Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Political Background

Before 1947, India was under British Rule. When India was finally free in 1947, it wasn’t free as one nation. Two separate countries were born on that day – India and Pakistan. Pakistan had a west and an east section separated by the Indian mainland. In 1971, East Pakistan became a separate country – Bangladesh. (This is my feeble attempt to summarize the past of three different countries in just three lines. Please bear with me!)

India has remained a secular state recognizing all religions. On the other hand, Pakistan and Bangladesh have declared Islam as their state religion. Around 20 to 25% of Bangladeshis were Hindus in 1971. Now, less than 15% are. Something happened that slowly pushed the Hindu families out of their homeland that they had occupied for generations. Taslima Nasrin documents one such trigger in this book. Though separate countries now, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are more intertwined than they ever want to be.

On December 2, 1992 – A Mosque in India was demolished. Hindu fundamentalists claimed that in the past, during the rule of the great king Babar, a temple in the same location was torn down to build a mosque – the Babri Masjid. They claimed that the area the mosque was built on was a sacred place for the Hindus – a place where one of the Hindu gods was supposed to have been born.

Well, you can guess what would have happened next. Riots broke out all over India. More than 2000 people were killed. Many places of worship (both mosques and temples) were destroyed. What little was left of the Hindu-Muslim unity was shattered.

What is surprising though is the fact that the reaction to this event was not just in India. In Bangladesh, hundreds of Hindus were attacked – men were beaten, women raped, houses and shops burnt, children abducted and killed, temples demolished - All this for events happening in some other country. I guess now you know what I mean when I say that the countries are more intertwined than they want to be.

About the Book

Shame was a very controversial book written by Taslima Nasrin documenting the occurrences in Bangladesh following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India. Why it became controversial was because of the fact that she took the side of the Hindus and blamed the government for not taking any action when it should have. It initially came out as a novella describing the rape of a Hindu woman by a Muslim man during the riots. She later took the concept and expanded it, making it a 200-odd page novel.

The book was published in 1993 in Bengali under the name “Lajja”. It was immediately banned in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin had to flee the country because an Islamic fundamentalist group declared a death sentence.  The book was later translated into many other languages.

The Story

Shame is divided into 13 chapters – one for each day following the demolition of Babri Masjid in India. Taslima wastes no time in giving the background of the riots. Her aim was to bring out her feelings regarding the reaction that she saw in Bangladesh. So, for a reader not from the Indian subcontinent, this book might be difficult to understand because there is no context. But having said that, I sometimes feel that the reason behind such events lose their importance. It is suddenly not anymore about the reason. What become more important are the reaction and the reaction to the reaction. Eugh!

Well, the book surrounds the happenings in life of the Dutta family. The Duttas were Hindus living in Bangladesh. Sudhamay is the head of the family – the father. His wife Kiranmayee is a docile housewife whose sole aim in life is to agree with everything her husband says and serve him. They have two kids – Suranjan and Maya. Maya is a friendly 21 yr old. She is responsible and doesn’t like to depend on her parents for her spending allowance. Suranjan is an atheist who doesn’t believe in religion and is an idealist youth. He is jobless and has no qualms with living off his parents until he finds a job that would satisfy his needs. On the whole, they are a fairly functional family living in Dhaka.

Anyways, the riots start and initially, the severity of the riots doesn’t really hit them. Slowly, they are pulled into it. They keep hearing about everything happening around them. People who they know are moving to India to escape from the atrocities being committed against the Hindus in Bangladesh. But Sudhamay and Suranjan are strong in their beliefs. They feel that Bangladesh is their country and they wouldn’t move out of it. Suddenly, their lives are affected by the riot as well. Their house is attacked and Maya is taken away by a bunch of 21- 22 yr old boys.  

** Warning – Spoiler Ahead.

What is sad is the way the book ends. It is not intended to be a fairy tale and hence the ending is really sad. Sudhamay is finally driven to agree to leave the country. He does this for the sake of the happiness of his wife and son. Maya doesn’t come back though I kept hoping and praying that she would. I so desperately wanted it to end happily but I guess that’s not life. It is sad to see how a relatively happy family, is reduced to a bunch of scared, devastated individuals in a span of less than 2 weeks.

My Views

I have always wanted to read Shame and I am glad I finally got to read it. I am not too clear about the happening in India let alone what happened in Bangladesh.

