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The 'Peace-Mediator' rests in peace: Indira Goswami (1942-2011)

By Dr.Ashok K. Choudhury | PUBLISHED: 19, Dec 2011, 14:24 pm IST | UPDATED: 19, Dec 2011, 17:22 pm IST

The 'Peace-Mediator' rests in peace: Indira Goswami (1942-2011)

Eminent Assamese litterateur, academic, Ramayana-scholar, and solo mediator between Ulfa, the banned secessionist group of Assam, and the Central Government, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, popularly known as Indira Goswami, lovingly called Mamoni Baideo, passed away on 29th November 2011, barely three weeks after death of Bhupen Hazarike, an acclaimed singer and music director of Assam, at Guahati Medical College after prolonged illness.

Her passing will not only leave a void in Assamese and Indian literature but also in the hearts of all those who knew her. She was the first Indian to receive the 60 lakh Principal Prince Claus Award (2008), named in honour of Prince Clause of The Netherland; Goswami donated the entire prize money to the Assam Government to build a hospital in her ancestral village Amranga in Kamrup district.

Mamoni was the winner of 36th Jnanpith Award for the year 2000 for her contribution to the enrichment of Indian literature through her creative writing between 1978 99. She brought for second time the prestigious award for the State of Assam after two decades after Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya who won in 1979 for his novel Mrityunjay, written against the backdrop of Independence struggle in Assam.

Rendering yeoman service to the cause of literature, she enriched the genre with her translation of short stories from different parts of the country. By receiving this all India literary prize, Mamoni established herself as one of the best writers of India. “I am much elated at being given this honor though I was not expecting it as I was nominated for it several times earlier. This will definitely help me in going ahead with my future literary endeavor”, Mamoni had remarked after receiving the award. 

Assam government accorded the writer-crusader a lofty slot in the annals of State by tendering her unique honor of being the maiden honored guest at the Independence Day Celebration of Judge’s Field in Guwahati in 2001. “Writing is my life, dharma, writing is my soul”, observed Goswami while addressing a gathering at a function organized by the Guwahati Press Club to felicitate her at the Press Club premises.

She was also the recipient of several prestigious literary awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 for her novel Mamare Dhara Tarowal (Rusted Sword) that depicts the experience of building an aqueduct over the San in Rai Bareilly district. It is considered as an outstanding contribution to Assamese literature for its deep insight into social tensions, abhorrence of the exploitation of man-by-man, sympathy with the toiling masses and for its gripping style. It exposes brilliantly the hypocrisy, deceit and selfishness that masquerade as respectability. All the characters in this novel come to life with a rare brilliance and reality.

Starting writing from the tender age of thirteen, Goswami earned an exalted position in the pantheon of fiction writers of India. She was first recognized by Kirtinath Hazarika, a leading editor in that time Natun Asomiya. It was he who encouraged in her early literary efforts and published all her stories. At a ‘Meet the Author’ program arranged by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi on 1st November 1992 she declared that writing was an obsession with her. In the course of her interesting talk she admitted writing helped her cope with many of her personal tragedies.

Christened Indira Goswami, the somewhat intrepid girl began her tryst with destiny since her birth on November 14, 1942. A priest of Kamakhya temple while preparing her horoscope advised her mother Ambika Devi, that this girl’s stars are so bad that she would do well to cut her up in two pieces and throw her into the Brahmputra to do away with omen connected with the birth.  On the issues, which move her, were her childhood days. She had seen widowhood from very close quarters, when she was a companion to her paternal aunt who became widow at the age of twelve.

Her aunt spent her entire life worshipping the pair of Kharam (wooden foot wear) of her dead husband. Widowed in less than eighteen months of her marriage to a Tamil engineer, Madhavan Raisom Iyenger, a Kannadiga lyengar, she was able to add herself to the list of characters that she created. The untimely death of her father Umakanta Goswami was a great blow to her. She also witnessed an act of suffocating a he goat, in the name of a community feast. Then there is the case of organizing a religious function to exorcise the evils that were supposed to be dominating her destiny. But possessed of an indomitable nature, Goswami came out after each tragedy as if “baptized by fire.”

Her writings touch upon diverse themes ranging from the sordid to the sublime. The canvas of Goswami is indeed vast and includes impression of life and people in their spectacular variety and richness. Her gallery of characters is constituted with those people who live in the fringes of the society. Using very few stylistic devices to mar the flow of her pen, she weaved, fascinating tales against a backdrop of human deprivation and exploitation and an authentic feel of the locale of her stories. The woes and travails of man and woman are mirrored in all her novels, short stories. Her autobiography finds ardent appeal across the globe.

