WOULD she show up or wouldn't she? Her media-savvy reputation suggested she would, but her tenor over the phone had been uncertain. Would she come by car, taxi or metro? Would she be surrounded by German body-guards who would frisk you for concealed weapons in full public view? These questions posed themselves as the clock ticked way past 11 am, the appointed hour for a rendezvous with Taslima Nasreen at the Block House cafe in West Berlin.
Finally, at 11.30, on an unusually sunny February morning, a short South Asian woman appeared at the pedestrian crossing at the other side of the road. It was the fugitive Bangladeshi writer sporting a long overcoat and short hair, accompanied by a lone, very Bengali looking male escort. There were no burly, goggle-sporting bodyguards in sight and in all probability she had either come by bus or walked from her undisclosed residence not far away.
"I'm Taslima and he is my brother Kobir," she said smiling a weak, half-suspicious smile, upon entering the cafe. The customary shedding of the overcoat revealed a pair of bright green slacks, matching sweatshirt and calf-high leather boots. Regardless of whether it was an expression of her hardening defiance or a bid to look inconspicuous in a western milieu, Taslima looked sultry and glamorous—cutting a remarkably different image from the well-publicised wire photo of the sari-clad author of Lajja who created a furore in Bangladesh and went underground before her dramatic flight to Sweden. She had moved to Berlin last July on an invitation from DAAD, the German academic and cultural exchange service.
"Why do you want to interview me," she asked, walking towards an empty corner table, "No one is interested in Taslima anymore. There is nothing new to say or write about. Nobody is bothered." Her apparently cultivated indifference and icy tone predicted a brief, stony encounter interspersed with stacatto conversation and laconic replies to questions—a rather convincing opening act by someone otherwise keen to meet and talk to a scribe from close to home. A deep drag from a long Cartier cigarette seemed to put her relatively at ease and left a deep pink lipstick mark on the silky white designer filter tip.
Tea for Taslima, Coke for Kobir. Over the next hour-and-a-half she held forth on her isolated existence in exile, her yearning for her roots; attacked the rising Islamic fundamentalism and its western 'sympathisers' like Oriental scholar Annemarie Schimmel, mocked the BJP's 'dishonesty' in seeking to patronise her and sneered at secular India for having repeatedly denied her a visa. It is virtually impossible for Taslima to conceal her acute loneliness, her hurt and bitterness over her persecution and lack of support at home, and a complete uncertainty about her future. Though angry, bitter, confused and 'homeless', for once she has felt safe.
"I feel safe in Germany and have security cover only for public meetings," she said, explaining the absence of body-guards. However, till about a month ago, she was guarded round the clock and could meet very few people which only made her more lonely and homesick. "Since I am no longer on TV, I can now walk on the streets without attracting attention. I have only just started feeling like a normal human being and could perhaps even bring myself to write again."
Taslima likes Berlin and its denizens and on occasions has met writers and humanist groups, but the inner vacuum persists. "Deutchland," she said, reading the print on a hotel matchbox. "But it's still another land and another people whose language I don't understand, where I'm rootless. I don't think all soil is ours. I was born in Bangladesh and feel for its people, their suffering and oppression. I had hoped to return home some day, but the political situation there has made me lose hope. All political parties want to come to power at any cost and are compromising with the fundamentalists whose power and influence is growing. It makes me sad."
Taslima is yet to chalk out a routine for herself and says there is no such thing as a typical day in her life. "I drink a lot of tea, go out sometimes, that's it. Nothing special. I have no routine." Things have improved since Kobir, a businessman, first set foot on foreign soil two months ago to be with his exiled sister. He has been persuading her to write an account of her 60 days in hiding in Bangladesh. Said Taslima: "I tried to write many times, but had to stop. It is extremely painful to go over it again. Every time I try, the nightmare comes back to haunt me. The very thought of the small rooms in which I hid is suffocating. I guess I need the space to do nothing and allow my mind to settle."
