Writer, humanist

Print edition : December 30, 2011

For the painstaking research Indira Goswami put into the writing of this book, she was awarded the Axom Xahitya Award and the International Tulsi Award from Florida University. -

On the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra have sprouted great lives. Indira Goswami (1942-2011) was certainly one of them.

THE first time I met Indira Goswami alias Mamoni Raisom Goswami was at a literary meet more than 15 years ago. She was dressed in a red-and-black mekhala sador (traditional Assamese costume), a shawl draped casually over her shoulders, and her kohl-lined eyes over her faintly rouged cherubic cheeks seemed to sparkle. It was a longish room, and there were around 50 of us and as I was trying my best to squeeze myself into a corner away from the glare of the light she said, Come up front, Dhruba, it will do you no good to be shy. There were other literary stalwarts present, but soft-spoken as she was, her articulation almost sing-song, bird-like, it was she who dominated the gathering. She listened with rapt attention as young girls and boys vied with one another to read out their pieces. As the evening drew to a close, she went up to a young girl who kept stammering while reading. Please do show me your other poems, she said. I would love to go through them.

She was like that: sharp of observation, compassionate to a fault, patient of hearing and, despite all the agony within her, as cheerful as a butterfly on a spring day.

There are writers and there are writers. Some solemn, serious and carrying about them an aura befitting an intellectual or academician; some eccentric, deliberately or otherwise, flaunting their own whims and fancies; and others who do not fall into either category; they are plain-speaking and have a natural disposition that treads the thin line between sheer creativity and dogged scholarship and an honesty that brooks no pretensions. Caught, as it were, in a helpless surge, they must perforce create even as they write lest they drown in life's turbulence. And Indira Goswami was just that: a vibrant, naturally gifted woman who possessed an almost ethereal quality of not quite being a part of this earthly world of ours.

In the more than hundred years since the first Assamese novel ( Miri Jiyori in 1890 by Rajani Kanta Bordoloi) was written, no other writer in Assam had the kind of iconic aura to his/her persona as Mamoni baideo (she was baideo, or elder sister, to many of us) had, an aura that combined a great depth of feeling with an equally great depth of thought. Perhaps it lay in her refusal to be cloistered within the four walls of academe; perhaps it had to do with her intense and instinctive concern for the downtrodden, the fallen and the outcast; or perhaps, possessed as she was by an undercurrent of melancholy, creativity came as the foil she required to sustain her own life force. Professor Hiren Gohain wrote: She once told me that she regarded her writing as an act of worship.

Indira Goswami was born on November 14, 1942, at Amranga Xotro (one of many religious centres established by the Assamese saint Sri Sri Xonkordev in the 15th century) in a priestly Brahmin family. Her initial education was at Pine Mount School in Shillong, Meghalaya, where English was the medium of instruction. But soon after she came back to Guwahati and joined Tarini Charan Girls Higher Secondary School. Later, at Cotton College under the able tutelage of Professor Upen Lekharu, she entered the rich, passionate world of Assamese literature and language, earning her bachelor's degree in 1960. She went on to complete her masters in Assamese from Gauhati University (1963) and then a doctorate (1973). Finally, she joined the Department of Modern Indian Languages at the University of Delhi, where she taught Assamese until her retirement.

It was during her long stint in Delhi that she wrote her most memorable stories, a creative period that also revealed her extraordinarily humane side, for never was her door barred to anybody who sought her help or advice. Hundreds of students would call on her, and she listened to them patiently, day after day, week after week for years on end. From offering them food cooked by her to helping them prepare for competitive exams, she was the ultimate elder sister.

She had begun writing during her schooldays. Her first book, a short-story collection, Sinaki Morom, was published in 1962. Over an extraordinary literary career spanning more than three decades, she wrote 13 novels, seven short-story collections, a book of poems and an autobiography. Add to these her academic output and her research works on the Ramayana, a theme close to her heart, and you have a person straddling many literary and academic genres.

It is often said that great writers require a spark for their creativity to flourish. Although brought up in a comfortably well-off Brahmin family, she felt the first pangs in the very xotro where she was born. Witness as she was to the severe and mindless constraints within the monastery, Mamoni baideo's searing picture of forbidden desire and love, of senseless rituals and customs is brought out in path-breaking starkness in her classic novel Datal Hatir Uye Khowa Howdah (The Worm-eaten Seat On the Tusker's Back).

But if compassion came naturally to the precociously perceptive child, then tragedy, too, played its own role in fuelling the spark. Her first marriage, in 1965, to an Assamese, a marine engineer who belonged to the Ahom community, ended in the same year on the grounds of caste differences. In 1966, she married a young engineer, Madhavan Raisom Iyengar, and moved to Kashmir, where he was posted. Eighteen months later, Madhavan was killed in a car accident. She did not marry again. As she narrated in her autobiography, Adha Lekha Dastabez ( An Unfinished Autobiography), she tried several times to commit suicide. But creative writing, as she herself said, helped her out of her acute depression.