Goswami wrote short stories for two decades before emerging as a powerful novelist. Moved by the plight of widows, Goswami wrote her first novel Chenavar Srota (As the Cherish Flows, 1972). The picture of the poor workers engaged in construction of a bridge as projected in the novel is exactly what she personally saw at the bridge site. It is a work marked by vivid realism, penetrating insight and a deep poetic sensibility. Nilakantha Braja, her second novel in 1976, translated into English as The Shadow of a Dark God, is mostly a tale of three love lorn damsels:  Saudamini, a young widow; Mrinalini, a spinster; and the helpless Sashi, another spinster.

This novel is the outcome of studying the lives of the over 3000 widows at Vrindavan where she lived for two years in a temple room. She narrated what she had actually seen. The pathetic life of the widows and spinsters, their sorrow and agony, their desires and frustrations. Abandoned by their relatives, these helpless women are often driven to prostitution for their living. The bestiality in men was for the first time viewed by her from very close quarters in this holly land of Krishna. Pulsating with the life and inviting the reader’s participation in it, Goswami without being too obviously feministic, deftly portrayed the anguish of these women and lashed out against in her typical humanistic fashion.

Goswami drawn parallel in her delineation of circumstance and protagonists from the working class in the Kashmir valley and the dam sites in Madhya Pradesh. While in Madhya Pradesh, she saw herself the work of an aqueduct project. Her close contact with the workers and her experience of their way of life gave the basic material to build the story of her novel Ahiron. Highly readable, it is a message of hope in a world marred by grief and brutality.

Datal Haatir Uye Khawa (The Worm-eaten Howda of Tuskar), translated into English as A Saga or South Kamrup, portrays an undiluted and vivid pictures of the ‘statra’ (a religious monastery) at where she had spent most of her childhood days. Goswami said that there was a pressure from her relatives on the publisher not to publish the novel. She exposed the wretched life of three widows of a rural orthodox family.

Inspired by the real life cases in her own family, she showed widows of different ages, where the eldest one is resigned to her hapless plight as conditioned by the cruel society; the second one, helped by relative affluence, is able to make space for her little words; the third one, young Giribala, cannot make herself submit to the human reality. She forgot everything realism and rituals, wisdom or restraint. She takes meat, interacts without any qualms. There are flickers of rebellion in the young widow who is deprived of the traits of life by a set of cruel customs.

The Assamese film version of the novel, Adajya, which is considered a claasic, won two international awards after competing with Train to Pakistan and Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma. As well, the Assam Sahitya Sabha honoured her with the Basanti Devi Memorial Award in 1988.

Animal sacrifice custom in the state is one of the primary concerns in her creative work. Her novel Chinnamastar Manuhto focuses on buffalo sacrifice in the Kamakhya temple. This grotesque ritual provoked her to shake the foundations of the society. The book aroused protest from among the priestly classes. There were threats to kill the editor of the magazine, which serialized the novel, and one person was beaten up. But nothing was going to stop her from opposing such practices. And what egged her on was the fact that she was being supported by the youth of the State. Chinnamastar… moved the young generation on whose opinion, the future would be molded. She elaborated; stating about 15 per cent of the masses had supported her with the majority from the youth section.

Militancy in the state was her next major project as she wanted first to closely observes the ultras’ activities and their philosophies prior to taking up the task, though she was criticized by some people for not writing more on militancy in the state. But she had decided. Everyone speaks about her boldness. She unhesitatingly exposed those realities, which the elitist mind is either afraid of or ‘ashamed’ of looking into. Apart from her novels, her autobiography Adha Lekha Dastavej (Unfinished Autobiography, 1983) is a powerful testimony in this regard.

She frankly revealed her own story. This autobiography covers some events and incidents of her life up to 1970. Adopting a technique of presentation that keeps the reader spellbound, she sized up the events and characters and people she came across in her own life with a clarity that must be the envy of many a biographer. The rare courage with which she faced life, which has not been too kind to her, came out powerfully in this book. Her deep observation of the life and locale wherever she happened to be was also evident throughout.

In fact it has all the making of what an autobiography should be and leaves the reader eager for a sequel. The much acclaimed autobiography, which she penned, “it is not just for the heck of it. You know. I dare to touch a subject only after it moves my inner being. The feelings of the disposed must be a felt experience”. Goswami said, “What is in me to hide? How can I depict the stories about others’ lives if I am not true to myself? I have never tried to sermonize. I have alienated my writings from my life”.

In a letter to Goswami in November 1990, Mulk Raj Anand remarked, “I read one third of your autobiography in one go and think you to be a sensitive and truthful person, who has revealed her feelings, uncertainties, disappointments and lapses with a candor not shown by many contemporaries”. Amita Mallik, on reading the autobiography, said, “Mamoni’s writing is spontaneous, like conversation. But it is heart felt, and moving. I can only salute Mamoni for the truly heroic saga that is her life”.

