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Ratna Bharali Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2017-04-01

Breaking the Gender Barrier: Women’s voices in Contemporary Assamese Short Stories



I would like to thank Sahitya Akademy for providing me this unique platform to present a paper on this occasion of “Birth Centenary Seminar on Sneha Devi”. It is an issue of debate as to whether to draw a gender based analysis of creative world - particularly at a time when most of the creative writers identify themselves as only “writer” - and do not like any tagline of “male” or “female”. The world of a creative person can never be centred around the issue of ‘gender’ - as they only try to explore layers of truths, complexities and dynamics of society. But then, it is equally true that in a society where each ‘norm’ is framed and dictated by the institution of patriarchy, and movement of a woman is still scrutinized under these patriarchal norms - women writers certainly deserve a separate “space” to talk about their experiences. Unlike many developed countries, where women had to be united to protest on the streets demanding their voting rights, working hours and others, women in India could enjoy some these rights as constitutional rights immediately after the independence. However, her movement and behaviour is still reviewed and dictated by the institution of patriarchy. Women are still struggling to get social justice as well as her desired “space” in politics. Moreover, when a society is passing through a period of crises like armed conflict situation, or natural calamities like flood and erosion and subsequent displacement for instances, women become the easiest target of all the vulnerabilities.

In this backdrop, the ‘quest’ of a woman writer as to how she considers social reality in a world where she lives under the institution of patriarchy, as well as positioning her ‘space’ in contemporary literature - have become issues of significance. It is also important to note that most of the leading literary organisations of contemporary society often denied her role as a decision-maker to lead these organisations, despite her demonstrated ability.

Assamese women writers have contributed prolifically to all genres of contemporary literature in this milieu of social system. Sneha Devi, the most important woman short story writer of her time, too, is no different. Born in 1916, she was married in very early life in 1928. A woman with almost no formal education, she had proved herself to mark her position as the most important female writer of her time. Following her footsteps, the women writers have been relentlessly contributing to the world of Assamese fiction writing.

Sneha Devi acquired a very distinctive and expressive language to tell her stories that she picked up from the people belonging to middle-class and lower middle-class groups of her surroundings. Unlike many of the short story writers of her time, who proffered to explore literary elements in rural life – Shena Devi’s characters live in town areas and they survive in complex human relations of a family-structure. As these characters mostly move in a family structure, they often contradict and engaged in conflicts among themselves - and thus reveal a truth of social reality of her period. In most of her short stories, Sneha Devi used to describe crisis situations of human relations and complexities of life by carefully choosing sensitive female characters. She is flawless while describing a situation with her smooth and straight language, often blended with wit. This wit she carefully used while creating a special situation, is often ignored by a literary critic.

It is Nirupama Borgohain, the prolific writer who dared to break the monotony of the conventional approach of narrating a village life in Assamese literature, in her short story titled “Anthropolojir Xopunor Piost” (1949) – which is a powerful fiction based on field work. In this short story, Nirupama Borgohain has successfully depicted both the layers of rural poverty as well as the distances between human being despite living in proximity in closed rooms. The gender-based exploitations she has focused in this fiction is still a real picture of rural Assam, which is so prominently visible in practical life, and yet absent in literature till she explored it. She always prefers to draw an idealistic picture in her short stories, upholding humanity. In terms of subjectivity and constructing her fiction, she is committed to social issues promoting humanity. A prolific novelist of contemporary Assamese literature, Borgohain has written several important short stories including Dhekir Sarag, Akash Sowa, Jalchobi among others.

Mamoni Raisom Goswami, one of the most versatile and bold writers of our time, never hesitated in experimenting life as well as exploring rays of hope even in rarely reflected imageries of life. Her voice is totally different from her predecessors - a strong voice melted with endless pain, agony and intense desires of rugged women surviving in devastating situations. The metaphors she frequently uses are not imaginary and they form very indispensable part of the ‘field’ or the real world, where she works. A distinguished storyteller of her time, she was as if born to narrate torn out tales of women shattered in vulnerabilities and despite the odds these characters dare to register their voices. They live in the mind of the reader for a longer period and talk with him/her. Sanskar, Jaatra, Poshu, Nangoth Sohor are among some of her powerful short stories.

Arupa Patangia Kalita easily moves into any field that draws her attention. It may be a devastating world of armed conflict situation, a barren space where women suffer as an oppressive class and continue her fight for survival. The ‘feminine’ perspective of Arupa Patangia Kalita is very bold in literature. Her female protagonists are not shy, but loud. They mostly live in periphery and at times also involves in exploiting each-other. While positioning these struggling women into the world of fiction, the writer visits them in person, listen to their issues systematically and finally devote her unique craftsmanship of transforming social reality into literature. As a writer, she has no hesitation in establishing her desire to register peripheral voices into so called process of mainstream as a bold one.

Manorama Das Medhi, often tries to explore the life and experiences of oppressive ones. However, instead of interpreting a situating on her own way, Das Medhi prefers to draw the picture in its original form, through her beautifully crafted frames of short sentences and moving dialogues. Phula Goswami, an eminent writer uses a very distinctive language to tell a story. She talks to herself and crafts a particular language for each story.

