Babri Masjid demolition, under whatever justifications, is undoubtedly the single greatest failure of our democracy and secularism. While it spiked communal unrest in India, immediate butterfly effect was visible somewhere else, someplace that shares the same secular values, at Bangladesh.
Nasreen claims to have written this novel over a week of religious unrest, which escalated into demolition of century old temples and violence against minority Hindus, in retaliation to what happenings in India. Like every other riot in the history, religious hatred and violent oppression were inflicted by and towards friends and colleagues who were, dear ones till yesterday. Lajja tells the story of a Hindu family, torn between their love towards lush green motherland they and their ancestors fought Independence for, and the choice of escape to India for the safety of their lives. Protagonist himself isn’t a practicing Hindu, in-fact he is shown as someone who identifies himself more in the company of his muslim friends. But the circumstances, silent State comply on violence, second status in his own country on grounds of an ideology he doesn’t necessarily upheld, gradually contaminate his rational thoughts with anger, frustration and eventual hatred towards muslims, which he almost succumbs to.
Author craft-fully establishes the intricate differences between religion and culture, for one find him or herself comfortable around people from same language and practices than the single ideology of religion, which in-turn paid a great deal in liberation of East Pakistan as Bangladesh in 1971. But secularism in the new found nation was a grey line, or it became one over time, with the declaration of Islam as state religion and rapid islamisization of institutions. Through the thoughts and words of the hero, she subtly addressees the politics of language, how the streets and institutions were renamed, and how the ones that retained their old hindu names were reduced to acronyms.
Nasreen uses the characters as reader’s surrogates for understanding the minority population decline and migration to India, on grounds of secularism. Those who left the country to escape prosecution found their properties acquired by State under the pretext of ‘Enemy Property Act’. She subtly references through human relationships, oppression of weak, nepotism, religious fascism and much more with statistical figures, discussion of which would be rendition with spoilers. It is easy to understand this book getting banned, for her active criticisms against Awami League, BJP, RSS and other communal political coalitions on their vote mongering hate politics, is very visible.
Lajja wasn’t an easy read, all of this, but it offered a great deal about human consciousness and how easily are we blinded by religion. I don’t think she was writing against Islam, but against the usage of religion as a sorry excuse for masking morality, peace and love, all of which every religion essentially stands for.
And the scariest part is, the relevance this book still holds, even after a decade of pogrom, in a world we proudly call modern.