Adieu baideo…

A true artiste beats the personal to stretch out to the universal. Pain, pleasure, anguish, misery, hopelessness — his/her own understanding of an emotion finds an ingenious duct to explore a connect to the bigger reality that is us, the world.

Jnanpith awardee Indira Goswami fitted this sketch flawlessly. Like a true artiste, this much decorated academic-poet-writer and scholar of Ramayani studies and lately a peace broker between the Government and the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), had made her grief yours, ours, so beautifully. Having lost her husband Madhavan Raisom Ayengar in an accident in Kashmir just 18 months into marriage, Goswami became a young widow. Self-admittedly melancholic since childhood, widowhood added to her pall of gloom. Realising the gravity of her sadness, her teacher Upendra Chandra Lekharu persuaded her to go to Vrindavan, which turned out to be a cathartic exercise. Living in an ashram, a young Goswami saw what widowhood meshed in poverty has made of Hindu women. They had no say, no right, to seek pleasure, bodily or otherwise. Unwanted by their near ones, an unshed tear resting in the corner of the eye shrouded in a veil, became their life.

The experience shook Goswami deeply, prodding her to transcend her personal loss to become a part of a bigger truth, and she picked up her pen to write “Nilakantha Bajra” (“The Blue Necked Bajra”). The year was 1976. On its pages, she opened the postern of her inner self only to merge with that of countless other widows, thus giving Modern Indian Literature a sparkling piece. An eyebrow raiser, the book, originally written in Assamese and translated into many languages, became the a valuable account of the widows of Vrindavan. During an interview with The Hindu Metro Plus some years ago, Goswami highlighted that aspect of her writing: “For the first time I realised that my sadness is a part of a bigger reality.” Widowhood in Hindu India, its allied griefs and the society's silence over it remained her focus throughout and which also became the basis of a National Award winning Assamese film Adajya (1996).

Sixty- nine-year-old Goswami, who died in her home State Assam recently after protracted illness, continued to ply her pen in favour of a need for women empowerment in India in particular, and to sieve right from wrong, justice from exploitation, in general. The result is for readers to see, in the form of books like “Datal Hatir Uye Khua Howdah,” “Ahiron”, “Pages Stained with Blood” (on the 1984 Sikh Riots in Delhi), “The Rusted Sword” (based on a workers' agitation in Madhya Pradesh) and her autobiography, “Adha Lekha Dastabej” (An Unfinished Autobiography) among others.

Yet another remarkable work book was her “Man from Chinnamasta”. Born into a landed Brahmin family in Kamrup district of Assam, Goswami, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Modern Indian Languages of Delhi University till she passed away, saw closely the rigidities of rituals. The book, was a critique on animal sacrifice done in the Shakta temple of Kamakhya, which brought her both bouquets and brickbats. She once said that seeing goats killed for her father's feast for to the villagers made her turn a vegetarian. The cook at her Delhi house though used to make endless pots of masor jul (an Assamese fish curry) for homesick students studying in DU.

Without doubt, in the death of Goswami, popular in the Assamese society as Mamoni baideo (her pen name was Mamoni Raisom Goswami), not just modern Assamese writing but in particular and Indian contemporary literature in general has lost a creative voice that was at once incisive and brought within the compass of the pen the incongruities that brick our society. The rich oeuvre of Goswami — the first Assamese woman to receive the Jnanpith Award — will time and again be delved into by both students of literature and common readers, particularly for her nuanced mapping of Indian society.

Acknowledgement of her talent came in the form of many awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award (1982) and Jnanpith (2000) and also the Principal Prince Claus Award (2008), one of Europe's biggest literary accolades given for the first time to an Indian.

Goswami shifted base temporarily to Guwahati a few years ago to research two book ideas. One on a never told story of a Bodo woman, Thengphakiri, supposedly the first woman revenue collector in British India. The other was about the little known practice of sati pratha in Assam. She was particularly exploring the Koch dynasty in Lower Assam where after the death of the king in 1877, five of his queens and a concubine were burnt as sati. Being stuck to the bed for over seven months, Goswami could finish the first book only. She also couldn't see a united ULFA joining the peace process, much as she would have liked to. “My heart bled in seeing so many of our injured Assamese boys in an ULFA camp,” she once told The Hindu Metro Plus . That led her to take up the issue with the Centre.

Bestowed with the heart of a child, she was an animal lover, liked wearing bright colours, particularly red, meticulously drew kohl around her eyes, loved her curls; her smile once made V. S. Naipaul call her “the most beautiful woman”. Death has claimed all of these, it had to. But she has left behind her say, which would continue to prod the readers of Modern Indian Literature to question a wrong.


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