A few years ago, I attended a seminar on writing fiction. The British expert, among other things, warned us, the aspiring authors, never to repeat ourselves in writing. Western publishers don’t like repetition of words, sentences, period. I completely agree with the argument. Then I look at my literary inspirations, and they used reputations abundantly, and to such brilliant effect, especially Mamoni Raisom Goswami, my favourite author.
Mamoni Roison Goswami was my mother’s favourite writer too, and it was not only because her parental village was not far from the satra (monastery) of Goswami’s grandfather, about which she has written extensively, especially in the monumental ‘Datal Hatir Ooye khowa Howdha (The Moth-Eaten Howdah of the Tusker’). Goswami was my mother’s favourite author because she was fearless, because she wrote about places my mother would have liked to visit, but never had the chance (Vrindavan, Kashmir...), because she had a distinct voice, because how Goswami had made her personal life a site of her literary creations (‘Adhalikha Dastabez’; ‘Half-Written Manuscript’), because how she strongly felt about certain issues, women’s rights, and animal sacrifice, an issue my mother is very vocal about.
The first Mamoni Raisom Goswami piece I read was the short story ‘Sanskar’, where a rich lowercaste man sleeps with a poor uppercaste widow hoping to beget a progeny; to disastrous results. It remains one of the best stories written in Assamese. Then, I started with the novel, ‘Mamare Dhara Torowal’ (‘The Rusted Sword’), ‘Udaybhanur Charitra’ (‘The Life of Udaybhanu,’ the man who is obsessed with a woman who wears heels made of snake skin...), ‘Budhasagar, Dhushar Geisa aru Mohammad Mucha’ (The Budha Sea, Hazy Geishas and Mohammad Mucha), ‘Chinavar Srota’ (‘The Currents of Chenab’, my mother’s favourite), ‘Chinnamastar Manuhto’ (‘The Man from Chinnamasta’), ‘Dashorothir Khuj’ (‘Dashorothi's Footsteps’), ‘Nilakanthi Braja’ (‘The Blue-Necked Braja’), ‘Tej Aru Dhulire Dhusarita Prishtha’ (‘Pages Stained With Blood and Dust’)... virually all of her writings...
What makes Mamoni Raisom Goswami one of the most celebrated authors in Assam is her prose. She could make things come alive with her prose, she could make you feel the pain of her characters, make you nauseated, make you go through the experiences she had gone through. She used unusual images, images which are violent, gut-wrenching, and used them to such wonderful effect. (At the end of ‘The Man from Chinnamasta,’ the sadhu who was opposing animal sacrifice, offers himself before the mother Goddess, and as he bleeds, and as you read the sentences, you can actually see the poor man bleeding to death. Such genius...)
Yet, the literary genius of Mamoni Raisom Goswami is overshadowed by her personality, her life as it was. It was a tragic life, and she had the courage to carry the burden of the life around her (like the albatross in Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’), and saw the world through the haze of her pain, her loss.
The real life academics, who worked in Delhi University, who, in the last few years, worked as an peace activist to find a solution to the problems of insurgency in the state, Indira Goswami, was someone else. We did not know her till very recently, till she became vocal about her causes, the ULFA issue (it is said that the self-declared commander of the outfit, Paresh Barua, would call her personally), and animal sacrifice in the famous Kamakhya temple on the Nilachal hills.
But, we knew Mamoni Raisom Goswami to the bones, and understood her pain, her loss, her sufferings, and her triumphs. And what triumphs! As a young girl, she tried to commit suicide after the death of her father. She survived the ordeal, but the incident made her more isolated from her immediate surrounding than ever. It was the time the Saraighat bridge on the river Brahmapurta was being built. There was a young engineer from south India who was working in the construction of the bridge. He was Madhaven Raisom Ayengar, her middle name. They fell in love, got married and Goswami went on to travel with her husband to various construction sites across India, which also provided fodder for her fiction. Then eighteen months later, Raisom died in an accident in Kashmir (years later, Goswami would write how she still remembered the blood-stained shirt of her husband...), and the young girl, who battled death wish all her life, was pushed to the brink. After a few years of living in depression, she was invited to do research on Ramayana in Vrindavan; this move changed her life, as she resumed her writing and also her research.
Yet, the memories of the past would haunt her, and she made these memories the foundation of her writing. Whatever she may write, whoever may be her character, there was always, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, the person, the real person.
For the world outside of Assam, she was known as Indira Goswami. She published the translations of her works in this name. In Assam, however, she would remain Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Mamoni baideu, a personality she created over the years, a personality the people of Assam embraced without question.
As we mourn her passing, it would be terrible loss to the ongoing peace talk with the ULFA, we marvel at the wondrous, courageous life she lived, and she lived it to the fullest.
Tennyson’s Ulysses said: “I have enjoyed greatly and suffered greatly. This was the life of Mamoni Raisom Goswami. Living to the fullest. In the extreme.
Indira Goswami also known by pen name as Mamoni Raisom Goswami (14 November 1942 – 29 November 2011), popularly known as Mamoni Baideo, among the Assamese people, was an Assamese editor, poet, professor, scholar and writer.
She was the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award (1982), the Jnanpith Award (2000) and Principal Prince Claus Laureate (2008). One of the most celebrated writers of contemporary Indian literature, she was noted for her novels which include The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker, Pages Stained With Blood and The Man from Chinnamasta.
She was also well known for her attempts to structure social change, both through her writings and through her role as mediator between the banned secessionist group United Liberation Front of Asom and the central government of India. Her involvement led to the formation of the People's Consultative Group, a peace committee. She refers to herself an "observer" of the ongoing peace process rather than a mediator or initiator.
Her work has been performed on stage and in film. The film Adajya is based on her novel won international awards. Words from the Mist is a film made on her life directed by Jahnu Barua.