On this day, 25 years ago, the government of Bangladesh succeeded in forcing me out of my country, my home, once and for all.
I have lived in exile since then. Now, this is how it seems my life will draw to a close as well, as if I am destined to live the rest of my life on foreign soil. Book bans, Islamic fanatics, fatwas and feminist silences – I bore the brunt, but nothing could force me down. But I now know I will never truly be home again.
Shorn of home, all I have is language. And it is in language that I find refuge and home.
The way I have been driven out time and again, from my country, from the state of West Bengal, from the city of Kolkata, from my neighbourhood and home. It’s 25 years – I have been living in exile since 8 August 1994 – and I am yet to find solid ground beneath my feet.
In the meantime, I have heard of members of my family in Bangladesh grow old and die. I could never meet them to say goodbye.
But I have still not given up, not succumbed to despair. Every time I have been kicked down, I stood up again, to continue my fight for freedom of thought. Even the worst of times have not managed to shake my principles.
How I angered fundamentalists
Dada, my oldest brother was a poet and editor of a literary magazine. He is the man who inspired me to start writing poetry when I was 13.
I was a student of science, but I would also often immerse myself in the world of art and literature. As it was, I had the good (or perhaps bad) reputation of being a bookworm. Later, I too began editing a journal of my own, just like my brother.
When I was studying at Mymensingh Medical College in Bangladesh, the pressures of the course were such that I had to stop working on my literary magazine for a while. But once I joined the medical profession, I continued writing poems, essays, short stories and novels, which started getting published. Regular columns came out in national weeklies.
While my columns and books became popular, the misogynists did not take kindly to my writings in favour of equal rights for women. All religions are against women’s rights – this statement of mine managed to seriously agitate the staunch believers of all faiths.
Angered by my criticism of Islam, Muslim fanatics started organising protests and demonstrations demanding death sentence for me, with mullahs and muftis declaring prices on my head. Political parties, instead of supporting me, sided with the fundamentalists. Human rights and even women’s rights groups were silent.
It was at such a juncture that the government filed a case against me on charges of blasphemy, and an arrest warrant was issued in my name. In order to survive, I was forced to go into hiding; after two months, I was granted bail. I still tremble in fear when I recall those scary times.
I chose Bengal as substitute home
So much has happened while I have been in exile.
I could have never imagined that none of the successive governments of my country Bangladesh would let me come back home again. That gradually all my loved ones would pass away, my parents, my nani, my dear aunts and uncles, my brothers, my teachers, and I would never get to see them one last time.
For close to a decade, I was celebrated in western Europe – I was given security, citizenship and respect. Publishers have had my books published in numerous languages. Despite so much name and fame, all I have ever wanted was to return to my country.
Since that was not to be, I chose West Bengal and India as a substitute home.
I don’t believe in religion, so I am not at all in favour of dividing India along religious lines. I have never had any difficulty in imagining this country as my own, especially because I write and speak in a language, which is one among the many that are spoken across this country.
But politics forced me to not only leave Bengal but India too. I had to struggle a lot to enter India again.
I will fight for humanity
Politicians and Muslim fanatics everywhere have labelled me anti-Islam and used me in their political games. Most have shied away from admitting that I have spent my entire life fighting for humanism.
Five of my books written on human rights have been banned by the government of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has gradually transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist nation. Even the government of West Bengal had banned one of my books, a decision that was overturned by the high court after two years.
But the question remains as to why my books were banned in the first place. Will no critic of Islam be allowed to practice free speech anymore?
Wherever I end up, till the very last breath I can draw, I will continue to write in favour of equal rights for women, in favour of democracy, secularism, freedom of speech and a just and beautiful society free of discrimination. I will continue to write in favour of humanity and against all kinds of oppression, superstition, injustice and persecution. If that earns me a death sentence, so be it.
My language is my country
It’s been a quarter century in exile. What is my fault? That I wrote about humanism? That’s it.
To date, I receive fatwas and threats. I stand on shaky ground. How much more uncertainty and suffering must I endure? I can quite clearly see that no country in this world is mine. My language is my country. Whatever I had was taken away, but I hope no one will ever be able to take away my language.
A large section of the media does not publish my writings any more. I have been subject to the worst forms of censorship, and have narrowly escaped a possible attempt on my life.
It’s been a walk on a tight wire to be honest. Still, I have resolved that I will live in India. At least that way India will be able to claim that there is at least one nation in the subcontinent that still respects the freedom of speech. That India does not hang or incarcerate people who hold different opinions, and rather gives them security. Isn’t that what democracy truly stands for?
The author is a writer and commentator. Views are personal.