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The Work, Life and Philosophy of
Mamoni Roysom Goswami
Through an intimate discussion

An interview by Puravee Kalita

When, as appointed for an interview with Mamoni Roysom Goswami for Notun Padatik, we reached her home one morning, we saw many more guests already seated in her drawing room. We were doubtful whether the appointment will be fruitful, but Ms. Goswami heartily called us in. After the first course of greetings and introduction carried over like an affectionate and skillful hostess, she asked us to begin our questions. We went on, and saw astonished how she made tea for us all even while she told us about her childhood, how she served beautifully set dishes by herself while discussing complex ideas of the feminist movement, how she discussed the mystery of creating characters along with the procedures of admission in Delhi University. When we were shocked to see a girl ignorant of any other identity of her except as Dr. Indira Goswami, the professor of Delhi University, she at once made us easy with her natural smile. The same dignity and firmness was maintained even on facing some journalists interested rather in subjects impertinent and private.

We were also astonished to see her strong power of concentration: never in the course of her various, diverse works and talks did she ever lose the track of this discussion with us. Her ideas are clear, distinct and reasonable about various intellectual subjectmatters, various definitions concrete and abstract, ideals, propriety etc.

Q Which is the first literary work of your life? Who inspired you most to write down your thoughts and says?

Since my childhood I liked writing anything. I attempted then some tasks such as translation from Assamese to English and vice-versa. An essay composed even thus was published in Notun Asomiya – when I was in the seventh standard. The editor – Mr. Kirtinath Hazarika – greatly encouraged me from the very beginning of my career.

Q It is very common among writers to begin their work with the genre of poetry. Were you, too, interested in it? Did you choose the prose form for any special reason?

I did not exactly feel attracted towards the genre of poetry, though I wrote a few poems. My first poem was published in Raamdhenu in 1960 – namely Bogaa Purnimaa. I liked the prose form better, and that is perhaps why I chose it. It was by a natural impulse that I turned from poetry to prose.

Q How were you influenced by your family, friends and society, in the beginning of your literary career? How by your school education? Do you have any connection with your fellow people of then?

The environment of our home was very good and inspiring; but besides our family, my father sheltered a number of other children so that they can study in school – the children that were intelligent but from poor families. So the environment was not an untroubled one of solitude, but all of us did our domestic works together – with pleasure: we worked hard, of course, (She smiled) and studied, too together. My mother encouraged us in any good thing we could do. My father, Mr. Umakanta Goswami, was an intelligent man; – as a student he attained a number of medals for his extraordinary achievements in examinations. We were under the rule of his instances – those medals and his righteous way of living and service life. We lived then in Shillong; – I was a student of the Pinemount School. My father did not like it that we should not study in the medium of the Assamese language. Once he took a chance of taking me to Guwahati, admitting me in the Tarini Charan School. I felt very sad; – though I could gradually adjust it later. The school-society, as a whole, was an inspiring one. I am still in terms with my friends of that time: we write letters etc. I had a Jewish friend namely Flores Ceil : only from her I have not heard a long time.

Q Where, among the feminist feelings, movements and sensations of nearly a century, do you feel the present woman to be? Do you consider this position universally applicable for all women, irrespective of their socioeconomical status?

The feminist course of thought, I suppose, is now at a state of great importance. It seems even to indicate the future of woman. However, it is never the same among different socioeconomic classes. Feminism has spread mainly through the cities. It may be on its zenith in some town areas, which may be surrounded by such country areas where life for woman is only pain, oppression, and gloom. I have seen this torment very closely in Madhyapradesh, Bihar and Uttarpradesh. At some places in Madhyapradesh, there are lots of illegitimate children in the streets: without anybody to take care and charge of them. I have written about this in Ahiron. The condition of woman in the south is far better and more respectable. In West Bengal, too, it is so, when the rate of literacy has grown greatly larger under the Communist Party rule. The woman of Assam has not got such a course of progress. It is of course far worse in the tribal belts, tea garden etc. there are schools there, but very few girls study in them. I believe that the Associations of women can do something about this. Given chances of being educated and self-reliant, the woman could have been relieved a lot from these various torments.

Q As the creator of the female characters from Soudamini, Narayani, and Giribala to the protagonist of Aadhalekhaa Dostaabez, what kind of a connection do you feel with these characters? A personal kinship as a woman, or a universal one as a writer?

