Slow Violence: Time out of Joint in Indira Goswami’s Jaatra.

Indira Goswami’s "Jaatra" (The Journey) is usually classed as a story set against the backdrop of terrorism and militancy in Assam. This remarkably complex story, however, resists easy pigeonholing and can be read through multiple perspectives. If we adopt the lens of “violence” to read this story, we notice that "Jaatra" shows how different types and textures of violence are mutually imbricated with each other. For analytical clarity, let me distinguish three forms of violence depicted in the story. First, there is the sheer contingency and unexpectedness of terroristic violence, epitomized by the sudden appearance of Konbap towards the end. Then there is a critique of gendered violence sublimated in the figure of Nirmali whose legs are broken because she dares to fall in love with the “enemy.” These two elements are woven in with a subtle exploration of the banal, invisible nature of what I refer to as “slow violence”—the recurring degradation of lifeworlds and ecosystems, and the attendant public and governmental indifference towards such destruction. Goswami’s greatness as a literary artist is illustrated by the fact that she does not reduce one form of violence into a simplistic, causal explanation of the other; instead, in the space of a few, haunting pages, she manages to capture the totality of the devastation and decrepitude wrought on a specific lifeworld by the coalescence of these different forms of violence.

"Jaatra" opens with the unnamed female narrator and the “mainlander” Prof. Mirajkar returning to Guwahati from a trip to Kaziranga. Mirajkar is not afraid of wild animals, but is terrified of terrorists (To be sure, a personal reason is also adduced for this fear). Interestingly, the narrator says that he has a “hereditary curiosity” about guns and ammunition. On the other hand, the narrator is spellbound by th
e natural beauty on offer during the return journey. She describes the stunning natural vistas unfolding in front of them in lyrical passages like the following:

We sped on the highway cutting through forests full of simolu, khairaa, sisu, hollong, pomaa, bogi pomaa, bokul, jamun and teak trees. The last rays of the setting sun disappeared in the forests. The patches of light were like a silken drape. It was as though this drape had got shredded, and the bits had wriggled into the forests between the trees. The teak trees that seemed to have taken the bits of silk looked speckled like the skin of a deer in the fading sun.

Far from functioning simply as a passage that conveys an impression of sheer lyrical beauty, picture-postcard descriptions like the above introduce a thematic that is slowly deconstructed during the course of the plot. Time is on the move, but its passage is experienced as something the viewing subject can control and contemplate from a safe distance. This sense of safety offered by distance and the attendant felt experience of the slow passage of time ushers in a recognizable romantic trope: the narrating subject, for a brief instant, seems to be able to bridge the gap with the external, natural world. We should also consider the space from where the narrator and Mirajkar are returning. Like the zoo, the museum or the exhibition, the national reserve park is also a managed space. Both Mirajkar and the narrator can contemplate the natural world from a distance in this managed space. Maybe Mirajkar is not afraid of wild animals because of this safety offered by such “touristic” distance. The terrorist’s bullet, on the other hand, cuts a swathe through this “safe” space and promises a gruesome intimacy.

Time, to paraphrase Hamlet, is soon thrown out of joint. The car stalls midway and the two passengers have to get out before a row of small shops. As the driver, Ramakanta, makes inquiries about repairs, the narrator suddenly sees a figure approaching them. At this point, the Assamese text goes—“Rashtriyo pothor olopman bhitorolei thoka dukan ekhonor pora hothat (suddenly) dekhilu eti manavmurti amar garikhonoloi uddesyo kori aaguai aahise” (italics mine). M. Asaduddin’s translation (in cooperation with Goswami herself) renders “manavmurti” as “a scrawny figure” while Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah translates it as “a human figure.” Both translations skirt around a crucial facet in “manavmurti” though—the approaching figure is like a representation of a human; a statuesque figure almost from another time. The approaching “manavmurti” introduces an element of temporal non-synchronicity with the narrator’s present—a point of disjuncture which is further accentuated when she looks at him closely (I follow Dhiren Bezborua’s translation here): “I observed him closely and noticed that he had tied up his long hair in a bun. He was an elderly man very likely in his seventies.” Further on: “The bun on his head came undone and his long hair fell to his shoulders. With his long hair and his stopping short of his knees, he looked like an oja from our oja-pali.” There is something distinct, otherworldly and ancient about this “manavmurti.” He seems to emerge almost as a figure from a tableau. In contrast to the immediacy of the narrator’s response to this “manavmurti” (whom she soon begins to address by the honorific Aatoi), the description of his wife’s physical appearance is slightly delayed in the narrative. As soon as the narrator and Mirajkar sit in Aatoi’s decrepit shop, she makes her entrance with a kerosene lamp. Gradually, as she struggles to make tea, the narrator notices her “blouse full of patches” and her “withered flesh.” While Aatoi is difficult to classify, his wife is presented as a victim of poverty.

