From the Hooghly to the Seine: A Review by Susan Chacko of Taslima Nasrin's French Lover [Parabaas Translation]



From the Hooghly to the Seine

Susan Chacko

French Lover, by Taslima Nasrin; Translated from Bengali by Sreejata Guha; Penguin, India; 2002; 293 Pages; ISBN:0-14-302810-3; (The Original "Phorashi Premik" Published in Bengali by Ananda Publishers, 2001);

Taslima Nasrin's fame rests in the content rather than the elegance of her writing. The pros and cons of her style are evident in 'French Lover', her latest novel published in 2001 and translated into English in 2002.

'Lajja', Taslima Nasrin's earlier novel, and her autobiography 'Amar Meyebela' were critiques of the patriarchal oppression that she sees in her cultural and religious background. This book is simply an equal-opportunity critique of everything. It centers on Nilanjana Mandal, a young woman from Kolkata who marries a Punjabi businessman and moves to Paris. Nila is college-educated and loves film, literature and poetry, while her husband is looking for someone to run his house and share his bed. It is a doomed match from the start, and Nila walks out a few months later. Over the course of the book she is exposed to European racism, Indian male chauvinism, lesbian and French lovers, Kolkata from a Paris-returned perspective, and various aspects of Bengali expatriate society.

Nila approaches each new experience with an open mind and naive enthusiasm, and is invariably disappointed. The Bengali male characters are lecherous chauvinists, and the women support the patriarchal status quo. This is not unexpected, given Nasrin's earlier books, but 'French Lover' has an additional couple of twists. Nila and her Indian clan are all Hindu, and religion plays no part in this book. Secondly, this novel also turns a critical eye on French society. The significance, of course, is that Nasrin's earlier writing attracted the wrath of Muslim fundamentalists for her criticism of Islam. Here, she is making the point that discrimination is not restricted to a particular country or religion.

French society, as embodied by the French people who come Nila's way, is not very appealing. Her lesbian lover Danielle is rootless and distanced from her own family, though she is unaccountably passionate about Nila's half-hearted affection and follows her to Kolkata. Her other French lover, Benoir, is married and has a child, and he and Nila are never in agreement about their future. He is willing to leave his wife for her, but too stingy to stand guarantor so she can rent an apartment. The French left is enthusiastic about helping third-world women, but they refuse to accept any nuances that do not fit into their preconceived model of oppression.

This would be a one-sided book if it was not so honest about Nila's own prejudices as well. On the very first page of the book she is faced with a black immigration agent, and unable to believe that a black man would be in this position of power, she goes instinctively towards the white agent nearby. In the interview room she sees no commonality between the African immigrants and herself, and gravitates towards a Russian who in spite of smelling of grease and urine is reassuringly white-skinned.

It's easy to sympathize with some of Nila's problems, but hard not to feel that she brings some of them upon herself. Her general dissatisfaction gets wearisome; although she chose to marry Kishan on the rebound from her own failed relationship, she blames 'this man [..]Sunil [who] sent an ugly businessman to trample over her dreams, to bring her here and push her into the kitchen.' She is spendthrift when she has money, but impractical about earning it herself. She leaves her job because she simply does not feel like wasting her intellectual mind on work she considers menial.

Only once does the plot venture into melodrama, when a family tragedy happens at the very same moment that Nila is engaged in passionate love with Danielle.

Although Kishan was probably not intended to be an appealing character, I found myself feeling rather sorry for him. It must be hard to live with someone like Nila who is so convinced of her own intellectual superiority to everyone else. "Kishan's varied descriptions [of Chandigarh] never elicited the slightest interest from Nila". She all but curls her lip because Benoir Dupont does not know of "Madhusudan, one of the greatest poets of Bengali literature". Benoir's angry retort that she is ignorant of everything to do with computers leaves her unmoved; she is secure in her conviction that her own literary interests are of paramount importance.

Our last look at Nila shows her penniless, jobless and friendless. Based on her earlier experiences, it is hard to feel optimistic about her future.

In translation, the book has a straightforward descriptive tone. This is flat at times, but occasionally comes across as deadpan humour. Some of the inevitable cultural conflicts are entertaining, as when Nila is invited to dinner at a Frenchwoman's house.

Nila now realized it was impossible to chew the bland chunk of meat. She tried sprinkling it with salt and pepper, like everyone else. But the meat was still tasteless. Everyone else was exclaiming over it. Nila ate some mashed potato and half a lettuce leaf and got the smell of the meat out of her mouth. Then the cheese set her back to square one. Meanwhile, everyone had torn off pieces of the baguette and kept it beside their plates. With experienced and civilized fingers, they pierced the cheese with their fork, picked up a bite of the baguette on to it and expertly passed it into their mouth. The baguette was lolling on the dusty table. It was impossible for Nila to eat it.

Social communities are often described through group conversations. Nila, always on the fringes of any group, hears snippets of disjointed conversations which are a spot-on overview of the conversational style and topics. Her husband's friends:

In one corner it was Sanal and Sunil; arguing non-stop in French. The subject was cricket. [...] Sahana came and joined Nila and Chaitali. The topic was the home -- a new home; markets; where one would get river fish or which shop sold the five spices that were used in Bengali cuisine. Then it was a discussion of recipes. In Kishan's group politics was nudged out and industry inched in. Salmonella in chicken, mad cow disease! All propaganda! 'Damn, there's no sense in running a restaurant in this country! England is the best for that. All the immigrants are migrating to Italy in hordes -- where's my workforce?'
Later in the book, at a party with several socially-aware European women:
The discussion veered from male producers to female producers to female directors -- from there it shot back a hundred years: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffragettes. From there it was one jump to the labour movement to birth control to the number of women in the parliament of egalite: not even ten percent. Such a shame! Elizabeth Gigout deserved some credit -- fifty per cent women should be nominated by a party! Maria's nose was high in the air when she said 'We have no such hassles. Women are more than forty per cent in the parliament.' Nicole looked crestfallen. 'Whatever happens, it's all in Scandinavia.' Maria's tone was angry: 'Rubbish. Take a look at the academic positions, they are all filled with men.'

A fair amount of prose is devoted to Nila's sexual discoveries, though for some reason the lesbian sex is fuzzily described in a couple of paragraphs of soft-porn analogies while the Benoir-Nila liason has exhaustive detail and goes on for pages. Implicit parallels are drawn between the openness of French society and her own new sexual life. Needless to say, she had an unsatisfactory sex life with Kishan, and every other Indian character is equally unhappy with theirs.

Taslima Nasrin's next book, 'Shodh', is a polemic with a tortured plot designed to showcase her view of oppressed women in South Asia. In contrast, 'French Lover' is an unsteady exploration into a new culture. Her willingness to see faults everywhere is appealing, but her refusal to see anything positive in subcontinental cultures leaves an imbalance in the book.

All writers describe flawed humanity, but Nasrin and her characters see more flaws than humanity.

Published August 20, 2003

Reviewed by Susan Chacko. She is a bioinformaticist in Maryland. 

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