With all of my characters I feel a personal kinship; I shape them only because some aspects of them touch me. This brings about a deep relationship with them. But this feeling of kinship is universal, too, as a writer.

Q Your works are most laborious and heartfelt. Yet, which of those stories and novels do you like better , or think to be more significant? Is there any chance that you would change your style of writing in order to achieve more significance?

Ernest Hemingway – I have heard – used to think for himself, before he started writing a novel, as if that were his first and only novel. I, too, try to think thus. In each of my novel, I never forbear putting heartily all my efforts and capability in writing them; but except one or two, my novels have never satisfied me. Such a feeling persists yhat I could have made them much better with only a little more care.

Q But what about Dotaal Haatir Ooiye Khowaa Haodaa, Nilkantthi Braja, Maamare Dhara Tarowaal, Tez Aaru Dhulire Dhuxarita Pristthaa etc.?

I was not quite satisfied with Maamare Dharaa Tarowaal, – not happy with it yet. In Nilkantthi Braja, the suffering of Soudamini kept me overwhelmed. I bestowed my own pains heartily on the character of Soudamini – and so, I think, this character could not become exactly what I wanted it to. For Dotaal Haatir Ooiye Khowaa Haaodaa, it was a satisfactory work. I wrote it thirty years after the time of its plot, but I liked writing it. Tez Aaru Dhulire Dhuxarita Pristthaa was the outcome of a strong impulse of my mind : satisfactory, too.

I have not planned to make any change in my way of my writing. I have read the works of various literateures; there are nowadays discussions, too, going on regarding the various ways and views about the techniques of writing. But they donot effect me. The important points in writing, I think, are the subjectmatter, and the writer’s feelings about it; and not whatever style you take up.

Q Yes, I agree with that; but if we think of the subjectmatter – regarding the aspect of changing – and not the style?

I take up only the subjects that touch my mind best. I donot suppose that I will make any change in this, for the sake of significance.

Q In the times of the solitary, difficult process of hiding art in your hard laboured creations, what kind of feelings do you depend mostly on? What kind of inspirations help you basically in completing a creative work?

When an empathy with the subjectmatter is created, I feel a strong will for writing it down. This empathy, basically enables me to finish it. When I have thought a plot, I shall at first think out how to conclude the story or novel. This, the conclusion, is the most important part of the piece.

Q The Assamese literature has got a bright and rich past. And as a decendent of this past generation, the works untill the seventies have made it even greater than ever. But at present, there is seen a weakness in the literary world,– both qualitative and quantitative– in all kinds of genres – be it short story, novel, poetry, or essay. What do you think is the reason of this? For we consider that the leading part in the creative art of the present age should have been taken rather by the younger generation.

The new generation now lack terribly in studies and the deep realization of life. They consider beauty only when it is useful for them, or when it can make them beautiful : an undesirable kind of viewpoint. The intelligent students gone to Delhi for studies from various states have good examination results, but lack lamentably in the knowledge of their own land, nation, language or literature. Study now has centred mostly round the aim of good examination results : rarely it goes beyond that. I am not speaking of all in general – some of them are really serius and studious.

The rise of communism, at one time, made the new generation more studious than ever, but now there is no ‘ism’s there for them. The blind pursuit after the English culture, on the other hand, is another corrosive factor. The massive studycourse of the lower standards, now, makes the child bury himself in his textbooks, which turns gradually into a habit. We found entertainment only in books, whereasnow there are the television and what not. And thus the young generation has invited a number of impedances in the process of doing something creative and even of culturing a creative mind. The parents could have done a lot in this matter. The same problem is now also in Japan, as I saw. But in France, the television has become largely a creative agent – it has given rise to a number of good dramatists, lyricists etc. The basic thing that we could do was a restraint on the shallow, baseless points of view popularized through these medias, and also an initiative for doing anythjng good. This could have eliminated then the chance for this weakness in our literature that you have said – both in quality and quantity.

Q You have come in contact with the literature of various languages of India. The present state of Assam, so full of the present political instability, extremism, the overwhelming anarchy and terrorism, the deterioration in morality and values etc, is to an extent, the same as of some other places, too. Did you have any chance to know the state of literature in those areas? What is the role of the young writers of those states?