Aatoi and his wife begin to assume two distinct roles in the ensuing conversation. The wife represents the harsh, insistent note of an impoverished and terror-scarred present. From her, we learn that one of her sons has joined the insurgents while one of her daughters had her leg broken as punishment for conducting an affair with an Indian soldier. She lives in constant fear that her son will fall prey to the bullets of the Indian military. She repeatedly keeps on haranguing her husband to go and see if Konbap, the son who has joined the insurgent group, has been seen near the railway tracks. Moreover, we also learn from her that the annually recurring floods have gobbled up most of their land and also killed their eldest son. The utter destitution caused by the slow violence of the floods and the consequent public and political apathy towards this problem is a constant thread running through the conversation and is mentioned by both Aatoi and his wife at different points of time. The wife’s criticism of this slow violence reaches its apogee in the following passage: “I have suffered for seven years. You should look at our plight once and tell the government about it. When you go to see the animals in Kaziranga, you should also see the plight of our villagers” (italics mine). This utterance signals the commencement of the process of a critique of distanced vision in the story. Recall that the narrator enjoys and contemplates the unfolding natural scene from a distance. The wife’s statement is a scathing indictment of this “touristic” gaze’s blindness. The beauty of the natural landscape is visible, but the destitution of the human inhabitants of this landscape remains invisible.

In contrast to his wife, Aatoi seems to exist almost entirely in the past and is even referred to as as a “fossil” by his spouse. Besides the descriptions of the physical appearance of this “manavmurti,” his tales about the past and his lineage, his songs, and even his behavior (he refuses to accept money after performing several songs composed by Vaishnavite saints) seem to indicate a gaze fixated on the past. But is he a relic who has no connection with current realities? Is he just a mournful chronicler of times past? Let us attend to his speech carefully. A little while after his wife’s scathing and direct critique of the distanced “touristic” gaze, Aatoi says:

But did you see any tigers in Kaziranga?...I hear that there were only twenty tigers there in 1966, but there are about sixty now. Even the number of rhinos are said to have gone up from 300 to about 1500, and I believe there are over 500 elephants…

Herds of elephants have stopped coming this way due to the bustle of the traffic. Earlier, we had to take turns at chasing them away from the fields of crops…but there are tigers sometimes. Only the other day, there was quite an incident. The elephant of the Dimouguri mahant was tethered near the roadside pond. It was a very docile elephant. Whenever they took it for a bath in the Difaloo, it would play with the children there. In the afternoon, the elephant was sleeping by the pond. No one knows from where the tiger emerged and scampered with a large chunk of the elephant’s behind between its teeth. (italics mine)

The crucial point about the initial half of this passage is that the distanced touristic gaze directed towards a managed space is subtly critiqued and simultaneously conjoined with a melancholic awareness of the violence wrought by the work of time on a rapidly disappearing lifeworld. If the wife critiques the blindness of the distanced gaze, Aatoi’s pronouncements ironically supplements these harsh, insistent notes emerging from the realm of necessity with a mournful comprehension of devastating historical change. The number of rhinos and tigers has gone up as a consequence of the conservation efforts made by the state and the public. But, the devastation wrought on existing human lifeworlds by slow violence remains unacknowledged. The increase in the number of tigers seemingly leads to unprecedented incidents like the one with the elephant above. Moreover, rapid modernization (“the bustle of the traffic,” the management of space) results in the gradual disruption of an existing collectivity. Earlier, “we” took turns chasing elephants away; now, “no one knows” when a predator comes and takes something away. Things fall apart, the centre does not hold.

