Writer Namita Gokhale speaks of the empathetic friendship she shared with Indira Goswami
|While Indira Goswami was at Delhi University, our friendship began. Both widowed young, both women writers, we shared an unspoken sympathy|
Indira Goswami, as I remember her, always had an aura of immense, even startling, vibrancy. It began with her rebelliously curly hair, the ringlets bursting out of any attempted restraint or regulation. Then the smile, a curved bow which could reach across a crowded room like an arrow. The colour red in her bangles, in her vermilion bindi; the colour of strength, of Shakti. We met often during her years in Delhi, during seminars and readings, or at the India International Centre, and she would always come up with a warm, double edged compliment that would leave me smiling too. This sense of vitality and engagement marked all that Indira Goswami embarked upon. As a scholar, an academic, a translator, a poet, novelist and activist, she brought passion, belief and engagement to all that she did.
Popularly known as Mamoni baideo or Mamoni Raisom Goswami to her Assamese admirers, she was born in Guwahati and remained true to her roots even though her writing was inspired by and located in the many other places she encountered in life's journey. Her first story was published when she was thirteen. With an admitted tendency to depression, she lived on the knife's edge as an adolescent. Her husband, Madhavan Raisom Iyenger, was killed in a car accident just eighteen months after they were married. She began writing seriously, and published Ahiron and Chenabar Sot (The Chenab's Current). Her experiences as a widow, and a research stint in Vrindavan, led to the publication of Nilakanthi Braja (The Blue-necked God), which interrogated the position of widows in Vrindavan and in Hindu society. Goswami's interest in Ramayana studies led to a comparative examination of the Tulsidas Ramayana and the medieval Axamiya Ramayana of Madhava Kandali in Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra.
It was after this phase, while Indira Goswami was the head of the Assamese department at Delhi University, that our occasional but illuminating friendship began. Both widowed young, both women writers, we shared an unspoken sympathy. I read Dotal Hatir Uye Khuwa Howdah (The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker) when it appeared in English translation. She was by then recognised as a serious literary figure, and received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1982 and the Jnanpith award in 2000. Mamoni refused the Padma Shri in 2002 for reasons of political conviction. In 2008, she was conferred the Principal Prince Claus Award, a major honour to a unique writer, activist, and political mediator.
In 2009, Dr Malashri Lal and I published the co-edited anthology, In Search of Sita – Revisting Mythology. The book included a dialogue with Indira Goswami on 'Ramayana, The Human Story'. In the conversation, she spoke of her early interest in tantra, and in Sufi poetry, especially the work of Mullah Masiha, who lived and wrote in Jehangir's time. She spoke of the books she was working on - The Journey of Ravana and Thengfakhri, the story of a Bodo woman who was appointed as a tax collector by the British, gathered from oral narratives.
Before that, Indira Goswami had spoken forcefully at the first Neemrana International Literature Festival on Assam and Assamese writing. To quote: “My state, Assam, had produced some very beautiful writings long ago. Outsiders are very ignorant of Assam... Historical writings flourished in Assam from 1224. These history books are like fiction, in the sense that there are narratives about kings and queens, including one queen, Phuleswari, who was a temple dancer. In the Ramayana which was translated into Assamese in the 14th century, Rama is not a God. He is just a human being; he is a very good king.
“Khushwant Singh has said there are no writings on nature in Indian languages. But I have written a novel about rhinos. You will be surprised to know that once upon a time, the Assamese people used to plough their land with the help of rhinos. Then I wrote a novel on the elephants. In my childhood, I had an elephant as my playmate. Gradually he ran amok, killed a villager, and was shot dead before our eyes. The howdah of the elephant became a symbol in my novel...”
The last time I spoke to my friend and fellow writer was two years ago, to invite her to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. She agreed, but then backed out because of her ill health. “I wish I was better, Namita,” she said, “then I would have come.”
Writers live, travel, and continue living in inexplicable ways, through their books, through translations, through metaphors and refracted images. Their journeys do not end easily but continue, always, in strange and unexpected directions. So will Mamoni Goswami’s.