Until I read books like Riot (By Shashi Tharoor) and Shame, the Babri Masjid incident was only a vague memory for me. I was 10 years old when it happened and what stuck to me was just the fact that the mosque was torn down and the aftermath was horrible - riots all over the country. It was interesting to get the perspective of someone who witnessed the events; someone who was on the protected side in Bangladesh but yet managed to see above it all and feel sorry for the attacked.

First, the positives:

The book comes across as a very strong and powerful piece of writing. Through the depiction of the life of one Hindu family, Taslima manages to capture the essence of the happenings in Bangladesh. It is obvious that she felt that the way the Hindus were treated in Bangladesh was wrong and she has definitely managed to convey the feeling. I totally appreciate her for having the courage to come out with a book documenting her feelings and opinion about such a controversial topic. Taking the side of the Hindu minority, while being a Muslim in an Islamic country, is unthinkable for so many people. I totally admire her guts for sticking to her convictions and not hesitating to voice her opinion.

The book definitely makes you think. It is sad how people change in times like this. Taslima highlights so many incidences where Muslims change their attitudes and behaviors towards Hindus they have been friends with all their lives after incidents like this. I think that is so sad. How can we let some action taken by crazy fundamentalists in other parts of the country (or in a completely different country) influence the way we behave with friends we’ve known all our lives and who actually had nothing to do with the action! I felt sad when Maya and Suranjan reach out to their Muslim friends only to feel awkward in the process. I hated the way it affected young children. In one part, Suranjan’s friend Pulak talks about his little son. The boy used to play with his friends before the riots started. Suddenly they stopped playing with him because their fathers had asked them not to play with Hindu boys. I mean, can you imagine the little 5 year old?? He doesn’t even know what it means to be a Hindu or a Muslim!

The overall impact is very upsetting. Innocent people losing their lives, innocent girls getting gang raped and left to die. I can’t even begin to imagine the mental status of those who managed to survive after such an ordeal!

Now, coming to the negatives:

The book was a tedious read – not because of the language, but because of the details. Every few pages, Taslima gives us an update about the temples that have been demolished, the people who have been driven out of their homes/businesses, women/kids who were abducted/raped, etc. Frankly, after a point, the lists just got to me. I know that she was trying to highlight the damages done but I am thinking the same impact could have been achieved by just giving us summary numbers instead of individual cases – at least that is my personal opinion. And then of course, there’s the political part. Pages and pages citing the constitutions and the amendments that seemed to favor Muslims living in the country. If Taslima’s aim was to increase the awareness of people regarding the supposed ill-treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh, I think she might have slightly over done it here. I personally thought that the book was biased - Too much in favor of the Hindus. The riots following the Babri Masjid demolition wasn’t solely initiated by the Muslims. Though Taslima brought out only the atrocities committed by the Muslim fundamentalists, I know that many Hindu fundamentalist groups reacted badly as well; At least in India. Maybe in Bangladesh, they were too much of a minority to be able to fight what was happening to them. I am not sure.


After reading all this, you must have decided for yourself by now if you want to read this book or not. But if I was given the choice, I would ask you to read it. Read it to get a realistic picture of things happening around the world.



Lezlie said...

I've never heard of this. I'll be looking for it now! Thanks, Ramya!


Ramya said...

hey lezlie. glad you thought you wanted to read it:) let me know if you ever get around to reading it!:)

Violet said...

You would like to read 'Island of Blood' by Anita Pratap. It's a wonderful book. One of the very few books I have read twice.

The author is a journalist and she has written about her various experiences in it. It also has a chapter on the babri masjid demolition-LIVE. She was there to cover it. Yuo won't be dissapointed.

Ramya said...

wow! that sounds like a great book! shall try to get hold of it.. thanks for sharing that with me. i have never heard of anita pratap before.. thanks!

Arrchana said...

Hey Ramya,
I stumbled upon this review of Lajja when I was randomly going through my friends'list on Orkut.Beautiful review. I started reading this book around 2 years back, but abandoned it in between. Like u said, I did find it too tedious with too many details!
I am gonna try to go through ur blog as often as I can to choose books to read!:)


Ramya said...

hey arrch!:) you should have just read it all the way through.. there's something about the book that's nice.. it makes you think about so many things!:) you are very welcome to pick books up from this list..and i would love it if you would let me know what you thought of the book as well!:)