Things come to a head after the narrator ruminates on what the wrinkles on Aatoi’s forehead signify—“Worries, a quest for answers, grief and…?” The sentence remains open-ended as the narrator realizes that Aatoi’s inscrutable face represents something elusive which words cannot capture. The narrator and Mirajkar offer the couple some money before they depart. Meanwhile, a limping young woman—Nirmali—slowly enters the shop. A “human tornado”—Konbap—suddenly jumps into the scene, kicks Nirmali on the stomach and rushes away with the money with the purpose of buying two U.S. carbines from poachers. Slow violence, gendered violence and contingent, terroristic violence coalesce in a single, chaotic scene. While the wife pleads with Konbap, a “hint of a smile” hovers on Aatoi’s face. “I,” the narrator says, “never knew that a human smile could so sear a heart.” With seared hearts, the two representatives from the bourgeois world travel in silence to Guwahati in the darkness. From conversation to silence, from light to darkness—what do these movements signify? I wager that what we are left with eventually is a holistic critique of the devastation wrought by the work of time on human lifeworlds, and a simultaneous ethical re-orientation of the way in which the two middle-class characters view and navigate their worlds.

Indira Goswami : Brave, Gentle and Bold

By Tilottama Misra

Indira Goswami (who wrote under the pen-name Mamoni Raisom Goswami) died on the 29th of November, 2011 after a prolonged illness. She was in a state of coma for almost nine months and passed away quietly in that state, watched over by a small band of faithful friends and admirers who had been with her for all those months. Her last rights were performed by a niece because such was the wish of the writer. The Vedic rites for the peace of her departed soul were hurriedly completed within four days ( not the traditional eleven days) because as reported in the papers, a childless widow deserves only a curtailed form of send-off from this world. Did Mamoni’s soul smile defiantly at this , behind the mask of her trade-mark heavy makeup which she wore even on her death bed ? Did she leave this world with the bitter knowledge that all her brave iconoclastic writings against social injustice will leave little mark on a society which is steeped in orthodoxies and superstitions even in the twenty-first century ? We will never know because Mamoni will not wield her brave pen again , nor will she gently smile and assert boldly the freedom of her Self against all odds.

Mamoni Raisom Goswami was born in Guwahati in 1942 . She started writing fiction at the early age of fourteen and her first stories were published in the children’s sections of Assamese newspapers. Her maiden collection of short stories Cinaki Morom was published in 1962 and since then she has published fourteen novels, several short stories, a collection of poems (Pain and Flesh), an autobiography (Adhalekha Dastabej), a research work in English ( Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra) and other miscellaneous writings. “Writing was never my career. It was a passion… I write to enjoy my life. Without writing, I would have been a dead person”, says Mamoni. In her autobiographical work she has related how at every moment of intense pain in her life when she was suffering from a sense of almost pathological depression, the act of writing gave her the sublimation and enabled her to recover her Self again and again. It is this power to recover and re-invent herself which separates the writer from some of her most memorable women characters in the novels. In most of her novels, the reader encounters women who are victims of social oppression, whose desires do not have social sanction and , consumed by the fire of unfulfilled desire, they are finally driven to self-destruction. Mamoni Raisom is undoubtedly one of the rare Indian woman writers who dares to portray a woman’s sexual needs as a natural right. The French feminist Helene Cixous has asserted in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” that women have been “driven away violently” both from their bodies as well as from their writing because their sexual pleasures have always been repressed. One may say that in Mamoni Raisom’s works we can see a woman writing frankly about desires and pleasures which were so far considered a taboo , thus reversing a tendency that has dominated modern Indian literature from its inception in the colonial period. In her novel Ahiron we find the following boldly feminist statement about a woman’s assertion of her right over her own body: “A woman is completely free to love and bear children according to her own choice. Isn’t this the view of Isadora Duncan too?” Not only in such statements but also through her use of a language which is rich with imagery and metaphors expressive of a distinctly female eroticism, Mamoni Raisom’s writing is marked by what Julia Kristeva calls “the flow of juissance into language”. Thus, though Mamoni has said that she is not a die-hard feminist ( “jabardast feminist”), her writings can be easily interpreted as a variety of ecriture feminine. Her language itself bears the imprint of the female consciousness.The portrayal of the woman who is denied her share of jouissance, crosses all national boundaries in Mamoni’s writings. Whether it is the Brahmin widows of Vrindaban and Kamrup in Nilakanthi Braj and Dontal Hatir Uinye Khowa Howda or the neglected white woman who retreats to the Kamakhya temple in search of peace ( Chinnamastar Manuhto) ,or the working-class women in Mamore Dhara Tarowal, Ahiran and Chenabar Srot, they are all victims of unfulfilled desire. The quest for happiness that would ensure a woman’s freedom of choice in her most intimate relationships is a theme that runs through all her creative endeavour. In the writings of Assamese women such a theme has never been explored so boldly before. Yet, in all her works, except in her autobiographical notes, the women are portrayed as a tragic generation suffering from a deep sense of guilt and remorse for their inability to rein in their libido. They are pursued relentlessly to their doom by the Furies of their own mental creation. The two Brahmin widows Soudamini (in Nilakanthi Braj) and Giribala (in Dontal Hatir Uinye Khowa Howda) commit suicide at the end because they are unable to face the consequences of social transgression. Damayanti, the Brahmin widow in her short story “Sangskar” is unable to accept a man from a lower caste although he promises to give her a better life. The dilemma that haunts the women in Mamoni’s novels is the one that is faced by every woman who leads a dual existence--- one pulls her back constantly to the old world bound by orthodox values, and the other holds promises of opportunities to carve out an independent space of one’s own in a metropolitan environment where individual liberty is allowed more legitimacy over one’s gender or community identity. This unending effort to negotiate between the two worlds had been a part of the writer’s own struggle in life and the experience imparts a haunting tragic quality to all the women characters in her novels. There is hardly any character in Goswami’s writings who transcends her sufferings and acquires a dignified tragic poise or who achieves a triumphant fulfillment of her dreams , against all odds, like the Mamoni of her autobiographical Adhalekha Dastabej.

