There are women writers who write about the angst of being a woman in a patriarchal set up. And then there are writers who write about the angst of being human – sometimes they happen to be women. Mamoni Goswami fell into the latter category. She was a humanist and she wrote about the women as the downtrodden and repressed in society – about the widows of Amranga and Vrindavan, for instance. But she also wrote about male industrial workers and victims of political riots. She drew all her characters, male or female, with equal insight and involvement. And not all of these characters were the cast-offs of society and tradition. Some of her women characters – like Thengphakhri – were, in fact, leaders of men.
It is difficult to find many women writers, whether in Assam or elsewhere in the world, who have been able to transcend their own subjectivity as women to treat both their male and female characters with equal love and understanding. How many writers can empathise with a rich childless man’s desperation for an offspring while at the same time comprehending his Brahmin concubine’s aversion to carrying a low caste man’s child? Added to that was her aesthetically pleasing craftsmanship and facility of language, all of which contributed to creating the phenomenon that was Mamoni Goswami.
The world of women writers in Assam will no doubt be left impoverished without its doyenne. An urgent question that needs to be addressed now, however, is can we start looking beyond Mamoni Goswami at the others without necessarily drawing comparisons with the deceased writer? During her lifetime, the internationally acclaimed stature and larger-than-life image she had acquired had made such comparisons inevitable. After her demise, maybe we should give birth to a new approach to our evaluation of the other women writers of Assam. There is no doubt that she had inspired many women writers of the state to speak their minds boldly and take up burning – often controversial – issues in their writings. Would it be correct though, to begin and end all appreciation of women’s writing in Assam with its indubitable queen, now no more?
Mamoni Goswami’s artistry and lucid story-telling ability were her own genius, but writers like Rita Choudhury are no less adept at weaving fine tales and captivating the readers with their narration. Goswami had the conviction to overturn conventions both in her personal life and through her literary oeuvre. This was part of her charisma. However, it is not necessary that all writers have to live through as many extraordinary experiences as she has. If we were to evaluate the literary creations, minus the aura of the creator, we find that many of the other women writers of Assam reveal strong social consciousness and have been dealing with burning social and political issues of their times. Arupa Patangia Kalita and Geetali Bora’s fiction, for instance, have not shied away from dwelling upon live political issues and subjects. Often sentimental, sometimes euphemistic, these writings have nonetheless created their own niche. Kalita’s Felanee has recently been translated into English, just as the works of many other Assamese writers are now being translated and made available to a worldwide audience by major publishing houses in Delhi and elsewhere in India. Part of the credit for Mamoni Goswami’s international fame must be attributed to her location in Delhi which gave her easy access to publishers who made her translated works available to an eager, wider readership. We can only hope that new trends in the publishing industry where literature from the Northeast has suddenly acquired a glamour quotient, will produce more famous international figures like her. And if I knew her at all, and understood her generosity of spirit in any small measure, I think this is what would have made Mamoni Goswami happiest of all – that she could lead the way for Assamese women writers to find a foothold in the literature of the world.