Anarchy, motiveless cruelty, extremism etc are some factors that effect literature greatly. Extremism can very easily destroy both literary excellence and the lead of the youth. Besides, extremists are mostly young men. So, when they take up guns in stead of a pen, and provoke the other youths to violence, what excellence can be then expected in literature? In the Punjab of the Eighties, a large number of writers were killed. Literature becomes the first prey of extremism, as the morals and conscientious points of view are mostly spreaded through such medias as literature. The state of the literatures of the Punjab, Kashmir etc, – with such a strong base in the past have now a poor, sad state. The same we now see in Assam.

In Kerala, Maharastra etc, the young generation has taken a leading part in literature. Such good signs are generally more common in places that are more calm and out of such troubles. In Delhi, too, the youth is forward enough. Along with some regional languages, in Hindi, too, the number of good writers is now increasing; the south Indian literature, too, is in a fast progress.

Q May it sometimes be so where it is the great literary works that has put an end to such anarchy and fall of values? Or may it be so that such crucial states even may directly give birth to good literature?

Sure, both you have said can happen. As were the cases of Nicholas Nicklebey or David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, or Mother or the autobiographies by Maxim Gorky. Again, there are books that have given new shape to the world.......

Q Such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or the works of Marx?

Exactly-- quite right. But all this requires the nation to be alive in its spirits, in its moral courage or in its goodwill.

Q Where, among the literature of the other Indian languages, do you consider Assamese literature to be in its quality? Do you think that a desirable application of genius and thinking has been evenly spread in the various genres of the other states of India?

The poetry and shortstory in Assam, I think, is now developed fairly well. But in Criticism and Novel, it is not so satisfactory. In Story and Poetry, Assam is quite at the rank of those in any other state. We need greatly to get our literature translated into English and Hindi.

There is not still visible an even development of the various genres among the various regional languages. Some languages have excelled well in the Short story, while some others may have done so in Poetry, etc. As recently the Biographical Novel has acquired a remarkable maturity in Maharastra.

Q According to the requirement of the plot, various ideologies have been given expression in several occasions in your novels. In this diversity, we can always feel your permanent presence therein through an implicit flow of humanitarianism. Do you agree with this our feeling? Were you, or, are you, either always, or sometimes, effected by any definite idealism, such as of social changes through revolution?

Thanks for feeling my works to be humanitarian. I always feel a certain wish that these people – who have faced such a hellishly tormentsome life– could be saved from their pain: that such states of the society that inflicts those torments, could be destroyed. In my early youth, I was greatly moved by the history of the Russian revolution. Lenin was my favourite hero. Then I saw myself what I wrote down in Chenabor Srot : my spirit shuddered to see the humiliation of man at the hands of men. After what I saw then – or even now, – now I donot need those revolutionary books.

I have not read the latest interpretations of Marxism– it has to be modified, perhaps, in some points or other. It may not now be possible to solve the problems in the way as was even about hundred years ago – the world is now very complex, even unknown to a certain extent. But the basic formulae of communism must remain as it is now. The true democracy seems to have something in common with communism. If a communist rule for a certain time were probable in India, – to be followed thereafter by a true democracy, –it would have solved a lot of our problems, and also changed the mentality of the people. The democracy of the day is of course corrupted. Now I constantly feel the relevance of what Lenin and Mao said – for the present India.

Q Then I suppose you consider it necessary for a creative writer to have a distinct idea about the contemporary political circumstance?

Of course. A writer must have a clear sight and a right process of thinking – this rightness will have to be examined by his own conscience.

Q What do you say of the social responsibilities of a writer?

A writer is the better face of the society. It is natural that the real image of the society will be received by his sharp mind. If this image be tainted, the writer must protest against it. In the same way the glories of the society will be praised by him. This responsibility, I think, is a very important necessity for a writer.

Q You have presented, in Dotaal Haatir Ooinye Khowaa Haaodaa a feudalistic kind of tyranny over the women of the higher castes of that time. Are they still not completely freed from such torments? Is the same environment of Nilkanthi Braja still there in the Braja? If we suppose that a comprehensive, revolutionary social change is a long way ahead of us, then what can you suggest as a sensitive writer, as the nearest possible way of undoing such wrongs?