Mamoni Raisom Goswami had her share of unhappiness and suffering , but the drowning woman surfaced again and again, re-inventing herself each time in her new incarnations , as a serious scholar of the epics, as a teacher and as a social activist. And, she never ceased to wield her pen in any of her incarnations. In her early teens she lost her father who was her friend and mentor then, and Mamoni was inconsolable. But her short stories appeared in print soon afterwards and she became known in Assam as a writer. Her married life was a short and tragic one. She stepped into her first marriage against the wishes of her family and it broke up soon because of vehement opposition from her orthodox family. Her second marriage was to Madhaven Raisom Iyengar, a young and adventurous engineer who was employed in the construction of bridges and river-dams. Mamoni accompanied him to different work-sites in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir where, under his inspiration, she collected material on the lives of migrant labourers. Ahiran, Chenabar Srot and Mamore Dhara Tarowal are based on her field studies of that period. But, after less than two years of married life , Madhaven died in a tragic road accident in Kashmir. Mamoni went through a terrible period of depression, but she reinvented herself through hard work. She taught at the Goalpara Sainik School for a while and then joined her research supervisor at Vrindavan to immerse herself in the study of the Ramayana. She obtained her PhD for a comparative study of Tulsi Das’s Ramcharit Manas and Madhav Kandali’s Assamese Ramayana, but her experience of staying alone in a temple in Vrindavan gave her deep insight into the lives of the widows there. Her Nilakanthi Braj is one of the earliest and most perceptive studies on the lives of the widows of Vrindavan. Indira Goswami joined the Department of Modern Indian Languages of Delhi University in 1971 as a Lecturer and retired as a Professor from the same department. During her stay in Delhi Mamoni was actively involved in academic and cultural work, but writing always remained her spiritual citadel which gave her refuge from her sorrows and through which she achieved almost every reward that a writer can aspire for---- the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Katha National Award, International Tulsi Award, Jnanpith Award, the Principal Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands, and the Kamal Kumari National Award, among others.

