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    Posted on 29 November 2011
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    OBITUARY

    Incomplete Dossier of an Extraordinary Life: Mamoni Raisom Goswami

    Assam’s literary giant Indira Goswami was a writer par excellence having seen the various colours of life

    Nilim Dutta
    Guwahati

    Indira Goswami


    It was in a late summer evening in 2007 when I had called on Mamoni Baideo (as Dr. Indira Goswami is known to most Assamese) at her home in Guwahati that I had a wonderfully insightful discussion with her on “History as Literary Fiction,” particularly, dwelling on how “Oral Narratives” have inspired and provided the substance of many great literary fiction and has helped in perpetuating the memory to a wider audience or readership. She was of course eminently qualified to offer her own unique perspective to the discourse, both as a scholar and as a writer of fiction of rare brilliance. She was then researching her last novel on such a legend of a Bodo woman, “Theng Phakhri” and her exploits, who allegedly lived during the colonial times. Soon the conversation turned to Mrityunjoy, an outstanding fictionalised account of the heroic struggles and angst of a small band of ‘revolutionaries’ who momentarily forsook Gandhi’s ahimsa and embraced violent means to ‘hurt’ the British during the Quit India Movement of 1942 in a small hamlet in Assam.

    The events and the protagonists would have been long forgotten, had it not been for eminent Assamese writer Dr. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, who learnt about it and turned it into his magnum opus. Bhattacharyya’s brilliant fictionalised account in Mritunjay (The Immortal) was awarded the Jnanpith Award for Literature in 1979 making him the first Assamese writer to be honoured with it. Almost with childish pleasure, Mamoni Baideo recalled that she was perhaps one of the first people to have an inkling that Bhattacharyya was to be awarded the Jnanpith. It was she, on a request from the jury, who had expeditiously prepared an English translation of Mrityunjay. It was also, perhaps, providence. Twenty-one years later, in 2000, Mamoni Baideo would herself be honoured with the Jnanpith Award, becoming only the fifth woman writer in India and the first woman writer in Assamese to get the honour.

    Mamoni Raisom Goswami (born as Indira Goswami) was born into an eminent Assamese family of Assam’s Kamrup district on 14 November, 1942. Her father Shri Umakanta Goswami was a brilliant academician and educationist. Her early life was tumultuous having to constantly struggle with depression and the pain of losing her beloved father at an early age. Writing for her had become a refuge and by the time she had reached university, she had written a number of verses and pieces of short fiction, some of which got published in the Assamese literary magazines. It was also when she was still at the university, that she met Madhavan Raisom Iyengar in 1962, who hailed from a well-respected family of Mysore, settled in Malleswaram in Bangalore. Madhavan had come to Guwahati as a specialist in structural engineering of bridges to work on the Saraighat bridge, under construction across the Brahmaputra at that time and began to live opposite the Goswami’s in Uzanbazar in Guwahati. After a tumultuous courtship and several dramatic twists in the story, Mamoni Baideo and Madhavan were married in 1965 and the young couple soon left to live in Kutch, Gujarat, where Madhavan was entrusted by his company in construction of bridges in the Indo-Pakistan border areas. Later, they would move to Jammu & Kashmir as Madhavan was transferred there by his company to take over the construction work of border bridges. In a heart wrenching tragedy in 1967, Madhavan was killed in a road accident somewhere near Udhampur and Mamoni Raisom Goswami’s life was once again plunged into a void. The two years she lived with Madhavan were perhaps the happiest in her life. His unbounded affection for her had completely erased the angst and turmoil in her mind that so tormented her earlier years that she had even actually attempted to kill herself. How much she was in love with him, and how much he cherished her could be understood from what Mamoni Baideo wrote recalling how his affection transformed her in her autobiography, Adhalekha Dastabez (An Unfinished Dossier):

    It is a human being who can bring another out of darkness to light—a human being, who can give another the gift of life. Love and compassion makes all that possible.

    Madhavan not only persistently encouraged her to write, but also offered her exposure to a myriad of experiences that would soon find expression in her fiction. Their stay in Kashmir provided her the theme of her first novel, Chenabor Srut (The Current in the Chenab), which she finished sometime after Madhavan’s demise. Her life with Madhavan in construction sites in primitive conditions enabled her to see with her own eyes, and acutely understand the oppressive exploitation of construction workers and migrant labourers. The first of the three novellas, Mamore Dhora Toruwal (The Rusted Sword), in the volume with the same title that fetched Mamoni Baideo the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982, vividly portrays labour unrest and the cynical, insidious politics that often unfolds around it.

    Trying to cope with the sadness and void Madhavan’s demise left her in, Mamoni Baideo even spent a brief stint as a teacher in the Goalpara Sainik School. But in August 1969, she left for Vrindavan, to begin her research on the timeless Indian epic Ramayana at the Oriental Institute of Philosophy under the guidance of Upen Chandra Lekharu. Leading an austere rigorous life, Vrindavan uncovered for Mamoni Baideo the brutal, oppressive and exploitative face of religion and social ostracism in plight of the Hindu widows, which she deals with in one of her finest work of fiction Nilakanthi Braja (Blue-throated Braja, in literal translation). It was while in Vrindavan that Mamoni Baideo was goaded by her family, particularly her mother, to apply for a post of lecturer at the Department of Modern Indian Language in the Delhi University, and it was with great reluctance she went to appear for the interview. As fate would have it, however, she was offered the position and she finally joined there on 2 November, 1970. She would end up spending a greater part of her life there, teaching and writing, and finally retiring as the Head of the Department at the end of a long and illustrious career.

