Surreal_ravi 2010-05-11 10:00:04
AUTHOR: Dr Indira Goswami – Assam’s fiery pen
By Shehar Bano Khan
As a young widow belonging to a high-born Brahmin family from Assam,
life could have taken an unbearable ritualistic toll on Indira
Goswami. Instead of securing an indelible place in Assamese
literature, going on to become one of the most celebrated authors of
India, conformist Hindu traditions would have strapped her to remain
just another ‘unfortunate’ and ‘ill-fated’ widow.
But Dr Indira Goswami’s struggle to change her stellar constellation
and her predestined status of widowhood earned her the Gayanpith Award
in 2000, the Indian equivalent of the Nobel Prize in literature. Two
years later, she was selected for the prestigious Padmashri Award,
which she refused for personal reasons.
The professor of Modern Indian Languages at the Delhi University, Dr
Goswami has been referred to in the Masterpiece of Indian Literature,
Vol I, published by the National Book Trust of India, as the greatest
present day woman writer in Assamese. And yet with more than 45 books,
several research papers, short stories, and international literary
awards to her credit, Indira Goswami’s tears were uncontrollable when
she held the first Urdu version of her Assamese work in Delhi.
commented Dr Goswami in an interview with Books and Authors.
Looking bridally radiant in a flaming red, silk sari, Dr Indira
Goswami was sipping the Assam blend tea in her hotel room in Lahore
before going to dinner to Dr Javed Iqbal’s house. She was part of the
literary group that had come to Pakistan to help improve relations
between the two perennially estranged neighbours.
Somehow, wearing a red sari sent out a very powerful message of a
woman not ready to accept oblivion on account of her social stratum.
If anything, the red tilak, marked prominently on her forehead, and
the heavily rimmed charcoal eyes made the task of remaining unnoticed
quite difficult if not impossible. When asked if a widow was allowed
to wear such a daring colour in India, Dr Goswami chuckled and
replied: “In places like Delhi you can, but not elsewhere. It would be
scandalous if I were seen in this colour in the religious city of
Vrindaban, Guwhati or any other place in Assam. Even in this day and
age, widows can’t wear such colours in small villages. I have long
stopped caring about what people would think of me. I live my own
life,” said Dr Goswami.
And so she does. Quite unlike the Brahmin widows of Vrindaban
characterized in her 1976 publication, the Blue Necked Braja. The book
had a tumultuous reception in Assam and Indira Goswami instantly
became a controversial name in Vrindaban.
In Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the River Yamuna lies the religious
city of Vrindaban. Some historians claim that in the 12th century BC,
Lord Krishna incarnated himself there and devotees believe that he
lived in Vrindaban for nearly 100 years.
“The Blue Necked Braja is set in Vrindaban. The plot revolves around
the plight, exploitation and miserable lives of the Brahmin widows who
spend their remaining years in the holy city in the hope of ‘mukti’
(salvation),” explained Dr Goswami. She said that the anguish and
suffering of its main character, Saudamini, largely reflected “my own
It was there in Vrindaban that Indira Goswami began her research work
and was awarded a PhD in 1973 from the Guwhati University for her
thesis on Comparative Study of Goswami Tulsi Das’ Ramcharitamanas and
Madhava Kandali’s Assamese Ramayana. Her voluminous work, Ramayana
From Ganga to Brahmaputra was published in 1996, which was personally
released by the former president of India, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma.
She was required to learn Hindi while researching the Ramayana
literature. “I had picked up a little bit of Hindi when I was studying
at Pine Mount School in Shillong, Assam, but it wasn’t sufficient.
Since my topic was a comparative study of the Ramayana by Tulsidas and
Madhav Kandali, I had to learn it properly,” said Indira Goswami.
