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Updated: June 1, 2013 17:17 IST

Searching for one’s place

KANKANA BASU
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The Bronze Sword of Thengphakri Tehsildar; Indira Goswami; Zubaan, Rs.295.
The Hindu
The Bronze Sword of Thengphakri Tehsildar; Indira Goswami; Zubaan, Rs.295.

Vivid, haunting and disturbing, Indira Goswami’s characters stay with us long after the last page.

Though the writer is no more, her name continues to conjure up a vision of vibrant features capped by unruly hair, kohl-lined eyes and a big bindi. Her writing hits you with the same intensity. Indira Goswami’s The Blue-Necked God and The Bronze Sword of Thengphakri Tehsildar — translated by Gayatri Bhattacharyya and Aruni Kashyap respectively — revive two very controversial works.

The Blue-Necked God is chiefly about the beautiful and lonely Saudamini and her anguished search for meaning and validity. It is also about the fractured nature of life in the holy city of Braj where greed alternates with godliness, beauty with bestiality, enlightenment with decadence and plenty with poverty. The widowed Saudamini, along with her mother Mrinalini and father Dr. Roychoudhury, is on her way to settle down permanently in Braj, and is exposed to the plight of Braj’s widows, or radheshyamis. Vivid images of the city stamp themselves on Saudamini’s senses: the exquisite sculpture of artist Chandrabhanu Rakesh, the changing moods of the Yamuna, the flower-bedecked processions of deities, disintegration of gender demarcations. But, beneath it all, she is constantly besieged by paranoia, doubts, existential questions to which there appear to be no ready answers.

Indira Goswami paints a searing picture of social injustices where women are used, discarded and preyed upon with shocking regularity. Though it seems deceptively simple on the surface, the images the novel conveys are visceral.

In The Bronze Sword of Thengpakhri Tehsildar, Indira Goswami traces the early life of Thengpakhri Tehsildar, a Bodo freedom fighter who was also said to be the first woman revenue collector in British India. The story is narrated in a simple linear style with a great deal of importance given to the scenic beauty of Assam.

Captain Hardy has trained the beautiful and statuesque Thengpakhri to fire a gun, ride horses and collect taxes from the locals with unrelenting toughness. Whenever she shows signs of succumbing to the pleas of the impoverished farmers, her superior, Macklinson Sahib, braces her from giving in to pity or weakness. She is promoted to the post of Tehsildar and is soon the most feared tax-collector in the area. But winds of dissent are sweeping through the countryside. The inhuman taxes levied on poor farmers by the British and the cruel treatment meted out to those who fail to pay have provoked strong reactions among the locals and a section of the younger generation are caught making crude bombs and explosives. A visit to Queen Bhagyeshwori in the company of Macklinson ignites a series of events that will alter the history and geography of Assam forever and Thengpakhri finds herself caught in a tug-of-war between her innermost ethics and loyalties.

No two novels could be more different in style and substance. In The Blue-Necked God, the women traipse in and out, slices of their lives captured like shards of coloured glass. Impressionistic and whimsical, these individual stories often end in ambiguity. Yet, these random chips come together to form an exquisite mosaic. No such esoteric treatment is evident in The Bronze Sword of Thengphakri Tehsildar, the story unfolding starkly and simply. With Saudamini, there is the constant feeling of sliding over the edge of sanity and clawing back to terra firma; while Thengpakhri, ever stoic, maintains an unflappable equanimity. The women in both novels are vastly diverse in temperament and yet the searing search for one’s rightful place in the broader socio-political arena is the same.

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