She had a long cherished dream. One morning she was sitting — thinking about the dream and how to fulfil it. At that moment she received a phone call. It was a call from renowned writer Amitav Ghosh who has a great liking for her writings. And over phone he informed her about an award she had just won. It was the Principal Prince Claus Award 2008, conferred to this bold and realistic writer of Assamese literature. Simplicity and deep love for the ordinary folk are the unique facets of her writings which brought her this prestigious honour. This lady is none other than Dr Indira Goswami, popularly known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami, who has also won the country’s highest literary award — Jnanpith.
She had spent most of her early childhood at Amranga village in south Kamrup. Whenever she visited Amranga Satra with her father she saw a man lying under a peepul tree. Her father said the man was a leper and in their village, lepers were not welcome. When she asked her father about the treatment of that person he replied that there was no hospital in their locality. The condition of the ailing man, alienated from the society, touched and shook her to the core and a dream sprouted in her mind. She was then only eight. The dream was to establish a hospital in that region to the benefit of the rural folk. Since then, almost 60 years have passed but she could not make her dream turn into reality. That does not mean that she did not have the resources to start such a project.
In fact, he was born in a wealthy family: her father was Umakanta Goswami, a brilliant academician and a rich person. He was the principal of Cotton College. Moreover, Mamoni baideu was married to Madhavan Raisom Iyengar who had riches worth crores of rupees which she sold off for minimal cost after her husband’s death. But it needs something different in order to fulfil a cause. She could not use the money or property that belonged to her father or husband as there were other siblings as well.
Whatsoever it may be, the prestigious award has brought some hope for fulfilling her dream. She will receive a huge amount, almost Rs 70 lakh which she can use for that noble cause. After receiving the award she is going to visit Amranga village where she plans to build a hospital. She hopes that she would name the hospital after her father or mother. “I may have to tie up with some group to set up my dream hospital in my village, but I am very happy that at last my long cherished dream is going to be fulfilled,” she says. She is enthralled with the feeling of great satisfaction as she could do something for the betterment of the underprivileged.
The Prince Claus Award is given to people who show outstanding performance in the field of culture and development. The most important consideration of the jury is the positive effect of a laureate’s work on a wider cultural or social field. The Prince Claus Fund interprets culture in a broad sense to encompass all kinds of artistic and intellectual disciplines, science, media and education. Since 1997 the Prince Claus Awards are presented annually to artistes, thinkers and cultural organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Mamoni baideu has received this award as an outstanding writer who reveals the life experience of ordinary people; through powerful graphic descriptions and haunting imageries she shows how central the body is in human affairs, how political, religious and culture systems are codified through the body and how life process, gender, age, poverty and conflict are defined physically. She will be presented the award on December 3, 2008, in Amsterdam.
Although the award is as prestigious as the Nobel Prize and the prize money is 100,000 Euro (more than Rs 70 lakh), not much have been said or written about this award. As a result, we are not aware of this great achievement of hers which she considers to be the second miracle of her life. The first one was the sudden change of her mindset that moved her to stay at Vrindavan where she was reluctant to stay at first.
Mamoni baideu’s writings are a sensible picture of the miseries suffered by the downtrodden and the outcastes of the society. Be it a novel or a short story, she always picks up the subject from the lives of the ordinary folk. All her novels and short stories are a bold and true picture of these people. Her subjects include Brahmin widows, share-croppers, poor peasants, riot victims, despondent youths, forsaken lovers and helpless animals. Moreover, her characters are not confined within a particular geographical boundary. They do not belong only to Assam. In her novel The Stream of Chenab (Chenabor Srut), which launched her as a novelist, she drew the subjects from labourers working for a construction company where they were raising a bridge near the river Chenab. The Blue Necked Braja (Nilakanthi Braja) narrates the story of the Brahman widows fighting their destiny at Vrindavan. The Rusted Sword (Mamore Dhora Taruwal) is a story of a labour union and a labour strike and set in the backdrop of Uttar Pradesh while the story in her The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker (Datal Hatir Uwe Khua Howdah) revolves round the lives of three Brahmin widows in the family of a Satradhikar. The varied subjects distinguish her from many of her ilk. This is a unique feature of her writings and it makes her writings popular all over India and as well as abroad. Most of her writings have already been translated into all major Indian languages. Her Datal Hatir Uwe Khua Howdah is one of her works to win wide appreciation in Pakistan.
Mamoni Raisom Goswami was born and brought up in a very conservative family. When she started going to school, she was escorted by three servants — one of them preceded her informing all others that a Gossain girl is coming, so they should clear out the road (it is believed in our society that Gossains are a higher class and they should not be touched by the lower caste people). The other servants carried her mattresses to sit in the school. However, her mindset was not like that. This conformist belief could not shape her mind. She never made any distinction in making friends nor did her mother say her to do so. But her aunts repeatedly warned her against making such friends. She had nurtured her feelings for the downtrodden since she was a young girl. And, she is now reaping the fruits of the feelings she nurtured for the downtrodden. “If it was not that conservative, I could go to the leper and could do something for him…,” Mamoni baideu says contritely.
This Jnanpith awardee has 25 books and hundreds of short stories to her credit. The list of honours and awards she won is studded with Sahitya Akademi Award, Asam Sahitya Sabha Award, Bharat Nirman Award, Katha National Award for Literature, Kamal Kumari Foundation Award, The International Tulsi Award from Florida International University, Padmashri Award and many others.
After the announcement of the Prince Claus Award, noted litterateur Homen Borgohain asked her in an interview: “Have all your dreams been fulfilled?” To this she replied positively. However, she never felt all her dreams fulfilled before receiving this award.
Mamoni baideu has expressed great satisfaction over the translation works of her creations. The translations have given her a high. Through these pieces of work only the people outside could get the taste of her works. Even Amitav Ghosh had gotten a chance to read her books through the translation works. He was one of those people who referred Mamoni baideu’s name for this prestigious award.