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.