The passion of her pity : Hiren Gohain

Noted intellectual Hiren Gohain reveals how her own suffering helped Mamoni Goswami empathise with the wretched on earth. 

She told me once that
she regarded her writing
as an act of worship.
Every day she would
 have a shower early
in the morning and,
immersed in the fragrance
of joss-sticks, write
furiously till a late breakfast
I had vaguely heard of Mamoni as a novelist in the late eighties, and frankly, was not very curious about her work, as no noted scholar or critic in Assam mentioned her with seriousness. Then she came to meet me one day to present a copy of her collection of novelettes, Mamore Dhora Tarowal. After dinner, as the stillness of the night enveloped the university campus, I idly turned the pages in my bed and came to the title story. After reading one or two pages I became so absorbed that I sat down on my bed behind the mosquito curtain and read on breathlessly, caught in the powerful onward rush of the narrative. The story of cruel injustice and pitiless exploitation of a group of dalit construction workers, their helpless anguish and immense suffering, their unending struggle to survive with the endurance and resilience that reminded one of the condition of wild animals, was told with such passionate empathy that long after midnight the faces of the characters and the scenes continued to haunt me. Particularly harrowing were the details of treachery by self-styled labour leaders. The impact had been something like that of Malamud’s The Fixer, though the latter, in spite of its vividness, had the air of a fable. Towards dawn I put down my impressions on a postcard to Mamoni and mailed it early in the morning. I had no doubt that after Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya the Assamese novel had found a new exponent of genius but with a firmer grasp on the darker and starker realities of life.

Later I came to know that she had already been appreciated in translation by readers outside Assam, and Amrita Pritam herself had translated some of her stories into Hindi. I knew Mamoni as a child, as she was a sister of my schoolfellow Satyabrat (Montu), and had no idea how, brought up in the comparative affluence and security of an upper-middle class family, the daughter of a xattradhikar, with all the traditional prestige and charisma of a monastic head in rural Assam combined with feudal privilege, she had developed such empathy with and insight into the hopeless pain and unrelieved suffering of the wretched of the earth. But from her autobiography Adhalekha Dastabez and bits and pieces of her life she revealed through casual anecdotes I learnt how she freed herself from an emotional trauma and fits of depression caused by it through the repeated cathartic ritual of observing and imaginatively capturing the pain of others. She told me during one of my not infrequent meetings with her that she regarded her writing as an act of worship. Every day she would have a shower early in the morning, put on clothes and, immersed in the fragrance of a few joss-sticks, write furiously till a late breakfast.

In the early nineties I visited her at her home in Shakti Nagar, not a posh area preferred by the elite but surrounded by characters who figured in her novels and stories, like the dealer in waste paper, the auto-rickshaw driver, and the tall, stately, compassionate Sikh moving among the rows of cots in the street, who had lost his speech after the agony of watching his beloved daughter and his wife raped and killed before his eyes during Partition riots. It was like a typical mohalla of Delhi in its outskirts, and Mamoni was evidently held in high regard and affection by neighbours. Somehow I wish she had never left the place and taken up residence in the university campus with its ambience of petty jealousies and ruthless careerism. But I could also feel that wherever she moved she carried with her a native nobility, grace and goodwill for all. Crowds of people, mostly students, came to meet her with their personal problems ranging from emotional to financial scrapes and to my wonder she offered them support with inexhaustible patience and sympathy.

The original inhabitants of Delhi were vastly outnumbered by victims of Partition and, while the government did a lot to improve their condition financially, the wounds in the mind were not easily healed, and she must have heard countless stories of cruelty, violence and horror from such people uprooted from native soil. These mingled in her mind with tales of gruesome massacre and rapine by successive hordes of invaders who waded literally in rivers of blood in bygone times. Delhi thus becomes an epitome of man’s inhumanity to man in her fantasy, as though layer upon layer of mad violence and horrifying atrocities lay buried in its dry and dusty ground. The gloom of Tej Aru Dhulire Dhusorita Prishtha (Pages Spattered with Blood and Dust) would have been unbearable but for the pervasive and profound pity.

Her magnum opus, of course, is Dotal Hatir Uye Khowa Howdah (The Worm-eaten Seat on the Tusker’s Back), a gripping story of decay and dehumanisation of an entire human community in rural Assam, ruled by rigid norms of feudal hierarchy and ossified custom, which ruthlessly stamp out all hopes of rejuvenation and renewal. The unfulfilled longing of Indranath, enlightened heir to the monastic seat, and Ilimon, luscious in her youthful beauty but from a low-born Brahmin family that cannot match his pedigree, is etched with unforgettable sensuous and sensual power. Cast in the same pattern, the unfulfilled life of the young widow Giribala, ritually barred from all the good things of life, but instinctively rebelling against all such meaningless brutal restraints, who offers herself to the British missionary who is likewise barred by vows of celibacy, and upon discovery of her attempted liaison by a scandalised mob, immolates herself in the ritual fire that was meant only to purge her of impurity, becomes a burning image of feudal denial of essential humanity to women. The rich tapestry is punctuated by searing glimpses of lowly monks degraded by incurable opium addiction that reiterate the message of doomed hope and promise. The Communist-led rebellion by oppressed tenants who mistake the honourable intentions of Indranath and kill him and gain little in the end is the finale to the dirge of desperate frustration. The story is dipped in the folklore of the countryside, now salty and earthy, now desolate with immemorial pathos. There is no technical wizardry here, but poetic realism that turns every item into a reverberating symbol, like the river Jogoliya that weaves through the story sometimes bathed in the joyous radiance of the sun, and at other times a treacherous, sinister presence. Beyond doubt a masterpiece of contemporary Indian fiction.
Mamoni’s other passion in life is the Ramayana and various versions of Ramkatha, but neither my interest nor my knowledge emboldens me to make any remarks on this aspect of her life.
It is painful to think that this vibrant creative personality is now no more, that she lay for so long on the hospital bed solely dependent on a life-support system and unable to respond to anything in her surroundings. It is my belief that she nearly drowned herself in a placid-looking environment that had vicious undercurrents. Her friends and admirers, of whom there are a legion, will miss her a lot.

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