But there was more than research which drew Indira to the great epic
poet, Tulsidas. In the words of Amrita Pritam, another distinguished
name among Indian writers, Indira was deeply inspired by Tulsidas. She
felt strangely drawn to this legendary poet who lead a life of misery
and was abandoned by his father because of being born under an unlucky
star. In the foreword to An Unfinished Autobiography (2002), written
by Indira Goswami, Amrita Pritam wrote, “…I know nothing about the
constellation of stars that had influenced Tulsidas’ life and much
less about Indira Goswami’s. All that I know is that, like Tulsidas,
her life had also undergone a metamorphosis. She has touched upon many
social problems… but the intensive manner in which she has dwelt
upon the problem of caste in one of her long stories is unique…”
In the same autobiography, Dr Goswami admitted that she was moved more
by the life of the poet than his work and drew a kind of inspiration
She too was born under unfavourable stars, or so the astrologers told
her mother. In Guwhati, Assam, Indira’s mother began a frantic
consultation with the pundits to reverse her unlucky stars. But
everybody predicted gloom for her. One of the pundits went so far as
to forewarn that it was ‘better to cut her into two and set her afloat
in the river than give her in marriage’. In October 1965, Indira
married Madhavan Iyenger, an engineer from Mysore and in 1967 lost him
to an accident in Kashmir.
Indira’s childhood was a strange mix of depression and delight. Her
exceptional relationship with her father brought her great happiness,
but at the same time, the thought of losing him and her near and dear
ones to death often put her under prolonged spells of mental unrest.
After the death of her father to cancer, the mental turbulence finally
drove her to attempt suicide. The failed attempt pushed her further
into melancholy, till she met Madhavan. “Many years have rolled by
since but the colour of Madhu’s bones has not undergone any change.
Only, I have changed several of the caskets in which I have preserved
them,” pondered Dr Goswami.
Her only salvation was writing. She poured her gloom on paper, picking
the sorrows of others and enmeshing them with her own to produce short
stories at first. Her first major novel, The Stream of Chenab,
published in 1972, set her firmly as a novelist. The story is set in a
construction site for a bridge on the river Chenab in Jammu and
Kashmir and deals with the people working for that construction
company. A similar subject of workers’ exploitation by the management
formed the basis of Dr Goswami’s plot in The Rusted Sword, published
in 1980. This novel, written in Assamese, won her the Sahitya Academy
Award in 1983.
In 1988, The Worm-Eaten Howda of a Tusker earned her the Assam Sahitya
Sabha Award. This novel primarily deals with the socio-economic
conditions of Sattra in the South Kamrup district of Assam. The novel
was a valiant attempt by Dr Goswami to reveal the feudal decadence of
the area and to openly criticize the repression of widows in an
orthodox Brahmin society. Later on, the novel was adapted for a
feature film in Assamese, which won several local and global awards.
“My two main subjects are migrant labourers and widows,” commented Dr
For a very long time Indira Goswami wandered around the desire to die
or to become a part of spiritual reclusivity practised by the ascetics
somewhere in the Himalayas. Had it not been for her supervisor Upendra
Chandra Lekharu in Vrindaban, the world of literature would not have
had this exceptionally gifted Assamese writer. “My teacher Upendra
Lekharu inspired me to be neither a famous writer nor an eminent
scholar but an individual possessing human qualities. Nothing measures
up to humanity,” said Dr Indira Goswami. And humanity alone is her
prime consideration when she sits to write.
Oh Pakistan! celestial land,
Give us that heart!
and take our heart in return!
Why did it happen?
Why were our bodies, spattered with blood and dust!
Why our flesh ripped apart
by that barbed wire fence?
No, we need not speak
Only silence speaks in a clear voice!
Oh Pakistan! Silence can give the fragrance of mother’s soul
Silence can purify our vision
Silence can reveal the forgotten truth buried under the sun
Silence can revealthe heavenly beauty of Sutlej, Ganges and the red
river of the east!
Silence can be loud like a million voices
Oh Pakistan! the celestial land
Our eyes misted by the Smoke of gun powders
Our souls wounded By the unknown fire!
May these eyes now witness the New sun rise
On the banks of Sutlej Ganges and in the red River of the east!
Oh Pakistan! the celestial land
Give us that heart
and take our heart in return!- Indira Goswami
Some of Indira Goswami’s published works
The Stream of Chenab (1972); Neel Kanti Braj (1976); The Rusted Sword
(1980); Pages Stained with Blood; A Saga of South Kamrup; Ramayana:
From Ganga to Brahmaputra; Selected Works of Indira Goswami; Priya
Galpa (2000); Chinnamastra (2000); Mamoni Raisam Goswami Kee Kahaniyan