Mamoni Raisom Goswami was one of those few regional-language writers in the country who has transcended all regional barriers. She has peopled her novels with characters drawn from different linguistic groups with diverse social backgrounds across different regions of India. In fact there are very few novels of hers which have Assam as their location. In this sense she merits recognition as a regional writer whose chosen area was the whole country and beyond. Mamoni was as deeply perturbed by the traumatic experiences of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and the violent events in its aftermath which she has depicted so sensitively in her novel Tej Aru Dhulire Dhusarita Prishtha, as she was by the dehumanizing effects of militancy-related violence in Assam . She was planning to write a novel dealing with the effect of political violence on the common people of Assam and in order to gather first-hand knowledge on the subject, she toured the worst-affected areas of the state where violence perpetrated by the ULFA militants and those inflicted by the government forces during counter-insurgency operations, was most visible. Mamoni sums up her experience of this tour in the following words: “During the early part of 2005 I was travelling through many places in Upper and Lower Assam, particularly infested with the problem of ULFA. My main intention was to write a novel on this problem. I had been to the residences of Paresh Barua and Arabinda Rajkhowa too. I had been to one of their transit camps located in Mudoibari in Darrang district. I visited Kakopathar and Dhemaji also and heard the blood-tinted stories from the local people.” But, after she witnessed the sufferings of the people caught in the cross-fire between the militants and the State and the total lack of developmental efforts in the ULFA-infested regions which had resulted in immense hardship for the people, she changed her mind about writing a novel on the subject. This is the expected response from a sensitive mind which finds itself unable to represent a traumatic situation immediately after witnessing it. For, trauma can be depicted only as a delayed representation, after the experience becomes a part of historical memory. She writes: “Gradually it dawned in my mind that instead of writing a novel I should try to diffuse the inferno with my very limited capacity. I am not a politician. Neither have I been interested in politics ever in my life. I am simply a writer. I shall remain ever grateful to the Government of India and the ULFA for having honoured me by accepting my appeal for initiating a peace process.” Under her initiative, ice was broken for the first time between the militants and the Government, and Mamoni devoted herself wholeheartedly to the tricky business of negotiating between the militants and the state. Some of the ULFA leaders were her fans and they trusted her enough to nominate her as the Chief Coordinator of a hand-picked group of people who had their mandate to facilitate the peace-process. Thus the People’s Consultative Group was formed in September 2005 which held a series of discussions with the Government of India to bring the ULFA to the negotiation table. But, all their efforts failed to initiate the much-expected direct talks between ULFA and the GOI and, exactly a year after its formation, the PCG withdrew from the peace process when New Delhi announced the resumption of operations against the ULFA.. Mamoni was sorely disappointed. Meanwhile, she was also targeted for derisive attacks by a section of the Press for what was termed as her na├»ve and innocent faith in her capacity to influence the ULFA leaders as well as the politicians at the helm of affairs. Her first major illness soon afterwards incapacitated her considerably though she continued till the end to play a meaningful role in the civil society initiative under the “Jatiya Abhibartan” to bring about a political solution to the ULFA problem. Mamoni Raisom’s predicament as a peace-broker raises a very pertinent question as to how equipped creative writers actually are to play a major role in peace negotiations between insurgents and the government in the modern world where conflict resolution has become a highly structured subject? Where astute professionals have not been able to make much of a headway, do writers have enough time or patience to play the role of mediators or facilitators? A creative writer often finds herself in a quandary when she is unable to grasp the intricacies of the political equations that decide the moves of the contending parties during a peace process. Mamoni Raisom Goswami’s efforts might have failed , but it is the effort and not the result that makes us human. Mamoni journeyed through life with all her human frailties and her vanities ; but her phoenix-like resilience to reinvent herself , her faith in herself to live life according to her own beliefs and ideals , and her gentle demeanor that endeared her to many , will continue to inspire.

Originally published in The Economic and Political Weekly, December 2011. Uploaded here with permission from the author.

Poem : Ode to a Whore

Painting : Jiten Hazarika, for Pain and Flesh

Ode to a Whore

By Indira Goswami

People say that
I excel in making wine.
I can turn the wine
which is brewed today
a hundred years old.
It can make people frenzied and wild
wine that I brew, drinking
I too am constantly intoxicated.

My fleshy breasts
Now sleeps like a dead river.
I now can turn this river into a sharp weapon.

The wine I brew
knows how to make
songs from stone, songs from ashes.
People despair to discover my mystery,
they smash their heads
against walls, iron pillars.
They scream, Ah! What is this boon
the heavens bestow upon her path.
How do I say
the way I have brewed
this mellow wine?
I have lain fainted
In the dark hall of sorrow!
In agony
I have whipped my own flesh
and have drunk my own blood.
I couldn’t
take off my clothes
in front of my lovers.
And I had a hundred lovers.
yet, I remained a virgin.

The women from the other
Bank of the river, scream
You are a sinner
You will earn a leper’s death!

My body, which is like
the supple bodies of barali-fish
that dance with the waves of the Red River!
My breasts—the Saramati Peak
in the Tuensang valley.
My mekhela is like
those branches of Rhododendron
which bloom in the Satoi Ranges!