I wrote Nilkanthi Braja during a stay in the Brajadham in 1970 and ’71. Recently, I have gone there for a second time. In the course of these twenty eight years, it has not altered at all. A political leader there, being approached in this matter answered, that it is a problem of the West Bengal and not of them, as the "Radheshyamis" are mostly Bengalis. Fancy what a view one can assume. They are constructing big temples still, but not for man. And to Assam : there is a comprehensive change and progress in the standards of women in Assam, but that of the widows of the Brahmins has not changed so. In the villages, too, the state of the women is rather worse. Assam is undergoing some changes, perhaps, but it is very slow.

The woman’s oragnisations could have done something in the matter of these wrongs. They could have organised some missions into the remote country areas and thus could have greatly rectified the viewpoints of men. In Assam there are some active groups like the "Lekhika Sontha" and the "Lekhika Samaroh". They may take help of the government and attempt to fight the evils such as lack of learning, superstitions, the chains of strict rules over women etc in the villages. In Calcutta, once a cancer-hospital was inaugurated by Jyoti Basu, which was in fact the fruit of the lifelong, lonely endeavour of a middle-class man. He had had to work hard to earn the money to be used in the construction. Mr. Basu said, "A government cannot do such things as this. Only the common man can do such a rare kind of work". The will to do some good work of benevolence, or the self-dedicatory point of view, is of course, possible to be in the common people. The writers, too, can thus analyze the wrongs and appeal to the common man to fight such problems, and thus shake the corrupt system.

Q When any work of yours is used as the plot for cinema, can you be satisfied with such transformations?

Really, such proposals make me feel somehow uneasy and hasitant; but still there are many instances of turning a good literary work into a good film, when the directors have a good insight – there are such films as Gone with the Wind, Battleship Potemkin, Pather Pachali, Ghare Baaire, etc. So I have also to like it. It really depends on the director.

Q Have you ever felt yourself to be a victim of the sex-discrimination as a writer?

Yes, very much. In literature, too, some men, unmeritted as they are, sometimes assume the voice of God; give derogatory comments, even without reading our works: written with much pain... There are many such sad experiences. But let me not say much of this today. (She smiled)

Q Have any contemporary criticism effected you? Can you be satisfied at the valuations offered by the critics of Assam?

A compassionate criticism can do a lot of good to a writer. A good critic is the best instrument to show a writer his path, to make him more explicit and touching. And on the other hand, a critic can also destroy a writer’s genius. I have been personally benefited by the criticisms of Dr. Hiren Gohain and Dr. Govinda Prasad Sarma.

In Assamese, some aspects of the genre of criticism have but recently come into view. Such new aspects effected by modern points of view and thought, are of course likely to inspire the young critics. I read, when I was a student, the criticisms by the late Troilokya Nath Goswami, late Tirthanath Sarma, late Hem Baruah etc -- they had great contributions in the progress of the genre of Assamese criticism. Now, the valuable criticisms by Dr. Hiren Gohain on Poetry and the works of Sri Sankardev etc have, I think, suggested some new points of view and realization. Such works have ennobled the Assamese literature. Many a writer is now enriching this genre: such as Dr. Govinda Prasad Sarma’s criticism on Novel, Dr. Dilip Baruah’s on Poetry and its future, and those by Dr. Pona Mahanta, Professor Bhaven Baruah, Professor Upen Sarma, Dr. Karabi Deka Hazarika, Dr. Krishna Kumar Mishra, Professor Rabindra Chandra Sarma, Sri Prafulla Chandra Bora, Nagen Thakur, Sri Shivanath Barman etc on various subjects. These thinking, foresighted critics are likely to render the genre nobler than ever.

Q Where do you think, the literary beauty of a work lie? Does the lately, worldwide upheaval in the taste of beauty effect or interest you? Did you take up by choice the special idiom, the vocabulary, and the special style of writing of yours, or was it spontaneous?

Every creative piece of writing has got a soul in it. When this soul can touch and fill the reader’s mind with touches of nobility and grandeur, and satisfy it: there is the success of that work, – there lies its beauty. Literature becomes significant with this universality. Only a balanced mixture of idiom, skill, deep insight and a noble aim makes the base of a significant literary work.

