Nov 30, 2011

Indira Goswami, in a big, red bindi and bright colours

A beloved daughter of Assam, writer, peacemaker

Her novels, short stories had appeal wider than boundaries of her State

Indira Goswami, who died on Tuesday aged 69, was among India's most celebrated contemporary writers whose work spoke boldly and evocatively for the empowerment of women and other marginalised sections of society across the country. For this, she won the nation's highest literary honours, and respect and adulation in her home State Assam, where she was known as “baideiu” or elder sister. In recent years, she used her public standing and influence to mediate between the separatist group ULFA and the government, paving the way for talks between the two sides.

Writing under the name of Mamoni Raisom, she won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983, the Jnanpith in 2001, and literary prizes from almost every Indian State. In 2008, she received the Prince Claus Award in the Netherlands. With their pan-Indian themes, her novels and short stories, most of which have been translated from the Assamese into English and several Indian languages, had appeal wider than the boundaries of her State. Indira Goswami was not just an Assamese litterateur; she was a national writer from Assam.

Far ahead of its times, her Neelkantha Braja was one of the earliest works of Indian literature to highlight the exploitation of destitute widows in Brindavan. The book was born out of Goswami's own early widowhood, and a short experimental stay in a widows' home in the U.P town.

The plight of widows in Hindu society, and the oppression of girls and women were themes that ran through most of her other work, notably in Dontal Hatir Une Khowda Howda (The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker), which is set in a sattra — a Vaishnavite monastery in Assam — and is a modern Indian classic.

Her novel about the bloody anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, Pages Stained with Blood, haunts the reader long after it is read. She told me once about a visit to the riot-hit Jahangir Puri. “You know, I had never seen so many fresh widows together wailing in a chorus,” she said.

Indira Goswami was born in November 1942 in a well-to-do Vaishnavite Brahmin family in Assam. She was educated in Shillong and Guwahati. In 1962, a meeting with Madhevan Raisom Ayengar, a young engineer from Mysore who was working on the construction of the Saraighat Bridge in Guwahati, led to love and to marriage. But the marriage was short-lived. Less than two years later, Madhevan was killed in a road accident in Kashmir, where the couple was then living. They had no children.

In Assam, Indira Goswami's life is an open book. Her frank Adhalekha Dastavej (An Unfinished Autobiography), written in 1988, details her battle with intense depression after her husband's death, her nights with sleeping tablets, handfuls of which she swallowed in two attempts to end her life, and the story of how she won the struggle by immersing herself completely in her writing. It has been read widely in Assam. Even people who have not read it would know about her life, in the way everyone knows a folktale. Most of her early novels run so close to her real life that it is difficult to separate fiction from reality, especially for those who have read her autobiography.

She later joined the Modern Indian Language (MIL) department of Delhi University, and went on to head its Assamese language department. To honour her, the University made her the Professor Emeritus in 2009 after her retirement. It was during her stint in the national capital that she attained national prominence.

She drew on other diverse settings for her novels. The Rusted Sword is set against a worker's agitation in Madhya Pradesh. The Chenab's Current is the story of exploitation of labourers working for companies building an aqueduct over the Chenab River in Kashmir, and drew from her own experience in the Valley.

It was the quest for justice, a running thread of her oeuvre, that may have propelled her into getting involved in mediating between the separatist group ULFA and the government; perhaps, she was the only person who both sides could trust.

Her own efforts came at a time when the Assamese people had begun looking at the ULFA with mixed feelings. Like other Assamese, she was deeply disturbed by the Dhemaji blasts of 2004, in which the ULFA targeted a school on Independence Day, killing many children. She had been working on a novel set against the Assamese separatist movement. The bloodshed and human rights violations shook her to the core. She wanted the insurgency to end. But her desire to bring back the lost “boys” of the generation invited people to look at the militants with a new perspective, as products of the unjust eighties of Assam.

Critics dismissed it as a political move but she was detached about her involvement from the beginning. She stressed she was just an “observer” in spite of playing an influential role in the process. By the time she had a cerebral stroke in 2007 and was able to recover from it, she believed she had done her bit for it. Moi duwar muoli kori disu (I have opened doors to discussion), she said, and was eager to get back to what she loved most: writing. Thus emerged The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, her last novel about a Bodo woman who fought against the British.

But that first stroke was the beginning of the deterioration in her health. Even though she remained active in public life, it exhausted her. Right until the end, when she spoke, Assam listened.

After she was hospitalised early this year, the endless stream of visitors to her intensive care ward overwhelmed not just her family and friends, but the hospital authorities too. Suddenly, that corridor that led to her room in Guwahati Medical College Hospital had transformed into an equalising space where politicians in power, and out of power, came to visit her, jostling for space with innumerable unknown and known admirers.

Turning the pages of the visitors' notebook that had filled up with thousands of greetings within days, it struck me then that this is what she had hoped Assam would be one day: where everyone would be equal and united, something she always tried to suggest with her fiction. Across Assam and in several parts of India prayer-meets were organised by her admirers. Mass texts were circulated: forward this to people if you want her to recover; and people did. One evening when I had gone to the hospital to meet her family I was struck by a sight of hundreds of mustard oil lamps lit by people at the entrance. It looked like Diwali.

Truly, when she spoke, 31 million people listened. May be more. I don't know of any other contemporary author in the world who occupied such a central place and unparalleled popularity in the public imagination.