, and the Vatican City, among other holy sites, she said, “At least now people should see how the virus proves that prayers will not help. Whenever humanity is under threat, people pray to the gods to save them. But science and scientists will save us, not god.”
“The coronavirus is your biggest proof,” she asserted. “Look at the facts. In India, it was a religious congregation that led to so many infections - and now so many people are dying, and spreading the virus to other people.” The writer added for good measure, “The treatment of all diseases in humanity was by science, no god ever found any treatment or medicines for a pandemic, or any other epidemic.”
Taslima wasn’t about to let go of this topic easily. “Now with everything closed, people should feel more guilty, as all their prayers have failed. Nothing fails like prayers. To save our human species and humanity, prayers will not work. What will work? Vaccines. And who will make the vaccines? Scientists.”
Return to innocence
Among all of her books so far, we reminded Taslima that My Girlhood was perhaps the closest she has ever got to capturing a sense of innocence. For a side note, the book did face charges of obscenity, as she also speaks of a young boy being molested in the story; charges that led the book to being banned in her own country.
“The book is about my childhood, so I described everything as a child. I did not hide anything — whatever good and bad I saw around me, I described it. I know that many writers, when they write their memoirs or autobiographies, they only mention what is good. They kind of portray everything being nice,” she explained.
Taslima continued, “There are a lot of good things in my family also, but in my book, I focused on the bad parts, because people don‘t talk about the bad things, especially when they‘re so common. I always do things because I feel I should tell the truth, otherwise why should I write? I should tell the truth that people don‘t dare to speak of,” she asserted.
By this point, Taslima had effectively proven every point she had to make. All we had left to do was ask her about a childhood game that she recounts watching the village boys playing in the book — the game of hadudu.
Much like the sport of kabbadi, hadudu finds teams of six players each, on opposite sides of a line in a mud pit, trying to break the opponent’s defence and then making it back to their side, before they can be pinned down and stopped.
“Today, I live alone and I can’t share my time with anyone else. But hadudu is a game you have to play in the fields, and it is like any other childhood game, even those played in other countries,” she recalled with a soft laugh.
With that, we signed off our conversation, with the promise and hope that maybe in these days of lockdown, we could perhaps, find the time to revisit and relive our own childhood days, for our own emotional well-being and growth.