"A war was about to start. Knots of wide-eyed people gathered in courtyards, in open fields, on street corners.... Others were running...clutching bundles under their arms and children on their shoulders. Running, they were running away from cities to villages.... The sound of bullets echoed against the restless fluttering of pigeons' wings."
So begins Taslima Nasrin's memoir of her childhood. It is 1971 and Bangladesh is fighting for its independence from Pakistan. Nine-year-old Taslima is bundled into a carriage with her mother, grandmother and other children to hide out with relatives in the countryside. But soon terrified women refugees appear: The "Punjabis" are coming, and the family must flee further into the countryside to another relative, then another. Finally a truck rolls into the village full of young men with rifles, crying, "Joy Bangla!" Bangladesh is free! The family heads back to their home in Mymensingh, only to be greeted with fury by Baba, Taslima's father: "Why did you return? The war is not over!" But it is too late to go back that night, and then the soldiers come.
Chhotku, as always, was fast asleep.... It was a good thing, for on that fateful night had he awakened and cried they would have shot not only him but also Yasmin and me, who were sleeping in the same bed. Not that I was asleep. I was simply pretending to be asleep, traveling the land of dreams, playing with fairies, swinging on a high swing, no longer a part of this world. Pretending that I did not know that men wearing heavy boots had entered the room and were walking about, a rifle dangling from every shoulder.... little girl, never mind what those heavy boots do in your room. You must continue to sleep. Make sure your eyelids do not flutter, your limbs do not move, your fingers remain still. Your heart must not tremble--if it does, hide that tremor from these men when they lift the mosquito net and look at you, lust and desire pouring from their eyes, flames shooting out of their mouths as they speak in a language you cannot understand. Keep absolutely still when they flash a light on your face, your chest, your thighs. They must see that you are not yet fully grown, you are not even an adolescent, your breasts have not yet appeared!
Thus we are plunged into the drama of a large extended family living in close quarters, seen through the candid eyes of a little girl whose memory records everything, even if she can't make sense of it at the time. There is no adult consciousness in Meyebela; the voice is that of the child Taslima, and while we see what she sees, we know that her fears and imagination may be coloring events. Sometimes this is clear, as above, sometimes not. Since her household is in a constant state of turmoil, Taslima finds it hard to get her bearings, and the reader has the same problem: The narrative voice and time frame seem to tremble from time to time, like a lantern flickering in a room where a child is being beaten--for it soon becomes clear that soldiers will not be the main source of violence in this story. We see it all, every beating and injustice, every thwarted love and forced marriage, every hysterical fit and religious excess, in a household so dysfunctional no soap opera could do it justice, a household that is like a funhouse mirror, reflecting the features of society in a way that emphasizes the distortions: religious repression, female illiteracy, cruelty toward servants and the sexual abuse that descends without warning upon children, so that home is no refuge but a place of fear, and the ground is constantly shifting under their feet. And thus we begin to understand the anger that drives the author.
I kept thinking, as I read the first few chapters of Meyebela, what does this book remind me of? Then I realized: In reading Maxim Gorky's My Childhood, or watching the movie version by Mark Donskoi, one experiences the same violence, the same illiteracy and emotional underdevelopment, the same brutality toward children, the same lack of solid ground under one's feet so that, because of the capricious actions of unreliable adults, a child can lose everything in a moment. I believe that like Gorky's memoirs, Meyebela will become a classic and a school text in many countries. This will enable discussion of important issues, because Nasrin's memoir is about the dark things that happen in families in every part of the world, like other disturbing texts now taught in US schools: The Bluest Eye, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Bastard Out of Carolina. But, because it is such a powerful child's-eye presentation of a particular, rural Bangladeshi variation of Islam, Meyebela will be problematic as an educational tool in the United States today, where people are constantly being told that Muslims are evil. In a society that knows little about any variety of Islam, the dark picture painted by Nasrin may be universalized, and welcomed all too eagerly.
But if Taslima Nasrin had worried about such things, she would not have become a human rights case. She tried to knock down every taboo in her society, writing about religion, ethnic violence, sex, all at the same time, crash! And she is still doing it. Nasrin did not have to flee Bangladesh merely because she wrote a novel about the persecution of its Hindu minority or told an Indian reporter the Sharia (Islamic law) was outdated and should be left behind. Other Bangladeshi writers, male and female, have said such things; some have also been threatened by fundamentalists; but most are still there. Nasrin combined the violation of those taboos with an even more daring transgression: She opened the closet door on a whole world of subterranean sexual experience and feeling, much of it abusive, and none of it considered fit to be discussed. She wrote about sex and religion and state politics all together, and she did it at a bad time, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The combination did her in.