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Semeen Ali
Five Novellas about Women’ by Indira Goswami (Assamese), Trans. by Dibyajyoti Sarma
Semeen Ali

Five Novellas about Women |
Indira Goswami (Assamese original) | Trans. by Dibyajyoti Sarma |
Niyogi Books: 2021 | ISBN: 978-93-91125-07-3 | pp 254 | 495


It will be ten years on the 29th of November this year that Dr Indira Goswami passed away. My earliest memory of her is when I used to live in one of the professors’ flats on Chattra Marg at the University of Delhi campus, and on my way to college would pass by her home where nearly every day in the morning I would find her sitting amongst her patch of green, admiring the rising sun and a variety of birds that used to descend to adorn her small garden. I always associated her with nature – the natural surroundings, as that was the impression she left on my mind. It would take me a couple of years to familiarize myself with her oeuvre and realise that it was her close connect with the natural world that also reflected in her writings.

“The wet leaves in the moonlight looked like golden fishes that jumped out of the pond. The puddles on the road had the colour of dry coconut shell…and the leaves of ou, and jalfai trees looked like fluttering kanduli fish fished out of water” (Novella, Breaking the Begging Bowl).

The best tribute that can be given to a writer is to read their works and translate them into as many languages as possible, introducing them to a wider reading public. Dibyajyoti Sarma has done just that by translating her writings from Assamese language to English language for a reading public that is not familiar with the original language. As a translator, he has provided a vast and detailed glossary of terms at the end of the book that explains the various phrases and words that have been left untranslated throughout the book. And it makes sense to do that as it is not possible to translate every word without compromising on the original meaning that at times tends to get lost or takes on a new meaning in the other language other than what it initially intends to do. To add to this, it is interesting how various sounds that are made while walking or how when the rain falls on the leaves of a plant/tree and makes distinct sounds have been retained in their original format and not been tampered with. Except for the novella set in Delhi, the remaining novellas are filled with natural landscapes but those landscapes are not only describing the natural beauty that surrounds the characters in the novellas; they are also trying to bring to light the challenges that as an individual and as a community one is faced with. The calmness surrounding these jungles also breeds chaos within.

“After the vehicles left, the smell that pervaded the air remained the same; the smell of German grass and petrol. Forty years ago, the same smell would float everywhere in Kakabori…That ungainly smell would pervade the atmosphere, making the people of Kakabori forget the soft scents of bakul, bhumi champa and even the kagazi lemon flowers.”

Dysphoria seems to pervade the pages of this book. Indira brings to light the insurgency that finds refuge in the jungles and the natural vegetation; where children and women endure it the most. But she does not lodge her writings around the theme of insurgency, rather she exposes the maladies that plague the state she hails from. The intrusion of the activities of the outside world inside one’s home and the ripples that such acts are capable of creating have been looked at in this book.

Mamoni Raisom Goswami (Indira Goswami’s nom de plume) through her writings highlights the pain and the suffering that women undergo. One of her acclaimed works “The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker” (Dontal Hatir Une Khowa Howdah) is a novel that introduces three widows who have different personalities and responses to an environment that is created through the circumstances that life throws at them. It depicts the vagaries of life as a woman one is exposed to and has to deal with. While reading the novellas in this book – it becomes apparent how much of her writings focus on the female experience as lived and experienced in flesh. In the gendered power structures and the roles that are assigned to women in it, the writings reflect on the disadvantaged positions that women occupy and have continued to fight against. The evil that these women have to fight against is not much from the outside world than the one that they have to live with – it is from the interiors of their spaces that this evil raises its head and threatens to bite them.

“Stopping her work of grinding medicinal fruits, his wife wanted to say something on behalf of the two women. But her fear for her husband was stronger than her empathy. She had not forgotten how she was beaten black and blue when she had once tried to offer her opinion.”

Although the last novella shifts its perspective and puts the spotlight on a man, who despite being in a better bargaining position is helpless when the tables are turned. On reading the novellas contained in this book, one recalls the essay by Temma Kaplan titled Female Consciousness and Collective Action where she writes –

“…by placing human needs above other social and political requirements and human life above property, profit, and even individual rights, female consciousness creates the vision of a society that has not appeared yet.”

The book does not give a defeated stance taken by women; instead, there are constant attempts to fight one’s way out or within the lives that women are subjected to. From Phuleshwari’s repeated attempts to release her mortgaged land and the unwanted advances that she and her family are humiliated and put through; to Padampriya’s situation as the one abandoned by her husband and the efforts made by women around her to help her win her husband back; to Vimala’s efforts to protect her dignity and at the same time to gain favours to get her work done – these are women stuck in different situations and trying to get a foothold in a patriarchal society. As Ishwari Devi’s attempts to read her paper at the Ramayan Sammelan, in the story Ishwari’s Doubts and Desires, again fall flat on its face, she consoles herself rather than give in to the despair that feels more real –

“In her hand, the article, which she wrote spending so many hours, lay crumpled. …She tried to console herself with the fact that she felt a kind of peace in writing the article itself. It was enough. It was enough. It’s okay that she couldn’t read it to anyone. She got the opportunity to hear so many different things…It was enough. It was enough.”

The book leaves the readers with a multitude of questions to respond to; to exhume the monsters that one is riddled with as one tries to survive in a world that seeks its own redemption by demanding of an individual to sacrifice their needs and desires. The book removes the curtain that one feels comfortable sitting behind; and one increasingly feels the chasm that is between a reader and the multifarious voices that emerge from across the country. One can only thank the translators whose hard work to bring forth works that speak across time and spaces, helps us see through a kaleidoscope and identify parts of ourselves while looking through it. 


Issue 99 (Sep-Oct 2021)

Book Reviews
  • Ananya Sarkar: ‘That House That Age’ by Aju Mukhopadhyay
  • Aparna Eswaran: ‘Tea – A Concoction of Dissonance’ by P Ahilan, Geetha Sukumaran (Tamil) & Vaidheki (Art), Trans. by Vidhya Sreenivasan
  • Asma Fathima: ‘Ignite Your Inner Power – The Art of Mindful Living’ by Preeti Pathak
  • GJV Prasad: ‘Dusk to Dawn – Poetic voices on the current times – South Asia and Beyond
  • Ketaki Datta: ‘Whispering Bricks – Stories of Love, Loss, and Friendship from IIMA’ – an anthology of stories
  • Pushpa Subramanian: ‘An Entirely New History of India’ by Francois Gautier
  • Sapna Dogra: ‘Hesitancies’ – Poetry collection by Sanjeev Sethi
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Five Novellas about Women’ by Indira Goswami (Assamese), Trans. by Dibyajyoti Sarma
  • Sudha Rai: ‘Wooden Cow’ by T Janakiraman (Tamil), Trans. by Lakshmi Kannan
  • Sutanuka Ghosh Roy: ‘Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts’ by Ritu Menon
  • Tania Chakravertty: ‘The Cult of the Androgyne – Reflections in Life and Literature, Art and Religion
  • Varchaswi L Putcha: “G Ramakrishna – The Versatile Artist” by GSP Rao & M C Mohan