Five Novellas about Women by Indira Goswami, translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma, Niyogi Books Pvt Ltd, 2021, 221 pages, Rs 495
The repertoire of the iconic Assamese writer, Indira Goswami or Mamoni Baideo, as she is known in her homeland, is vast. To those outliers to the land and language, this presents a challenge of choice as they are introduced to her work. The book in discussion, ‘Five Novellas about Women’, are judicious selections from the long stories by Goswami, by Dibyajyoti Sarma, the translator of this volume. Sarma has laid out a fine cross section of the raconteur’s powerful work before non-Assamese readers and executed an accomplished translation aimed at creating a wider interest in Goswami’s work.
There is much foresight in contextualising a writer’s work before presenting it to an audience who are not familiar with the author or the language. The ‘Five Novellas about Women’ has an excellent note of introduction, which is placed, strategically, prior to the translation. It tells the reader the setting of each novella, the reasons for the selection, and explains some of the nuances of the work. This is followed by the translator’s note; which addresses his treatment of text, including why he has retained certain words in the dialect used in the source work, and details the specifics of each novella which decided his translation method. At the end of the book is a glossary of the Assamese words, a complete bibliography and a chronology of events with reference to the writer’s life. These sections definitely help the larger audience outside garner a better grasp of Indira Goswami’s writing.
The opening novella ‘Breaking the Begging Bowl’, has an allegorical context. It follows the life of Phuleshwari, who is accused wrongly of adultery and widowed immediately after. Life does not treat her kindly even after that. Her elder daughter returns home, also widowed and is cheated off her husband’s land. Her son joins the insurgency movement. But the younger daughter, Bhubaneswari grows up to be independent in spirit. When she menstruates for the first time, she refuses to follow the rituals of the community. And as the reader follows Phuleshwari and her children struggle to lead a respectable life, the fact that this could be happening somewhere close to home hits hard. The helplessness faced by the women, the societal injustices and exploitation that they suffer and their varied reactions to it, are all brought out very vividly in this classic story by Goswami.
The second novella, ‘The Blood of Devipeeth’ is set at the foothills of the Kamakhya temple, where animal sacrifice is a norm. Padmapriya, the young protagonist, has been abandoned by her husband as she suffers from vitiligo. She knows she is a burden on her family, and spends her day watching the procession of the pilgrims up and down the hill. Then she meets the priest Shambhudev, the one who sacrifices goats and buffaloes at the Kamakhya Temple. Shambudev is smitten by Padma’s beauty. Later in the story, as Shambhudev leads her to a cave in the forest, promising to find her the golden flower, the reader is reminded of the cave scene in ‘A Passage to India’. Indira Goswami’s objection to animal sacrifice is well documented in this story. Sexuality of women, which is a recurring topic in Goswami’s stories, resounds in ‘The Blood of Devipeeth’.
The third novella in the book is ‘Delhi, 5 November 1991’ which is based on the Delhi hooch tragedy of 1991. The central character Vimala Chaudhury is a small-time reporter who lives with her aged, ill mother and autistic brother. She helps a young man join the army but in the process faces sexual abuse. Then the hooch tragedy happens during Diwali. By the end of the narrative, we learn that Vimala too is affected by the tragedy. Through Vimala, Goswami sketches masterfully the plight of unmarried women who are viewed as objects of sexual gratification. She also zomms in on scheming politicians who escape responsibility for the tragedies they create.
‘Ishwari’s Doubts and Desires’ is the penultimate story of the collection. It has a background of the Ramayana and the politics of the epic. The protagonist, Ishwari, has written a paper on Ramayana, and is invited to read it at a symposium. She joins a group travelling to the venue and the train journey gives an insider’s view of the workings of the group. It has the widowed Ishwari wishing for the presence and companionship of Dharma Bahadur, for whom she feels a guilty attraction. The man, is but oblivious of her feelings. Later, when she visits some temples with her group, she gets to bask in Dharma Bahadur’s presence. While returning in the bus, she sits between him and a celibate sanyasi. She is wholly aroused and in the darkness feels a hand on her. Indira Goswami highlights the dilemma of the widow between the love and desire she feels against spiritual expectations. She brings to the fore the hypocrisy rampant in the patriarchal society that isolates the widows and at the same time exploits them. Goswami was a Ramayana scholar herself and she has drawn extensively from her experiences to embellish the story.
