Indira Goswami (1942-2011)
Translated by Aruni Kashyap (from Assamese)
Published by Zubaan 2013
132 pages, folklore, nationalist
Found: Kolkata book fair 2015
This is the last book by the well-regarded Assamese author Indira Goswami, known for her use of literature to advocate for social and political change. Drawing on the idea of a strong female character described in local Bodo folktales, Goswami demonstrates the importance of the Bodo people in the nationalist fight against the British colonialists and therefore in the formation of the Indian nation and the state of Assam (an important political statement due to the continued violence and calls for the creation of Bodoland as a separate state).
Tengphakhri is a tribal Bodo woman who was chosen to act as a Tehsildar, or tax collector, for the British in the late 1850s. Accompanied by her group of soldiers, she rode through the villages to collect taxes, using force if necessary. She has a close relationship with several of her British superiors, who she admires. When other British officers come to take over, leading to changes in policies, she is compelled to choose whether she wants to continue working with them or join the freedom movement.
The description of the character Tengphakhri is interesting. She is obviously a strong person, who can handle horses and do the duties required by her job. Like most women in fiction, "Her beauty and personality mesmerized everyone. They had just one complaint: why doesn't Tengphakhri speak?" She is mostly a silent character, and the story is told through descriptions of her sometimes ambivalent actions.
While this story is based on a folktale, it doesn't read like one. This is a flaw, in my opinion. The mostly emotionless descriptions of Tengphakhri's actions were not interesting to me. I did not enjoy this book for the story or the characters (who were disappointingly flat).
The only thing that seemed interesting to me is the way Goswami tried to use this book to protest against the violence in Assam related to the Bodoland movement. But because that was the purpose of this novel's existence, nationalist sentiments took center stage, stealing the focus from the characters and story. If you are interested in Assamese politics, especially the question of an independent Bodo state, you might find something in this book. If not, it's not really worth your time.
Wikipedia article on Bodoland
"Bodoland Movement: A Study" by Topu Choudhury (a scholarly article on the history of the movement)
"Why is Indira Goswami Great?" by Aruni Kashyap (translator of this novel)