I heard Taslima Nasrin talk when I was in grad school ten years ago, and the memory has stayed with me since. Nasrin read from from her (then) new work, Amar Meyebela; as with all her writing, this one too called to account patriarchal Bangladeshi society. And inevitably, she got some members of the audience all riled up–one student stated that since he’d never witnessed any such thing growing up in Bangladesh, she had to be wrong. What I remember most: her steely, detached calm as she answered him, and her utter unconcern for how he (we) might judge her. She’d been exiled from Bangladesh, gone into hiding, and had faced death threats from extremists; understandably, she was unlikely to set much store by censure from this audience. I also remember that she never smiled during the entire talk.
Revenge, titled Shodh in the original Bengali, was first published in 1992, and the translation was brought out by The Feminist Press, New York, in 2010. I reviewed the book for Herizons magazine last year.
When Jhurmur, a spirited Bangladeshi girl weds her boyfriend Haroon after a passionate courtship, she believes she’ll be happy. She was raised to think for herself, she’s well-educated, and she’s sure of Haroon’s love and commitment. A woman’s chance at marital happiness, however, is always a gamble in a patriarchal society, and Jhurmur learns she must be a bou (daughter-in-law) first and a wife second.
Haroon was an ardent suitor who wooed her patiently, but post-marriage, regards her with suspicion for having succumbed to his courtship. He isolates her from her friends and family, refusing to let her go out to work, telling her to concentrate on the household instead. Financially dependent on Haroon and fearful of the consequences of divorce, Jhurmur acquiesces to Haroon’s emotional abuse. But when Haroon denies he’s fathered her baby and insists on an abortion, Jhurmur is roused out of her complaisance and plots her revenge.
As with all of Taslima Nasrin’s books, Revenge is primarily an indictment of the patriarchal mores of the author’s native Bangladesh. Education has always been seen as the answer to such societal ills, but in this novel, Nasrin acknowledges a very basic truth: education isn’t a path to women’s empowerment unless it provides a chance at economic independence. In Haroon’s home, Jhurmur’s degree merely gives her “a rather irrelevant superiority” over the household’s other daughter-in-law, a girl who’d barely finished secondary school. But when Jhumur finally gets a job, she views it as a sign that she’s finished with a life of submission, and that her husband will now understand that she “will no longer stand for his cruelty”.
Jhurmur is a complex character, with enough moral ambiguity to rise above the caricature of a subaltern employing western-style feminism to attain “liberation”, and the manner of her revenge poses an interesting question for the reader: does it truly count as revenge when the principal has no recognition of the act? Jhurmur is delighted at comprehensively betraying her husband–who, oblivious of her actions, is content with his lot. Perhaps Nasrin is just being pragmatic here–if Jhurmur’s secret were discovered, the social consequences would be devastating; secret rebellions must suffice till the revolution arrives. That we’re left feeling discomfited is testament to Nasrin’s refusal to look for easy answers to deep-rooted issues.