The final novella in this collection is ‘The Touchstone’. Its central character, Dwarakanath, is a strange silent man who comes into the possession of a gun when his master dies. He then befriends an old man Dewan, who has a young daughter, Snehalata. As the village gossips about Dwarakanath’s interest in Snehalatha, Dewan approaches Dwarakanath with the request to kill the girl’s lover. And Snehalata pleads with him to spare him. As he sees Snehalatha, Dwarakanath feels lust and recognising this she escapes. The next day, Dwarakanath shoots her young lover dead, is arrested and imprisoned. Ten years later, when he is released and returns home, even as he starts getting involved in routine life, he longs to meet Snehalata. But she is married and has a family of her own. Does he get to meet her? In this story, Indira Goswami has a male protagonist and we realise that like the women in her stories, he too is trapped in patriarchal notions and unable to love in a wholesome manner.
The cover, designed by Pinaki De, is arresting in its minimalistic black, white, grey and red conceptualisation with the image of the face of a woman with piercing eyes and a cracked cheek gracing it.
This volume is recommended as an Essential Goswami Reader, especially for those unfamiliar with her work in Assamese.
Indira Goswami (Author)
Indira Goswami, (14 Nov 1942 - 29 Nov 2011), known by her pen name Mamoni Raisom Goswami and popularly as Mamoni Baideo, was an Assamese (Indian) writer, poet, professor, scholar and editor. Her repertoire consists of 12 novels, six short story collections, one poetry collection, an autobiography (‘An Unfinished Autobiography’) written in Assamese which she herself translated into English (there is also a translation by another translator), multiple translations she has done from Hindi (most of them uncollected), a scholarly thesis on Ramayana (‘Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra’), a biography, and several edited works.
She won the Jnanpith award, the highest literary award in India, in 2001, and has been honoured for her writing by the Sahitya Academy Award for Assamese language in 1983, the Principal Prince Claus Laureate from Netherlands in 2008, and three D Litts. A dedicated and internationally renowned Ramayana scholar (her PhD was on this), she was a Professor of Assamese at the Delhi University’s Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies Department from 1971 to 2005. She relocated to Assam post-retirement, and her work as Chief Interlocutor between the government and the insurgent groups in her home state was a significant contribution in the peace process in the region.
Indira Goswami’s work is known for her taboo topics (widowhood & female sexuality, homosexuality, class& caste oppression, misguided masculinity are some of these), brilliant literary technique and exceptional use of language. She chose to place her stories not just in her homeland but also at diverse milieus. She has written novels on the widows of Vrindavan, the 1984 Sikh Riots in Delhi and a workers’ agitation in Madhya Pradesh, to name a few. In fact, none of her novels are set in Assam, but very many of her stories are so.
The single woman is the centre of her writings, and she has dared to give them a sexual agency that contradicts societal expectations. Her characters are in regular conflict with life. They strive to surmount their doleful existences, but definitely mark themselves on the radar as those who did not give up. The reader can never perceive them as villains, whatever they do in the story, but as victims of the oppressive structures of society/religion. Such was the writer’s skill. And this was how Indira Goswami undertook to structure social change through her writings.
Dibyajyoti Sarma (Translator)
Writer and Editor Dibyajyoti Sarma has published three volumes of poetry, two books of translations of Assamese poets, an academic book, and a number of articles in edited volumes, journals and websites. He lives in Delhi, is a journalist, and runs the independent publishing outfit, Red River.