The women from the
other bank of the river –
spit their venom
Oh hunted woman! Let your body
become a feast for

The Ladies with white hair
from the other bank of the river
Cry out with many voices!
Oh women, don’t gouge at her flesh!
Who knows, those men who
remain like your immediate shadow
would have tried the silky
skin of their own daughters!
Who knows, who knows!
Wise men say, whores are the generals
of the Wars!
Like rivers they lay their traps
Like mountains they protect
the innocent souls!
Oh women, abide by the
Songs of the monk!
Don’t gouge at the flesh of whores!
They know unknown
travelers and murky hunters!
Yes, wise men say, that whores are
the weary generals of the Wars!

My body turned into a skeleton;
my skin swung
loosely on the bones
like the hide of a beast
strung up by a butcher
on a long post
to dry!
The demon of misery
and sorrow
looking for my heart
raked my body with its nails!

Suddenly, I discovered the art of
making wine.

I could ford this
river of separation
which flows in the
guise of human life!
which has kept in its bosom
those ancient maps
of the kingdoms burnt into ashes.

Came floating the golden pitcher from the pages of Samhitas
and from the wombs of the Upanishadas
a heavenly voice cries out
Oh Lady, with the heavy breasts
Open! Open the Lid!!...

Many days and many nights
I brewed wine—to open the lids of the golden pitcher
which came from the womb of the Upanishads
Alas, I failed!
drinking made me wild,
only failures drink like a fish!

Suddenly, the lid
Standing on the other side of
the river—
I saw the glittering
shards of my wine glasses
scattered in a thousand pieces.

Fiction : The Empty Chest

 Anthologized in The Shadow of Kamakhya (Rupa) and translated by Pradipta Borgohain, this is a haunting story of doomed love and one of the best love stories written in Assamese.

The Empty Chest : A Love story by Indira Goswami

Indira Goswami and Women’s Empowerment

"The common thread in Indira Goswami’s immensely diverse and rich oeuvre is the concern for women. . . Despite the complex interstices, I see no contradictions—only a holistic expression of India’s many challenges to women’s empowerment and a gifted writer moulding them into creative forms," writes Malashri Lal

  • Deepa Mehta’s Fire came many years later and was visually far too explicit about same sex love. Mehta’s next film, Water, appeared even further in time and resorted to locked stereotypes of Hindu widowhood. Indira Goswami had nuanced the widow’s deprivation of body, passion, emotion, and woven it into a perceptive text much ahead of the rest.
  • Hindu patriarchal traditions have often got away with justifications about oppressive gender practice by claiming that “women are worshipped as goddesses”, so “what is there to complain about.” . . . Indira probes the causes, the rituals, the unquestioned “beliefs” which perpetuate oppression.
  • Her tools for engendering social change were the written word, and later, the spoken address in public arena.

“I try to write from the direct experiences of my life. I only mould these experiences with my imagination.” Indira Goswami

The first impression upon seeing Indira Goswami is one of bedazzlement. A resplendent woman wrapped in an elegant red saree bordered in gold catches the eye. A cluster of listeners cling to her words. The soft spoken creative writer, Indira, is addressing the political causes of the marginalized and the disadvantaged. She speaks about the misguided youth in Assam, the widows of Vrindavan, the women labourers in industry. In her person, Indira seems clad in an aura of genteel privilege. Her dark eyes are intense with passion; her mobile expression and modulated voice enter into the crevices of experience of the weak and the dispossessed. There is commitment and conviction—she sees social evils as few women of her class do.

