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.