Indira Goswami’s novel on the legendary Bodo heroine Thengphakhri was not just about the life of a forgotten heroine, but also an attempt to reignite interest in an under-represented region of Assam’s history.

I don’t remember exactly when Indira Goswami had announced to the Assamese media that she was working on a novel about the forgotten, legendary Bodo heroine Thengphakhri, who had apparently worked as a Tehsildar during the British regime in Assam. Thengphakhri is a compelling character to write a novel on. When the educated Indians, social reformers and the British government were trying to fight misogynist practices such as Sati, child marriage, purdah-system and encourage widow-remarriage, in Assam there was a woman working with the British officers, shoulder to shoulder, as a tax collector who rode a horse, wore a hat and had knee-length black hair. But the sad truth is that, until Goswami wrote about her, most people in Assam hadn’t even heard of this extraordinary lady.

Assam had heard of Mula Gabhoru, who fought Turbak’s army in April, 1532 commanding a battalion of male and female soldiers; of Phuleswaree Kunwori, a devadasi who sat on the throne of the Ahom Dynasty and ruled Assam from 1722 to 1731 when devadasis were not respected, lived under deplorable conditions and sexually exploited in other parts of India; of Kanaklata Barua, the 14-year-old martyr of the Quit India Movement, 1942. Thengpkahiri remained only among the memories of some old people, in folk songs, in folk tales that were told and retold. Goswami’s choice to reconstruct the life of this heroine from historical as well as oral sources may be perceived as a significant intervention in the socio-political life of Assam.

The Bodos, also known as kacharis are the largest group of plain tribes in Assam. For a long time, the Assamese middle-class — both Hindu and Muslim — have neglected, denied them equal share and representation in various spheres of Assam. Since the Assamese middle class —who controlled most aspects of Assam’s political and social life — denied their larger ethnic aspirations, the Bodos felt alienated and started demanding a separate homeland.

The extremist outfit National Democratic Front of Bodoland was formed in 1986 with the aim to establish a sovereign Bodo nation. Later, in 1996, another armed outfit, Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force was formed to establish a separate state of Bodoland within the Indian nation. By 2009 when Thengphakhri was published, a peace accord in 2003 between the Indian Government and the BLT, placed the former insurgents in position of power allowing them to fight elections and form a government; the NDFB had been maintaining a ceasefire from 2005 (at present they are split into anti-talks and pro-talks NDFB). The past two decades of violence, the xenophobia of the Bodos, their popular slogan ‘Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty’ had created an irreparable chasm in the relationship of the Bodos and the Residents of Assam (I mention the term “residents of Assam” very consciously because the brunt of the Bodo movement has been faced also by Assamese settler communities such as Nepalis, Bengalis, Marwaris, Biharis, etc. who had made Assam their home for several generations.)

The growth of Bodo-nationalism was not only a story of bloodshed. The Bodo Sahitya Sabha’s support also led to the growth of Bodo literature. Popular Assamese books were also translated into Bodo that played the role of promoting understanding among the communities and kept hope alive. The publication of Thenphakhri was a significant cultural moment among the Bodos. It is attested by the fact that Goswami was awarded the seventh Upendranath Brahma Soldier of Humanity Award by the Upendranath Brahma Trust. Brahma is one of the most revered Bodo leaders. The award is offered to any person who has made remarkable contributions to the society.

Goswami, a visionary, could see what role literature could play to bring the two communities together. This project on a forgotten Bodo heroine by one of India’s most respected writers has deep significance: She was actually transplanting Bodo life and culture, their contribution to India’s Freedom Struggle in the centre of India’s literary and cultural imagination. In 2009, when she had asked me to translate the novel, I had readily agreed. I wanted to participate in this historic process of bringing the story of Thengphakhri to the centre of Assam and India’s literary discourse.

Writing the novel was an ambitious project not only because of the lack of proper historical evidence about Thengphakhri, but also because Goswami creates her as an introvert. She rarely speaks and we only see her in actions. Unlike her previous novels, where the thoughts of her characters are very closely mapped, Goswami had the challenging task of showing the complex emotions of her character only through her actions and very little dialogue.

In 2007, she visited Bijni — where Thengphakhri had apparently lived and worked until her death in 1879 or 1895 (disputed date). A symposium was organised by Bodo scholars to help Goswami at the Badosa Bhavan. During that visit she had met an old man Batiram Bodo who claimed to have met Thenphakhri. He told Goswami that she used to come to his village Bogeedara, from her village Khamoriguri, with a British officer called “Naken Sahab”. “Naken” is an unfamiliar British name, but so are several names mentioned in the novel. I believe, though Goswami moored her book on historical research, she had to rely mostly on memory and orality. A lot of names have been colloquialised in course of time, to be remembered only in their distorted versions. In a way, she had to create Thengphakhri nearly from scratch. It is amazing how vivid and real the world she has etched meticulously is despite her obstacles.

The Ahoms ruled Assam for 600 years until the British took over in 1826. This long period of Assam’s history is recorded with great detail by the Ahom scribes in the form of chronicles known as buranjis. A special office called “Likhakar Barua” was created that commissioned scribes to write these narratives on the basis of official documents such as state papers, judicial proceedings, diplomatic correspondences, etc. But these buranjis are silent about the powerful smaller kingdoms such as Bijni, Dimoriya, Tiwa, Kamata, Kachari etc, of middle and lower Assam regions. Modern history writing in Assam has also maintained a silence about these smaller kingdoms with fascinating, dramatic histories and intriguing royal families. Indira Goswami laments this in her “Prostavana” to the novel. In a way, Goswami’s creative endeavour inaugurates not just the life of a forgotten heroine, but also rejuvenates interest in a hitherto under-represented region of Assam’s history.

Though the novel was published as a book in December 2009, most readers had already read it as it was serialised in the prestigious fortnightly Prantik. Assam’s media witnessed vigorous discussions and debate on the historical accuracies of Thengphakhri. Some scholars argued that she wasn’t a Tehsildar, but held a lower position. When I started translating the novel, I was aware of those debates. But I was interested only in the literary truth of the novel. What does the literary rebirth of Thengphakhri mean for the Bodo people? How does it change the way Assamese people have perceived Bodos? Does it generate understanding among the two nearly-warring communities? Would the slogan “Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty” change because of this event and everyone would try to work towards a more inclusive Assam now that Indira Goswami has written this novel that underscores the contribution of Bodo people to India’s Freedom Movement? We will have to wait to see those, but Thengphakhri has no doubt joined the ranks of Kanaklata Barua and Mula Gabhoru because of Goswami’s literary intervention and hopefully, one day, will also be remembered in the same way as Jhansi Ki Rani.

Excerpted from the Introduction to The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan Books, January 2013) translated and introduced by Aruni Kashyap.

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