Amrita Pritiam, who has written a ‘Foreword’ to its English translation, Life is No Bargain, an Unfinished Autobiography, a part of her life story, which could be described as “life is no bargain.  Indira Goswami is one of those rare souls who have been able to get an insight into the great power which is working behind this universe”. Her autobiography has also been translated into Hindi as Zindagi Sauda Nahi.

Besides, Budhasagar Dhushar Geisha Aru Md Musa, Sanskar Udaybhanur Charitra Etyati, Jakhmi Jatri, Tez Aru Dhulira Dhusharita Prishta, Uparryash Samagra are some of her other novels. Goswami was a competent short story writer. Author of eighteen novels, three hundred short stories and an autobiography, quite a few of her short stories have been translated into English and other Indian languages. Almost all her novels and short stories revolve around young widows, who never achieve either sexual fulfillment or independence.

Equating her writing to activism, Goswami expressed, “it is enough for me to show the rebellion. I want to tell the women that they should fight even if they do not succeed”. In each successive novel, she unfolded tragedy, and then raised voices of protest against the traditions and social norms. Her novels are not just about literature, they are emotion ridden outpourings about her own life as a widow, an experience that continues to colour every word that she writes. Goswami’s narrative has a distinction of its own. Her specialty is the picture she brought forth through her prose. Her writing is marked by a vigorous style, bold treatment and insight into social tensions.

Replying to a question on what makes her characters so appealing, Goswami said, “I intensely study the themes of the stories before penned them. I have not written anything without experiencing it. I pick my characters from real life. Readers take interest in my language”. Navakanta Baura said, “Mamoni can paint pictures with words. And she drew these pictures from experiments”. She pointed out that the purpose of the endeavor was to ensure that sense prevails, facades peel off, crass materialism gave way to the solace of spiritualism and the derailed society is brought back to the tracks. Commenting on the novels of Goswami, the noted writer Vishnu Prabhakar once observed: “In her writings even dead characters are galvanized and come alive at the touch of her magical pen”.

Goswami is considered an authority on the Ramayana, and here is her account as to what propelled her to select the epic as her research project. One of her latest projects was on Ravana, the King of Lanka. It is sort of a corollary to her research work A Comparative Study of the Ramayana of Madhav Kandali and Goswami Tulsidas”. The litterateur felt her research work was her most enduring contribution to literature.

She said that a detailed study of this epic has opened a new vista in her life. She travelled to several south east Asian countries for participating in deliberations on this epic. She participated as coordinator in the International Seminar on Ramayana Literature at Trinidad in Spain. In 1973 she was awarded Ph.D. from the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Vrindavan, for her thesis on the Ramayana, which was published in 1996. She also produced voluminous work on Tulsi Ramayana and Assamese Ramayana of Madhava Kandali and has contributed articles on the theme in Indian and foreign journals.

As an eminent translator, Goswami translated Mrityunjay into English in just 15 days at the insistence of the then Jnanpith Executive Member Lakhiprasad Jain. Besides, she also contributed research papers in numerous research journals and she presented papers in national and international seminars. Goswami introduced Premchand to Assamese readers by some of his stories into Assamese.

Goswami was associated with a number of learned and literary bodies: Association of Authors; the Central Board of Secondary Education; the Assam Lekhak Sambhai; the Board of Studies (Assamese), Benaras Hindu University; K.K. Birla Foundation; Committee for Assamese, National Book Trust, Delhi, etc. She was Coordinator of the Meeting of the 2nd Anniversary of Mirza Ghalib, under the joint aegis of Sahitya Aakademi, and Urdu Akademi; Coordinator at the International Meet in Hindi at the India International Centre, New Delhi; Member of the Advisory Board (1983 to 1988), Sahitya Akademi, and also as a Member of its Executive Board, (1998-2002).

Apart from Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi awards, her great contributions rightfully brought her a number of prestigious awards including: Basanti Devi Memorial Award of Assam Sahitya Sabha (1988), Bharat Nirman Award (1989), Sauhard Samman of U.P. Hindi Sansthan (1992), Katha Award (1993), Kamal Kumari Foundation Award (1996), Joimoti Kunwari Award by Ahom Royal Council of Assam, Guwahati (2003).

An alumnus of Cotton College, Guwahati, Goswami was Professor, Modern Indian Literature and Language Studies Department, University of Delhi. Throughout her career, she was a champion of the oppressed, humiliated, downtrodden, particularly widows of Vrindavan, and the victims of Partition. Goswami was always ready to serve the poorer, leprosy and cancer patients, and was keen to see lasting peace in the Northeast. She dedicated her time and energy to the upliftment of her mother tongue. Hiren Gohain, a noted critic and scholar from Assam, says, “Mamoni is the most extraordinary thing to have happened to Assamese literature in recent years. There cannot be any doubt that she is a major author from whom great things can be expected”. Now the great things are only to be dreamt.

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 # Dr.  Ashok K. Choudhury, a postdoctoral scholar, & lit critic, is with Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

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