In each of her works, the underprivileged, the silent sufferers, figured as the theme. She spent two years in Vrindavan delving into the exploitation of widows there and, in the process, was able to paint a graphic picture of their plight in another classic, Neelkantha Braja (The Blue-necked God). In Chinamastar Manuhtu (The Man from Chinamastar), she wrote passionately about the suffering of animals slaughtered in temples by men seeking divine blessings, a portrayal that earned her the wrath of temple priests at Kamakhya. She stood her ground, her compassion overpowering all opposition. In Mamore Dhora Toruwal (The Rusted Sword), she wove magic through her gut-wrenching portrayal of construction workers who work and survive under subhuman conditions. In Tez Aru Dhulire Dhusarita Prishta (Pages Stained With Blood and Dust), she brought out the horror that befell the Sikhs in Delhi during the 1984 riots. Jatra, another major work, is set against the violence that Assam underwent because of insurgency.

WHEN VICE-PRESIDENT KRISHAN Kant presented the 36th Bharatiya Jnanpith Award to Indira Goswami on February 24, 2002, in New Delhi. Also in the picture are Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and Indu Jain, the Bharatiya Jnanpith president.-S. ARNEJA

Her short stories contain the same visceral realism as her novels. She wrote as if she would not live to see the next day. I remember her telling me once: I cry every day with my characters. Without the tears I would be dead.

The Sahitya Akademi Award for Mamore Dhora Toruwal was bestowed on her in 1982, and she went on to receive 16 more prestigious awards, including the Jnanpith in 2000. But fame did not affect her. She went about her life with the same simplicity and openness. I remember a telephone call in 2008 from a friend in Delhi who, unable to locate her, informed me that Indira Goswami had been conferred the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands. When, later in the evening, I informed her about it, she was aglow with happiness and then as an afterthought added, I do hope all these awards do not go to my head.

But fiction was not her only forte. I would like to think that each tragedy she saw or underwent herself drew out in her a longing to seek divine interpretations. Perhaps this made her fall back on the Ramayana for all that it stood for. I have often heard her speaking extensively and exhaustively in various public forums on Tulsidas' Ramayana which she compared with the Assamese version written in the 13th century by Madhab Kandali, the very first one to be written among all the regional languages in India all of which is incorporated in her seminal work Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra. For the painstaking research Mamoni b aideo put into the writing of this book, she was awarded the Axom Xahitya Award and the International Tulsi Award from Florida University.

The mediator

By the time she received the Jnanpith, Mamoni baideo had become a household name in Assam. Such was her influence throughout the State that it fell upon her to negotiate peace between the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the government. For 20 odd years, Assam had experienced a kind of scourge that affected every person, every family. With the rebels' gun-wielding demand for sovereignty on the one side and the refusal of the state to consent to this on the other, fear and terror had stalked the valley. In the long-drawn-out battle between the rebels and the security forces, thousands on both sides were killed. Mamoni b aideo entered the world of militants in 1993 when she first visited a base camp in the district of Darrang. It was from this moment that her stories, her short stories especially, plunged into the soul of what was happening to individual lives, and told of lost sons and daughters; of forlorn, misunderstood soldiers and broken homes; of innocence trapped in senseless violence; of a valley sought to be destroyed by forces beyond India's borders. But stories, she held, were not good enough if, at the same time, they did not contribute towards peace.

The first step towards dialogue came with ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah congratulating her on her Jnanpith Award. In the next three years, through various meetings and interactions, the People's Consultative Group (PCG) was formed with Mamoni baideo as the chief coordinator between the PCG and the Government of India. For those of us who went through the trauma born of insurgency and terrorism in Assam, this first substantial step came as a silver lining in an otherwise ominous, dark cloud. Although the PCG was later wound up, it paved the way for further dialogue with the rebel outfit. Much water has flown down the Brahmaputra in the years hence. And Mamoni baideo turned out to be a character in a real-life story swept in by her fictional works which were perhaps more realistic than reality itself. For the trauma-afflicted people in the valley, the first signs of peace had arrived.

D.N. Bezboruah, a well-known journalist and an original thinker who was also Mamoni baideo's teacher at Cotton College, said: The one great quality of Mamoni Raisom Goswami that always impressed me was her immense courage whether she was choosing her husband, talking about herself or about social evils, superstitions or hypocrisy or whether she was doing whatever she deemed necessary to find a solution to the ULFA problem. Add to this her tremendous capacity to learn and imbibe. No wonder she turned out to be one of the greatest writers in Assamese and an internationally acclaimed Ramayana scholar.

On the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra have sprouted great lives. Mamoni Raisom Goswami was certainly one of them.

Dhruba Hazarika is an author.
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