The man from Chinnamasta!
The Hindu, Literary Review
(Sunday, 1 April, 2007)
THE 65-year-old writer Indira Goswami has a dedicated readership in her native Assam, where she is known as Mamoni Baideo. Renowned for her knowledge of the Ramayana literature, she has been a faculty member in the Department of Modern Indian Languages at the University of Delhi; she has won several awards, including the Jnanpith Award in 2001; and it is a mark of her position of respect in the Assamese community that she was also, until recently, involved in peace talks between the Government and the ULFA militants of Assam.
Goswami's classic novel Chinnamastar Manuhto (The Man from Chinnamasta) is set around the 2,000-year-old Kamakhya Temple of the Sakta cult. Legend has it that this Shakti Peeth marks the spot where Sati's sacred yoni fell to the earth. The novel tells the story of Chinnamasta Jatadhari, a hermit who leads the effort for change in the cruel ritual of animal sacrifice, and others around him — notably Ratnadhar, the sensitive youth who falls to the ground and sobs when he sees a buffalo being dragged for its slaughter, and Dorothy Brown, the estranged wife of the college principal who comes to the Jatadhari seeking peace of mind.
It is not hard to see why Goswami is so well loved by her readers. Her prose is marked by compassion and humanity. She weaves into her narrative the turbulent history of the State, including the bitter defeat of the Ahom king at the hands of the Mughals in the 17th century, and the confrontation between the English forces and the Burmese at the end of the 18th. And in the 1920s setting of the novel, we see the force with which the great weights of tradition and religious ritual come up against the dramatic urgency of change.
In this aspect, The Man from Chinnamasta is also a courageous novel — for, at its heart is an impassioned protest against the horror of animal sacrifice. As a child, Goswami saw animal sacrifices being performed at the temple. The anguish of Ratnadhar, which reappears in one of her poems, draws its force from her childhood experience of witnessing this cruelty.
The novel begins by invoking the great river of Assam, the Brahmaputra, as a beast moving its "mighty shanks" as it flows. Ever the dramatic storyteller, her opening images contain hints of disease ("leucoderma victim"); deprivation ("widowed mother"); and even menace, later, where the curve of the river is described as "a sacrificial machete". And then, suddenly, the prose bursts forth to describe the glorious natural profusion of seuli, kendur, outenga, ashoka and khokan in the Nilachal hills. The Jatadhari himself strides on to the scene, "an ancient landmass arising from the water". Goswami's sentences are drenched with the green beauty of the landscape.
This spirited translation from the Asomiya, by Prashant Goswami, conveys a sense of the novel's vivid imagery. The translation was nominated for the Hutch Crossword Book Award 2006 in the category of Indian writing in translation.
And finally a word about the commendable Katha project, which has been working in the areas of language, culture and translation for close to two decades. What a difference it has made to the world of Indian writing! The elegantly designed books, with cover paintings by contemporary Indian artists (the Tyeb Mehta painting on the cover of this volume depicts the violence of the struggle between man and animal); the statement that 10 per cent of the cover price will go to help a child in one of the 17 Katha schools; the reassurance that Katha regularly plants trees to replace the wood used in the making of the books — it's a rare project that has so much integrity. Katha's greatest contribution has been in bringing to us newer and newer voices from all over this diverse nation, helping us to understand each other and ourselves.
Cover Design: Geeta Dharmarajan
Cover Painting: Tyeb Mehta
Category: Katha Asomiya Library
Statistics: 5.5" x 8" 200 pages
ISBN 81-89020-38-2 [PB]
Price: Rs 250 [India and the subcontinent only]