I do not think the style of creation to be the basic thing for the judgement of beauty. The soul, I think, is the main part of the work, and not the body. So the new ‘ism’s have never attracted me. How can a work touch the reader, if there is not the spontaneous outlet of the mind, but only the way it is written? I give only twenty percent to the style of a work : the rest of eighty percent must be on the theme. This accent on the style may even be the reason for the lack of a classic work in the modern age : which can touch and leave a lasting effect on our mind.

My style is spontaneous, not voluntary. But I study enough before writing in order to achieve maturity, a clearness of judgement, and a rule over the subjectmatter. I discuss with others, and also visit places, so that I can be sure about my ability – and so the spontaneity of my writing perhaps has to give way to some voluntary handlings, too.

Q What would you say about the latest trains of the feminist thinking? How does feminism impact on your mind? If you could leave aside the fixed definitions, what would you see feminism as?

I have not studied thoroughly the recent, latest trains, but the various aspects of even the original feminism sometimes make me dubious. It has helped a lot in the uplift of the state of woman, – and I admire it, but I cannot let myself be completely driven by it – my sense and experience have given me another, separate view. Feminism is founded on the woman’s thirst for freedom. A woman’s concern about her own torments, the care taken so as not to be extorted, the learning to demand her rights : these, I think, show the basic shape of feminism. It is basically the struggle for the enhancement of the woman’s conditions. But I think that it will vary with circumstances.

<Q What do you consider the standard of the Indo-anglian literature to be? Would you please name some writers of the various regional languages of India, whose works should perforce be read by the Assamese readers?

English is now considered even as an Indian language: and it is a good thing. The English literature in India is now advanced enough. This kind of literature is now widely spread in India, but along with its spread, it would have done a lot of good to have some works of the regional languages into English. This class of the regional literature is like a diamond in a dark pit. The readers from other regions, too, should get its light for them. The translations published by the National Book Trust should be sold by all bookshops, both in towns and villages.The new generation should be made interested in this matter. Each learned man should read such books as Somana Dudi by Shivram Karanth, Mayla Aachal by Phanishwarnath Renu, Saphed Khun by Gurucharan Singh, Chemmin by Shivsankar Pillaai, Joog Badal Gayaa by Krishan Chander, Umraojaan Aada by Rijhvi, Ganadebotaa by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Tamas by Bhishm Sahni, Aawaaraa Machihaa by Vishnu Prabhakar, ... (Without taking any time to bring out the names from her memory, she was ready to mention many more names. But for the lack of space, we thanked her, and left the topic for the next.)

Q Which novels, among those written by your antecedents in Assamese, do you consider to be great ones?

I shall have to name these: Jeevanar Baatot, Iyaruingam, Kokadeutaar Haar, Daawar Aaru Naai, Oghori Aatmaar Kaahini, Antorip, Kaalpurush, Pitaaputra, Ejon Burha Manuh, Swarnalataa, Bhaaranda Pakhhir Jaak, Sansipaator Putthi, Kaalaantoror Gadya, etc. A few of the authors of these are not my antecedents, only I feel that they will remain abiding.

Q You have fairly brought the Assamese literature based on the Ramayana into a national platform. Do you have any other plan on introducing our literature outside Assam?

I have been in various ways trying to publicize Assamese literature outside Assam. I have even translated myself and presented some bright instances of our literature in seminers of the all India level. I want to do whatever I can for the sake of introducing the works of specially the writers deserving an all India reputation. Now I have got a plan for another book with drawings by Assamese painters.

Q May we hear about your plan for any new novel?

I am thinking of writing a novel on the people connected with the Mooga-silk industry in Assam. I will have to go to Suwalkusi for some days and learn something more about them.

Q Would you be living in Delhi in your future life? Or will you come back to Assam? Have you felt any advantage, or any trouble, while living among people of various tongues, in your writing in the Assamese language?

I have not yet thought of a permanent dwelling place. There is Assam – my own home. Yet, Brindaban, too attracts me– I had a strong wish since my childhood, of doing something for the lepers. No, I have not felt any trouble in Delhi for the problem of the language. I have got personally a lot of Assamese books for myself. They give me the shelter whenever I get any trouble. (She smiled) And distance, I feel, generates rather some purity, and some intimacy, too.

Courtesy: Notun Padaatik [A literary magazine published from Guwahati. Chief Editor: Dr. Hiren Gohain. The interview appeared in the first issue of the magazine (October, 1998).]

Translated from Assamese by Paraj Kalita

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