Indira Goswami, to my mind, interrogates several facets of women’s empowerment in India. Foremost among these are attitudes to girl children, marriage and widowhood. Indira’s life maps crucial transitions. Born in 1942 to Umakanta Goswami, she had the good fortune to receive a high quality education in Shillong. Married at a young age to Madhaven Raisom Ayengar, an engineer, she enjoyed happy matrimony for only eighteen months. Then tragedy struck. Ayengar died in a car accident in Kashmir and Indira found herself mentally and physically destabilized. In a moving autobiography, Adhalekha Dastaveja, published in 1988, Indira recalls how she shut herself in a small room in Goalpara and contemplated suicide, and how her only sustenance was the memory of a carefree childhood and the letters of her father. In other words, the privileged past seemed over and widowhood had cast a dark shadow on Indira’s self image even more than on her external circumstances. In some confusion she accepted a suggestion to choose a life in Vrindavan, the most traditional destination of bereft Hindu widows. It is not that Indira had no other possibilities. She recounts in her memoirs that two paths were before her: she could have proceeded to London, "that land of ancient Western tradition and culture" or she could move to Vrindavan, "the centre of ancient Hindu tradition and culture." It is important to remember that English education for women from upper class families had brought an easy familiarity with the British models of education and women’s lives. Widowhood was no stigma there, and a foreign locale could have, in a sense, “liberated” a woman from the stranglehold of orthodoxy in India. However, Indira went to the land of Braja.
Was this the right “choice” or was it imposed by a powerful internal monitor called “patriarchy”? Goswami spent two years amidst the Radhaswami sect widows in Vrindavan, entering their fold as a compassionate member but also as a researcher. The ensuing novel, Neel Kanthi Braja (trans by Prafulla Katoky as Shadow of Dark God, 1986), is an amazing narrative combining fact and fiction, autobiography and reflection. As Indira Goswami introduces the novel, “I have tried to show how the mental and physical state of a young widow takes a different shape and how this change affects her life after her widowhood.” Saudamini, the protagonist, is a thinly disguised mask of the author. She volunteers to take on severe deprivations of the body, a sort of self purification by which needs are so reduced that confrontations with life’s imperatives become inevitable. Despite caring parents, and a supportive community at most times, Saudamini agitatedly probes and digs as deep as possible into the meaning of widowhood. This is the crucial point to remember about the novel’s theme. Neel Kanthi Braja is about social attitudes and the inner consciousness of a woman who has been brought up to believe that widowhood is somehow her “fault” or her “destiny, and that she should undertake “penance.”
Saudamini accepts, analyses and finally rejects the construction of the widow stereotype—this is Indira’s message—and it is also Indira’s story. The message that is further pertinent to the empowerment agenda may be read through the tripartite presentation of three women in the novel: Saudamini and her acquaintances, Shashi and Mrinalini. One is the “kept” of a temple priest, derided for accepting this option in preference to “suffering” the fate of widowhood. That Shashi suffers more severely through the loveless attachment to an impotent priest and secretly harbours lesbian desire is sufficiently built into the storyboard but seldom highlighted by critics. To me it is important that Indira in 1986 had empathetically portrayed such emotions well ahead of their utterance in public space in India. Deepa Mehta’s Fire came many years later and was visually far too explicit about same sex love. Mehta’s next film, Water, appeared even further in time and resorted to locked stereotypes of Hindu widowhood. Indira Goswami had nuanced the widow’s deprivation of body, passion, emotion, and woven it into a perceptive text much ahead of the rest.
Saudamini’s other companion is Mrinalini, daughter of a temple owner who has fallen upon poor days due to mismanagement of his fortune. Here again is a topical theme—that of a woman’s economic dependence on the father and her subjection to his ill founded financial decisions. The temple is sold off—the scion (there is no female equivalent to the word!) of an ancient family is brought to penury through no fault of hers. The point I emphasize is that Indira Goswami speaks of the politics of social construction even when she is composing what appears to be material from her experience of a cultural milieu. It is not a personal widowhood that comprises the substance of her novel, but the attendant layers of the implications of this life-condition for various women.
Vrindavan is even today a site of gender discourse and hence I link Goswami’s narrative to what I observed during visits to an ashram called Amaar Baari. The Guild of Service has created a place for elderly widows abandoned by their families and tried to rehabilitate them by giving them the dignity of a place of their own. We addressed each woman as “Ma”, and asked a few questions. Almost all the women said they had been brought to Vrindavan by a “caring male relative” and then left with a promise that they will “soon be called home.” The invitation to return never came. In this period of timeless waiting, the fortunate ones discovered the collective identity of Amaar Bari, and found their individual talents and spaces. A vignette stands out in my memory. One Ma who looked close to eighty was asked if she would sing for us, “the visitors from Delhi.” As she hobbled up from her seat and gradually straightened her curved back, I wondered why we were putting her through this display. A faint tune emerged from her wizened lips and soon gathered strength and melody. Here hands started moving to the music, her body turned to dance postures, and in a few minutes, the music and the gestures had transported us to the world of spotlights and dance halls. Clearly she had received training-taleem—in these genres of entertainment. Whom had she sung and danced for? In return, what favours were given and under what terms? These were research questions unanswered and rendered irrelevant. We saw before us that Vrindavan still beckons widows, still offers refuge. But there is a difference. Civil society organizations are aware of the plight, and are active in bringing much more than sustenance to the widows: self worth and belonging.
