Reviewed by Shaun Randol
A stalwart advocate for freedom of speech, Taslima Nasrin is an exiled political and artistic refugee who has had her share of literary revenge. Despite her work being banned in Bangladesh and India, and even as multiple fatwas have called for her head, she continues to write, speak out, and win awards around the world. Her latest North American release, Revenge, is a short novel whose title, in keeping with the life of its author, promises struggle and ready action.
The novel’s protagonist, Jhumur, a budding physicist in modern Bangladesh, takes pride in her free-spirited nature. After she meets Haroon, however, her independent streak becomes grounded. Once married, the doting and loving Haroon of their passionate courtship is abruptly transformed. Jhumur is startled to find her husband suddenly indifferent and cold toward his new wife. All the while, Jhumur, too, has changed. Willingly, albeit begrudgingly, she sacrifices her sacred liberty to cook for and look after her new family. Once a modern and empowered woman, Jhumur—servile, her world now circumscribed—plays the role of the traditional Muslim wife. She cannot leave the apartment without a male escort, her head must be covered at all times; when she laughs too loudly, Haroon berates her for impropriety. Jhumur soon realizes that the life she had imagined with her partner is nothing but a fantasy. It seems she has been swindled. And yet, she continues to hold out hope for an ideal marriage. In the opening pages of Revenge we discover that she is pregnant with Haroon’s child. In her eyes, the unborn child might just rekindle the fire in their relationship. But Haroon refuses to believe that the child is his, and so demands an immediate, discreet end to the problem.
Haroon’s implausible 180-degree turn in attitude and demeanor toward Jhumur is foreboding for the rest of the reading experience. Nothing in the text leading up to this personality change lends to the idea that Jhumur is naïve, that she is easily fooled by fronts put on by others for her benefit. Further, there is no indication that either Haroon or his family actually contrived to trap her into a stifling marriage. A savvy, college- educated woman with modern sensibilities, it is unlikely she would fall for such a ruse. Haroon’s abrupt turnaround in behavior toward Jhumur coupled with Jhumur’s susceptibility toward her newfound circumstances is a thinly sketched plot vehicle. Nasrin seemingly forces the moves to set up the story’s primary conceit, Jhumur’s act of revenge.
Devastated by her husband’s mistrust and abuse, Jhumur sows her revenge with a handsome, artistic neighbor. She becomes what Haroon falsely accused of her being: a deceitful and conniving adulteress. But she intends to pursue more than just a secret love affair—Jhumur decides the best way to exact revenge on her husband is to have a child conceived by her neighbor, Afzal. Haroon will never know the child is not his, and she will have a lifetime of quiet knowing that she has deceived her husband.
Jhumur’s subterfuge is well-conceived. She does not plunge heedlessly into the act. Instead, her affair with Afzal is romantic and protracted. They sleep together, and nobody is the wiser. The affair itself seems a triumph, so why take it to extremes? The conception of a child with a lover seems risky, even foolish—out of character for Jhumur, her indignation notwithstanding.
Jhumur and Afzal’s clandestine but steamy relationship represents the most thrilling part of Nasrin’s narrative. But our excitement soon wanes. The story, already straining the limits of plausibility, very nearly unravels. Holes in the plot become apparent, contradictions in character frustrate the reader, and the narrative is taxed by superfluous players. Worse is the mounting confusion over Jhumur. On the one hand she finally “decides” that she loves her husband and is enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage is for life. On the other hand, she struggles to figure out how to free herself from the traditions she has “allowed” herself to be constrained by. When she considers divorce to end her unhappy marriage, for instance, or has the opportunity to run away, Jhumur wonders who would take care of Haroon in her absence. Never mind that Haroon’s home is brimming with relatives and servants and that he is wealthy enough to find another bride.
These sorts of questions result not so much from a disbelief that someone like Jhumur can live a conflicted experience, but rather as a consequence of Nasrin’s sacrifice of character and plot development. The premise of Revenge is intriguing and could provide a solid foundation into the mining of the psychology of one who has been wronged and seeks equilibrium, but any elaboration on this theme is sparse. We are left to either beg for richer development, or to plead for a tightening of what few bolts do hold this story together.
Because of these shortfalls, Nasrin fails to invest the book’s eponymous act with its due significance. Jhumur does become pregnant with and bears a (second) child (but far be it from me to spoil things by saying whose it is). Haroon and his family aren’t much concerned that it may not be his—strange considering how controlling and suspicious they’ve been all along. By the novel’s end, whether or not Afzal or Haroon is the father seems not to matter. We are left to wonder: can an act really be deemed “revenge” if there is no injury, or recognition of the act? Tailored from its start to serve up some consequential bit of retribution, the book’s central act is, finally, inconclusive. Indeed, leaving the reader in a cloud of ambiguity is exactly how Revenge should conclude; it’s just a shame that the narrative’s shaky scaffolding leaves the reader more frustrated than bemused.
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