Saturday, November 18, 2006

"The man from Chinnamasta" comes to Chennai

Even the rain stayed away from November 16's launch of Indira Goswami's "The man from Chinnamasta," - and the event kicked off to a dignified, crisp start, with Katha providing the perfect platform for the release of the Jnanpith Award Winner's masterpiece, in the Odyssey Bookstore, Adyar.

Katha played host to the novel that created waves when it was first published in Asomiya - and consequently, among literary circles throughout the country, when its English translation was published.

Set in the times of unrest and turmoil; at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel paints the hoary history of Assam’s most famous temple of the Sakta cult, Kamakhya.

The story flows as swiftly as the Brahmaputra; it holds the reader’s attention as seductively. And as the narrative moves inexorably towards the end, we see the power of the storyteller in Indira Goswami. This evocative translation of Prashant Goswami makes the novel a must read for all lovers of good fiction.

These sentiments were insightfully expressed by both the Chief Guest for the launch, Kanimozhi, and Dr Nanditha Krishna, Director of the C P Ramaswami Art Foundation, who received the first copy. Kanimozhi spoke of "the conflict the book raised in my heart" and asked that "those present must also read it, that they too experience the myriad emotions it kindled in herself."

Dr Nanditha Krishna spoke evocatively - animal sacrifice was a subject that was very close to her heart, and as such, she could relate to it on many levels; she has written and spoken about the subject many times. She described the trials suffered by animals, made a heartfelt request that more people become aware of these animals' plight, and extend compassion towards them. She also gave glowing praise to Katha for having brought out translations that enabled people to read such excellent works in English - "for how would I be able to appreciate a novel written in Ahom or Asomiya, had it not been for this excellent translation? We are all deeply indebted to Katha for their sterling services."

This was followed by a charming skit presentation by The Karuna Club, an initiative of Sri Sankara Senior Secondary School, Adyar. The Karuna Club’s objective is to kindle kindness and compassion towards animals and indeed, all life around us. It is a part of activities, competitions and holds exhibitions centered around Karuna, compassion and other values. Begun in 1999, they hold an Animal Welfare Fortnight from January 14th to 30th of every year. Special mention must be made of the fact, here, that the school prohibits leather shoes, in view of its stand on animal welfare.

10 children of varying ages, starting from a sweet six year old to a dignified 15 year old played their parts perfectly in a dramatic piece which revolves around a family that decides to sacrifice an animal, when their son falls sick. The superstitious servant maid and milk man urge them to sacrifice a chicken - when the father has a change of heart. They reflect about the wrongs of taking a life away in exchange of their son's health, and adopt a little girl, instead.

The skit won a great deal of acclaim and appreciation from the crowd present. Writers Ashokamithran and Jayakantan who were present, expressed their enjoyment of the presentation. The children and Skit coordinators received gifts and certificates from Katha, given away by Dr Nanditha Krishna, who made sure to congratulate each and every child on the part they played.

Author Indira Goswami and translator Prashant Goswami, though not present for the function, took the time to convey special messages for the Chennai Launch.

"The writing of Chinnamastar Manuhto was provoked by my encounters with the tradition of animal sacrifice at the famous Kamakhya temple in Assam, a tradition that continues to this day," said Indira Goswami. "It’s a gruesome sight, there are rivers of blood flowing on festival days. My book raises a simple question -- if you can change tradition to stop human sacrifice, why not change it to exclude animal sacrifice!

Since my childhood I have been horrified by this shocking practice at the Kamakhya temple on Nilachal Hill, at Guwahati, in Assam where I grew up. Known as the greatest place of Shakti worship in all of India, the Kamakhya temple has a hoary 2000-year-old history, and has been visited by great saints such as Shankaracharya, Guru Nanak and Vivekananda. I soon learnt that there were regular sacrifices at several other temples in my native place. In fact, our mighty Brahmaputra river is known as the Red River, as a result of all the blood that flows into it from various temples.

In my novel, I have vehemently condemned the ritual of animal sacrifice at Chinnamasta, especially the buffalo sacrifice that has been going on for over 2000 years. There is no one to raise their voice against such sacrifices. I have also depicted the life of people and priests of the temple and several rituals, including that of Kumari puja, where even the daughters of prostitutes were worshipped. In fact the Ahom king Shiv Sinha married a Devdasi, who went on to rule the vast empire of the Ahom dynasty.

When the novel was serialized in a popular magazine, I was threatened with dire consequences. Shortly after this, a local newspaper, Sadin, carried an appeal about animal sacrifice, which resulted in quite an uproar -- the editor was gheraoed and a tantrik warned me. But when the appeal was published, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of banning animal sacrifice. I also had to contend with rejection from a publisher who was initially keen and had promised me a huge advance, but who later backtracked, offering instead to publish any other book of mine. But the rest, as they say, is history and Chinnamastar Manuhto went on to become a runaway bestseller!

I firmly believe that the world would be a better place if more people understood and appreciated such issues as these in all their complexity. I hope The Man from Chinnamasta will be just the right catalyst to a making us more sensitive and responsible citizens. I wish the Chennai launch all the very best!"

Translator Prashant Goswami expressed his wish that the novel provoke debate about the fate of animals. He said that "Mamoni di (Indira Goswami) has produced a jewel which book lovers need to read.''

The event wound up with Katha expressing its vote of thanks. It was a crisp, photo finish … and an issue that desperately needs to be addressed found a way to express itself. Both by the young generation, and the old. The event was a fitting bridge, the pathway that was intended to connect different points in society.

"The man from Chinnamasta" had arrived.
The Deccan Chronicle covers the Chennai Launch here.


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