Let me further say that Indira Goswami’s personal narratives and her fiction offer a carefully drawn continuum of social change. Goswami’s novel Chinnamastar Manuhto (trans. by Prashant Goswami as The Man From Chinnamasta, 2006) is worth considering in this context if only because the title in English draws attention to a male centered tale. Read it and one finds the core in the man’s devotion to the Goddess Kamakhya enshrined in her famous temple in Assam. According to popular mythology, this is one of the holiest of the pitha sthana, where an intimate part of Parvati’s dismembered body is lodged. By tradition, Kamakhya is all powerful—a contrast to the helpless widows of Vrindavan. The Goddess commands blood. Animal sacrifice—frequent and ceremonial—soaks into the temple grounds. Maddened devotees smear the blood on their forehead, dance in it, trance in it. This is Woman’s other Avatar—the commandeering authority. Indira Goswami places the story in the 1930’s but the sociological implications are absolutely current. Hindu patriarchal traditions have often got away with justifications about oppressive gender practice by claiming that “women are worshipped as goddesses”, so “what is there to complain about.” The tribute to the pedestal and the brutality at home are the contradictions that show up in social space today and have led to the widespread protest against domestic violence. Indira probes the causes, the rituals, the unquestioned “beliefs” which perpetuate oppression.
Who is the man from Chinnamasta—a wandering jattadhari with matted locks who tries to stop the animal sacrifice and arouse a more sensitive conscience of co-existence? Indira’s research into history and ethnography showed no religious sanction for the blood rituals. She was appalled by the orgies of the flesh and the celebrations of frenzy. The gentle author and the social activist came together to craft a novel that is a page turner. The distance between religion and ritual is subtly debated. The polemics are so embedded that one reads for story but takes away a message of respect for an environment of which a woman, Goddess Kamakhya, is the agent. Again I am amazed by Indira’s foresightedness. Ecofeminism, Green Peace and Animal Rights are relatively new slogans.
There are many more aspects to Indira Goswami’s “womanism” but instead of entering details let me try to sketch a pattern. As a young woman she found tragedy and pain whereas she was born to happiness and privilege. Performing an act of self-withdrawal, she came out stronger with the realization of a map of social problems relating to women. Her tools for engendering social change were the written word, and later, the spoken address in public arena. I don’t mean to codify Indira Goswami’s creative journey for no gifted writer “plans” a path as such, but for the readers and critics, a pattern stands out discernibly.
To me, Indira is a composite writer endowed with a remarkable felicity with language and expression. Says Indira, “The language, to me, is a velvet dress in which I endeavour to cover the restless soul in its journey through existence.” The restlessness springs from an urge to speak out her commitment to the causes of equity and justice. No wonder then that the Ramayana, that epical tale about moral dilemma, should attract her as the platform for contemporary debates. In Vrindavan she had bought a massive volume of Tulsidas's Ramayana which continues to hold a special place and inspire her study of the 11th century Assamese Ramayana by Sri Madhava Kandali. Goswami’s views published in Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra have been expanded by many seminar presentations. Lately when I contacted Indira Goswami for her views on Sita, she generously shared her thoughts on the use of mythological women characters in shaping current ideologies. For some years now Indira has been busy in trying to bring about a Peace process in Assam through the People's Consultative Group. That the militancy in Assam caused her to abandon her writing desk and accept the role of a mediator should come as no surprise.
In Delhi too Indira Goswami has been engaged with civil concerns. When the anti Sikh riots brought the city to shame in 1984, Indira’s personal and professional life was caught in turmoil. Indira was teaching at the University of Delhi and had a residence in Shakti Nagar. Her novel The Pages Stained With Blood captures the brutality and the distrust in the cityscape where the fugitives from justice and the perpetrators of crime are difficult to distinguish. To understand the complex nature of mercenary agents of crime, Indira even visited the infamous GB Road and spoke to the sex workers.
The common thread in Indira Goswami’s immensely diverse and rich oeuvre is the concern for women. In her person and in her work this is echoed multifariously. Despite the complex interstices, I see no contradictions—only a holistic expression of India’s many challenges to women’s empowerment and a gifted writer moulding them into creative forms.
© Malashri Lal. This essay may not be reproduced in any form without the prior permission of the author.