Purabi Bormudoi is basically a novelist. But reading Purabi Bormudoi’s short stories is always a joyful experience. When we read her short stories, we feel like as if we are travelling through a world of folktales or lullabies, even during reading of her short-stories with deep social relevance.

Rita Chowdhury’s fiction are basically narrative of a real-life situation. Like her novels, Chowdhury also has the unique expertise of narrating sequences of the situation she wants to present.

Anuradha Sharma Pujari primarily moves in a modern society and explores life in diversified complexities of human relations in modern day context in her fiction. She has unique expertise of revealing multi-layered truths of complex human relations using relatively a simple and a straight narration.

Nabanita Gogoi successfully experimented on human behaviour and psychology in her fiction using her microscopic observation of social issues.

Moushumi Kandali has brought a new trend to Assamese short-story telling tradition by consciously creating a visually descriptive poetic language. She can easily translate a literary theory into an interesting fiction-tale passionately using very intense metaphors in her narration. As a writer, she survives in most recent trends of experimentation of world literature. She has sufficient substance to tell each story, and while crafting a story she becomes very poetic in nature, very modern in approach, yet very assertive in narration to convince the reader. The successful convergence of all these elements finally has shaped her as a very distinctive storyteller.

Bonti Senchoa’s fiction language is extremely poetic, and moving. A prominent story teller of contemporary Assamese literature, she has picked up the spoken language used by people of Sivasagar district in her narration. She always maintains clarity of revealing a situation. She has the unique expertise of providing intelligent readers the joyful moments of reading the sub-texts within the text.

Anamika Bora primarily tries to showcase the subaltern world that exists within the mainstream Assamese society in her fiction world. Some of her short-stories including Jalayashoy, Pret-Atma, Bhode CPI, are very intense with diversified components of human life that suffer and survive in extreme conditions.

Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s narrative in fiction is poetic and straight. Her short stories are based on modern life and complexities of human behaviour. She prefers simplicity while telling a story.

For Rashmirekha Borah, writing is perhaps a responsibility along with creative pleasure. She has constantly engaged herself to pick up literary elements right from ground zero, using conscious and selective vocabulary to narrate them successfully in fiction.

Monalisha Saikia’s narrative draws the attention of human relations mostly in city life and easily unveils complexities of individuals living in close frames of social life. She enviably acquires the skill of spontaneity while telling a story.

Geetali Bora’s skill lies in re-creating mythology and finally relating it to modern day context. She has been consciously and successfully doing this in her fiction world to mark her writing-style distinctive. She has acquired a unique skill of narrating feminine perspective in fiction.

Manika Devee, successfully creates a fiction-language which is blended with a local flavour and extremely poetic. The “essence” of the language forms such a crucial part in her fiction that at times it becomes almost impossible to translate them into other languages, as it is always difficult to translate the “essence” of a language.

Juri Borah Borgohain is a novelist also writes short stories to reveal specific experiences of social realities that she often encounters. Archana Borthakur has crafted a language, which is poetic and she has successfully depicted the complexities of human relationship in her short stories.

We also have many young and prominent women writers. In the storytelling process of Prarthana Saikia, irony plays a crucial role to narrate fiction. She has already picked up a ‘form’ which is very distinctive of mark her literature. Angana Choudhury and Suranjana Sharma are flawless in narrating a fiction. Angana Choudhury’s fiction depicts situations of diverse realities.

Gayatri Doley has been trying to explore literary elements from a real world that she often encounters. Her characters often live in a maginalised society, and assert their presence in social discourse.

Chandana Pathak has successfully crafted several fictions based on the experiences of people’s survival strategies in extreme conditions. One of the promising young fiction writers is, Shristi Shreyam. However, she has not written fiction for quite a long time.

Bipasha Bora has a distinctively moving and poetic language to tell her fiction. She has her expertise in projecting a social issue by narrating experiences of individual life. She has been sincerely engaged in collecting unexplored ethnic elements of Meghalaya into fiction world.

Juri Baruah, a highly politically sensible writer has been sincerely exploring a very distinctive ‘form’ of storytelling. Her characters move on cosmic landscape of hard political realities and live in periphery.

Upasana Saikia, has drawn an incredible way of storytelling method in her short story “Piterpene Hahise.”

The list is representative and not exhaustive as it is an impossible task to incorporate work of all the fiction writers due to time constraint. However, we can fairly argue that the women writers in Assam have crafted a powerful voice in contemporary Assamese short stories through their diverse creative work, not allowing their literary works, either to be dictated or influenced by patriarchal dominance in the society, or to be tagged as works of female writers.

Ratna Bharali Talukdar

(Extracts from a paper presented by the author at a seminar on "Birth Centenary Seminar on Sneha Devi- an eminent Assamese writer," organised by the Sahitya Akademi in collaboration with Department of Assamese, Dibrugarh University, on March 27 and 28.)






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