She knows what widowhood is. Mamoni Raisom Goswami has lived it herself.
"And that is exactly why most of my novels revolve around young widows," she says, "and the adversities they face in Indian society."
In case Mamoni Raisom doesn't ring a bell, try her penname Indira Goswami, winner of this year's coveted Jnanpith Award.
Almost all of Dr Goswami's novels and short stories feature widows who have been wronged by society. Thus, there is Giribala in Dotal Haatir Uiye Khowa Howdah, Saudamini in Nilakanthi Braja, Damayanti in Samskar and so many others, all young, some widowed even before they attain womanhood.
In each of her novels, Dr Goswami raises her voice against traditions and social norms. As if that is not enough, she came out with her own story in Aadhaalikha Dastabej, an autobiography which has been translated into English as Unfinished Autobiography.
Widowed within 18 months of her marriage to a Tamil engineer, Dr Goswami's life has been a struggle against odds.
"I read one-third of your autobiography in one go and find you to be a sensitive and truthful person, who has revealed your feelings, uncertainties, disappointments and lapses with a candour not shown by many of your contemporaries," remarked writer Mulk Raj Anand in a letter he wrote in November 1990 to Mamoni baideu [elder sister] as she is fondly called in Assam.
Born to a conservative monastic Hindu family near Guwahati just four years before India attained Independence, Dr Goswami, a professor of modern Indian languages in Delhi University, is today the most widely read Assamese writer outside the state. Many of her 13 novels have been translated into English, Hindi and other Indian languages.
She started her career as a children's writer while still in high school. She wrote short stories for two decades before she emerged as a powerful novelist in 1972, with Chenabor Sot (The current of the Chenab), about the plight of women labourers engaged in a bridge construction project across the Chenab in Jammu & Kashmir.
Since then she has closely watched women, especially widows and the downtrodden, across India, producing novels in the backdrop of different states. Ahiran, for instance, is the story of women labourers in Madhya Pradesh. Neelakanthi Braja tells us about the Radheshyami widows of Vrindavan.
Dr Goswami's writings are spontaneous and candid -- at times to the extent of being brutally frank, even when she writes about herself. "I can only salute Mamoni for the truly heroic saga that is her life," said critic Amita Malik 10 years ago, on reading her Unfinished Autobiography.
"What is there to hide? How can I depict the stories about others' lives if I am not true to myself?" says Dr Goswami. "That is why I do not hesitate in saying that I drink too -- of course, only occasionally. I have never tried to sermonise. I have never alienated my writings from my life -- how can I?"
Ask her what is her most important contribution and she points to her research work Ramayana: From Ganga to Brahmaputra, in which she discusses the Assamese version of the epic written in the 16th century by Madhav Kandali.
Thus remarked Chandra Prasad Saikia, ex-president of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, when Mamoni baideu won the Jnanpith: "It is after all literature that has played a unifying role for India. And Mamoni's work proves that point once again."
Photograph: Anupam Nath
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