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A Secret Sortie

A sick Taslima, a despairing Centre and a hush-hush meeting

A Secret Sortie
PTI
A Secret Sortie
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
At 2.30 am on January 27, alone in the AIIMS coronary care unit, her wrists strapped to tubes of running saline and life-saving medicines, watching with the expert eye of a former medico as the monitor showed her ECG, pulse and blood pressure dance and soar alarmingly, Taslima Nasreen had only one coherent thought. "If I survive this night," she told herself as she felt her body going numb and feather-light, "I will talk to my friend, Pranab Mukherjee...perhaps he'll see how this tension is killing me and send me back home to Calcutta." The external affairs minister was the only face in the central government Taslima had come to know and trust, especially in the last two months of her (in)voluntary confinement in the government safehouse on the outskirts of Delhi.

But with her cellphone left behind in the safehouse in all the confusion of her fainting and being rushed in an ambulance into the CCU, Taslima waited for the arrival of the man whom she called Contact Person (CP), a nameless, nondescript Bengali-speaking official, her bridge to the world outside. Could she borrow his cellphone to call Pranabda? CP said: "I'll arrange for a meeting."

"I have good news for you," CP said the moment he came into the CCU the next day. That was unusual: CP was usually the harbinger of bad news, the latest being that despite what the media reported, her visa had not actually been extended as yet. There were problems, CP had told her the day before she landed in hospital. Now he said: "The minister will see you today." But there was a caveat, as always: Pranab could not come to Taslima in the hospital—how could he, in the full glare of the media?—she would have to meet him elsewhere. Taslima tried to get off her bed, still attached to her tubes and drips. The doctors intervened—the patient couldn't be moved from her bed, it was too risky.

But as usual, CP prevailed. Twenty-four hours later, Taslima was being unplugged from her tubes and bundled into an official white Ambassador with black-tinted windows. By her side sat the lady guard-cum-attendant who lived in the room next to Taslima's in the safehouse and shared her meals. CP sat in the front seat beside the driver. They drove for what seemed like 45 minutes to an hour. We're going to Central Delhi, CP told Taslima, who was now beyond caring. The house they entered was empty, with that strangely dispossessed feel of a government guesthouse. Pranabda hadn't yet arrived. Taslima rested in one of the rooms. Twenty minutes later, CP came into the room to say the minister was ready to see her now.

Pranabda was waiting in the adjoining room. Sitting besides him was a man with the blank face and faintly obsequious air of an aide. Pranabda rose, folding his hands in a namaskar. Taslima folded her own hands in response to the greeting. What happened? asked Pranabda. Taslima needed no further encouragement, her story tumbled out: the tension from her enforced confinement in the safehouse forcing up her blood pressure, her request to see a cardiologist and the protracted red tape that ensued; how, three weeks later, a "doctor" was arranged to examine her in yet another guesthouse; how the "doctor" was suspiciously nervous and broke down under her quizzing, unable to prescribe the right medicines; her pleading with CP for a qualified cardiologist, and finally the prescription that nearly killed her. Now surely her old friend, the man who had befriended her years ago in Calcutta, saying how much he admired her poems, facilitating her visa and resident's permit—surely Pranabda would now berate CP, give him a tongue-lashing for ignoring her request to see a doctor until it was almost too late.

But Pranabda paused for a moment, saying nothing. When he spoke, it was in an unexpectedly official tone, and without looking her in the face. "I have come," Taslima heard him say in Bengali, "to tell you something." Pranabda wanted her to go to France to receive the Simone de Beauvoir prize from the French president. But, Taslima burst out, the prize has already been given, my friend, Christiane Besse in Paris, received it on my behalf. And the certificate? Surely Taslima could at least collect the certificate from the French president in Paris? No, said Taslima, "the certificate is being posted to me by my French publisher. I don't...."

"Stop, listen to me," the minister cut her short. What he said she had heard before, first from CP and then from the mutual friend Pranabda had sent from Calcutta as an envoy: "You must go away for a few days. Don't worry about finances—the government will pay for your tickets and all expenses there. And if you want to travel anywhere else in Europe, do so by all means. We'll be glad to pay for everything. You must go away, we'll bring you back after all the noise dies down."

From somewhere far away, Taslima dimly perceived that this was no longer her old friend. Doesn't he realise he could kill me in my current state of health with this bad news about leaving the country, her only home in the world? Where would she go now? She heard herself saying with a calmness she didn't feel: "I won't go to France, or anywhere else. Of course, once you refuse me the visa, I have no choice but to leave, but till then, I prefer to stay right here in Delhi."

Back and forth they went, the minister and the Bangla writer, for the next 45 minutes, she pleading that she had no home now anywhere but in India, that she'd continue to live quietly in Delhi until he could send her back to Calcutta as he promised. And he trying to reason it out, pointing out that it would be easier for her to return to Calcutta if only she consented to go away for a few days, before her visa expires on February 17, when "they" would begin their shouting campaign to throw her out of the country. She talked of how unhappy she had been living in the West, her horrible sense of unbelonging there, how she would gladly go to Bangladesh if only it was possible, but failing that, how much she needed to stay in a country where she felt she belonged. "My passport may be of the European Union, but not for a single day in the 12 years I lived there did I feel I belonged there like I do here."

He tried to reassure her: there was no question of her visa not being extended, that she could always come back, that her going away wouldn't last more than a few days or weeks, until the noise had died down, how she didn't understand the pressures on him as a politician, how he had always stood by her right to seek shelter in India, how it was the Indian tradition to give her shelter, and how surely she would come back soon, and directly to Calcutta this time.

Back and forth, back and forth, repeating themselves two or three times, while the man sitting besides Pranabda diligently noted everything down in a notebook. Until, suddenly, the minister looked at his watch and rose to go. "I'm honestly trying to help you," she heard him say in parting. "Take your time to decide when you want to leave, but it must be before February 16, when 'they' will start shouting to throw you out. If we can tell them that you have already left, it will be easier to bring you back."

It wasn't until they were all in the car again on their way back to the safehouse that CP's cellphone rang. From the way his back bolted erect, and the volley of "Yes sirs," Taslima gathered it was Pranabda at the other end. After he'd disconnected, CP told her tersely: "The minister wants you to know that he genuinely wants to help you."

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