    Mamoni Baideo would go on to distinguish herself as a ‘Ramayana’ scholar of repute, her doctoral work finding expression in the “Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra,” a comparative work on the Tulsidas Ramayana in Avadhi and the Madhab Kondoli in Assamese. But it was as a writer of rare brilliance that Mamoni Baideo would evolve, the tales she would tell, carrying the kernels of truth from her own life’s experiences; her work, thematically and stylistically, expanding the genre of Assamese fiction. If Vrindavan found expression through Nilakanthi Braja, her experience of Delhi would find expression in Nangoth Sohor (The Naked Metropolis), the second novella in her Sahitya Akademi winning volume Mamore Dhora Toruwal, or her seminal work Tej Aru Dhulire Dhuxarita Prishtha (Pages Stained with Blood and Dust) holding up to us a picture of Delhi in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

    In another of her celebrated works, Dontal Hatir Uie Khuwa Howdah (The Moth Eaten Howdah), she dwells on the plight of a widow in the feudal social conditions of a Xatra, the ubiquitous Neo-Vaishnavite monastery in Assam. This was later made into the award winning film Adajya. Her repertoire was undoubtedly versatile and inexhaustible. That her reputation spread far wider than the readership of the language she chose to primarily write in was reaffirmed when she was honoured with the Principal Prince Claus Award in 2008 by the Netherlands in recognition to the wider influence of her literary contribution to culture and the human body. Returning to live in Guwahati after she retired from her position in Delhi University, Mamoni Baideo remained an active and immensely accessible person even trying to mediate between the Central government and the United Liberation Front of Assam for a negotiated peace as part of a consultative group at a point of time. In her demise, Assam has lost within a month another stalwart whose name the Assamese would readily take with rare pride.

    Nilim Dutta is Executive Director, Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation, Guwahati.
    nilimdutta@gmail.com

    Assam’s peace dove Mamoni Baidao no more

    Ratnadip Choudhury
    Guwahati

    Close on the heels of Bhupen Hazarika’s demise, a pall of gloom has again descended on Assam and the entire northeast after noted literary figure from the region Indira Goswami—better known by her pen name Mamoni Raisom Goswami—passed away at the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) on Tuesday. She was 70.

    Popularly called Mamoni Baidao in Assam, the Jnanpith awardee was battling for life since last year at the intensive care unit of the GMCH. She breathed her last at 7.45 AM after her condition became very critical on Monday night and she was put on ventilator. A team of doctors tried its best to revive her but the prolific author did not respond.

    As the news of Goswami’s death spread, entire Assam was shocked. “Before people could come to terms with the death of Dr Bhupen Hazarika, Dr Goswami has left us. It will be a huge vacuum not only for Assam but for the entire nation” Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told Tehelka. The Assam government has declared a three-day state mourning starting from Tuesday as a mark of respect to the eminent litterateur. Wednesday will be a public holiday so that people can pay their last homage to Goswami. The last rites will be performed at Nabagraha crematorium in Guwahati on Wednesday with full State Honours.

    Thousands of people had gathered at the residence of Goswami at Gandhibasti to offer their last tributes. “Besides being a wonderful author, she was a great soul. She played a major role in making Assamese literary works known in national and international circles. It is a huge loss for us,” Asom Sahiya Sabha President Kanak Sen Deka said.

    Born on 14 November, 1942, Goswami was a brilliant student. She got married at a very early age but could enjoy matrimonial bliss for only 18 months. Her husband Madhaven Raisom Ayengar, an engineer, died in a tragic accident in Kashmir leaving Goswami in a state of utter mental shock. The couple had no children.

    In her much talked about autobiography Adhalekha Dastaveja (The Unfinished Autobiography) she has narrated how she had shut herself down in her ancestral home in Goalpara district often thinking about committing suicide. Later, she decided to fight social evils through her writings.

    The former teacher of Delhi University was an author par excellence. She received the prestigious Jnanpith Award in 2000 and the Sahitya Akademi Award for her famous Assamese novel Mamore Dhara Tarowal in 1982. She was the first Indian litterateur to receive the Principal Prince Claus international award, instituted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2008. Her bestsellers include The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker, Pages Stained with Blood, The Man from Chinnamasta and research on Ramayani studies—Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra.

    Goswami became even more popular when she tried to broker peace between the Centre and United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 2006. She was one of the main interlocutors in the peoples Consultative Group, formed by ULFA’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah. She tired her best to bring ULFA to the table but her efforts failed.

    “She has been an inspiration to hundreds of downtrodden people who were neglected by society. I lack words to console myself. I have lost my mentor,” says Sarojini Bhagabati, a widow from a remote village in Nalbari district who completed her Masters this year at the age of 72. Goswami had inspired Bhagabati to continue her studies.

    All roads in Guwahati are leading to the residence of Goswami, where her body will be kept till 9 AM on Wednesday for the general public to get the last glimpse. She has donated her eyes to the famous Sankardeva Netralaya of Guwahati. Later on Wednesday, Assam will bid adieu to its favorite Mamoni Baidao with the same pain and sadness as it did when its musical doyen Bhupen Da passed away.

    Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
    ratnadip@tehelka.com

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    Posted on 29 November 2011
 
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