Though Taslima has enjoyed trav-elling in Europe, India is the country she wants to visit most and is sore at having been denied a visa twice since she came to Germany. "West Bengal is the closest to Bangladesh. Over there I could get the smell of my homeland, but they have repeatedly refused me a visa. Yet India calls itself a secular and democratic country." According to her, the "verbal explanation" by Indian diplomats is that her visit would provoke Muslim fundamentalists in India and that she would not be able to get proper security. However, she is convinced that the "real reason" behind denying her a visa is that, being an election year, "the ruling party fears it will lose the Muslim vote if I am given a visa".
What if she were to be granted a visa by a BJP government, if it ever were to come to power? Initially amused at the suggestion, she said that in such a situation she would "refuse" the visa: "I will not accept an invitation from any fundamentalist group." Taslima is still angry with the BJP for having used passages from Lajja selectively to further its anti-Muslim agenda. She claims to oppose all fundamentalist groups, be it the BJP or the Jamaat-i-Islami. "It is the misfortune of India and Bangladesh that religious fundamentalism has been on the rise in both countries."
Her persecution and consequent exile have only served to harden her stand against religion. Declaring herself to be not merely anti-fundamentalist, but "antiorganised religion", Taslima advocates a "no compromise" approach to fight the "evil forces" and demands that western governments and NGOs stop funding religious schools like the Madars as which she calls "factories for producing fundamentalists".
If Taslima had her way, she would replace all existing religious laws with "modern secular law". "In Islamic countries, you do not have the right not to believe in God. In Bangladesh I am not allowed to criticise Islam, which goes to show how backward our society is. I sincerely believe that there should be no religious law or organised religion. The State must be separate from the Church and religion should be a strictly personal matter."
However, this angry rebel's harshest criticism is reserved for western intellectuals who "praise Islam", in her view, to assuage a sense of guilt stemming from the fact that the West is on the whole perceived as being anti-Islam. She had recently criticised a German jury for having awarded a peace prize to Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel, who had earlier landed herself in a spot for saying that she "understood" why the fatwa against SalmanRushdie was issued. Said Taslima: "I believe that such people should not be lauded. When 'scholars' like Schimmel praise Islam, they choose to ignore that women in Islamic countries are not suffering from fundamentalism, but from Islam itself. I think there is nothing in Islam to be praised, as Islamic laws are heavily loaded against women. Praising Islam amounts to accepting such discrimination, which is something I am not prepared for."
The most important issue before Taslima concerns her immediate future, for, unlike Rushdie, she not only writes in a language alien to the West, but critics have found her work to be of low literary merit. Can she produce something noteworthy? Will she need to work on something that only outrages Islamists and helps her retain her controversial status, or will she simply fade into oblivion? Her instinctive reaction is to strike a defiant posture and say that she will continue to do what she says she has always done, "tell the truth", its consequences be damned. But she confesses to being caught in a web of confusion—trau-matised by the thought that shemight be forgotten and at other times willing herself to think that she can make a comeback as a creative writer.
"My suffering will make me create something. Perhaps my creativity needs this suffering (for it to flower). On the whole I am very unsure about myself, where I will live, what I will write," said Taslima. That's understandable given the fact that in May she moves to Munich to take up another invitation from the local culture minister and from there, hopefully, to Stuttgart in September, with no plans for 1997 on the anvil yet.
Even as she prepares to brace herself for a nomadic existence in the near future, Taslima is aware that she may never again have a place to call home. "I had many friends in Bangladesh before my troubles began, but I lost all of them as they did not have the courage to support me. I realise that I would be lonely even in Bangladesh. I feel I have no country. I am an outsider everywhere and it is difficult to accept that nobody will accept me. I am human too, and need a little homeland (sic)." In the absence of a real one, Taslima's litmus test may well lie in her ability to build and live in an imaginary homeland.