The Tribune - Spectrum

, February 10, 2002

Chronicles of courage
Ranjita Biswas

Indira Goswami"GIRIBALA darted into the palanquin room and picked up the pot of mutton cooked with black beans. She forgot everything ...religion and rituals, wisdom and restraint...she started gulping it down in great haste." In The Saga of South Kamrup, originally called Une Khowa Howda in Assamese, Indira Goswami, Jnanpith Award-winner for the year 2000, for her contribution to Indian literature between 1978 and 1999, chronicles the saga of this widow who, since the death of her husband, had eaten only rice and boiled pulses with some vegetables.

Unable to take it any more, Giribala breaks the restrictive rules that widows had to live by. For the first time, a Gossain’s daughter, in the manor house, has committed this heinous act. The defiance of the protagonist Giribala, as she challenges the norms set by society for Brahmin widows in 19th century Assam, is echoed again in Nilkonthi Braja depicting a much later period (the 1960s) in holy Vrindavan. In one of the earliest contemporary novels on the plight of widows in the religious circuit, it reflects on the suffering of thousands of Bengali widows living on the edge.

Indira Goswami, better known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami to Assamese readers, has been a champion of the oppressed, particularly women, throughout her career. Brought up in a conservative Brahmin family, Goswami never stuck to the diktat of social norms, — be it marrying out of community, or in the way she writes.


Contempt for rituals is also evident in Goswami’s soon-to-be-published novel, Chinnmaster Manuhto (The man from Chinnamasta), in which she opposes animal sacrifice at the Shakti-peeth Kamakhya temple. It has already stirred a hornet’s nest, to say the least. But the author sticks to what she wrote once: "I believe in a Divine Power but wholeheartedly reject rituals and regard them as a disease afflicting our society."

Though born into a privileged family and educated in a premier English medium school in Shillong, Goswami never lost touch with the ground — the focus of her writing has remained the suffering of the disadvantaged sections of society. Not for her the chronicling of the lifestyle of the rich and powerful. If this aspect comes into her fiction, it is as a contrast to the misery of the other half.

But Goswami’s stories are not just etchings of depression; they also sustain belief in the basic goodness of human beings, though it is constantly challenged by opposite forces. Goswami’s style, as she was budding into a promising writer in the 1960s, was branded as ‘daring’ perhaps because even though a ‘woman writer’ she was not coy about talking about sex. Her writing has a basic honesty, even when talking about herself. In the autobiographical Adha Lekha Dastavej (Life is no Bargain), she talks openly about her obsession, since she was young, with "the thought of taking (my own) life".

And later, Goswami did attempt suicide after a broken relationship. She survived because she had her writing and later learnt to love again. Tragically, her husband died in an accident. However, the autobiography, serialised in a popular periodical, shocked the prudes. Hate mail was equal in number as the congratulatory letters. But her literary skills have repeatedly found recognition through several awards: Goswami had earlier won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Une Khowa Howda besides a slew of other awards. She is also a well-known scholar of the epic Ramayana.

The locale of Goswami’s novels is varied, often far away from her native Assam. But the empathy and deep understanding of the common people make her writings easily acceptable. Even when she was blissfully happy by the river Chenab, and wove her first novel Chinavar Srota (As the Chenab Flows) around it, she looked at the life of the labourers who were building a bridge over the river.

Though known more for her novels, Goswami has gifted Assamese literature with some unforgettable short stories. In Sanskar (The Offspring), Goswami takes an ironic look at the caste system. Damayanti, a poor Brahmin widow has to make a living by selling her body. She agrees to bear the progeny of Pitambar, a childless rich man who is obsessed with continuing his lineage. But ultimately, she aborts the foetus because she cannot bear to carry the seed of a low caste man. The story ends with Pitambar digging the grave of his unborn child: "I’ll touch that flesh with these hands of mine. He was the scion of my lineage, a part of my flesh and blood. I’ll touch him."

In another short story Udang Bakach (The Empty Box) protagonist Taradoi lives on the edge of the cremation ground. She finds the huge wooden box in which her once-rich lover, now dead, is brought in and she drags it to her ramshackle hut. "Taradoi touched the box. The bakul flowers carved on the wooden surface seemed to come alive. She let her cheeks feel the flowers. And then, as she did every day, she huddled into the cavernous bottom of the box," says Goswami in the story.

"A writer must write something every day — a discipline I follow rigorously," Goswami said once. Writing has helped her to come to terms with her own tragedies, to squash suicidal thoughts and now, with the passing of years, her writing is getting mellower. Though she would rather not be stamped a feminist or a reformist, it is increasingly evident from her recent works that Goswami, consciously or otherwise, has taken on the mantle of an activist-writer.