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Scripting a recipe for peace

For celebrated Assamese writer Indira Goswami, kitchen chores can wait as the moment calls for cooking up solutions for her motherland


I have never liked cooking. That has never been my cup of tea Indira Goswami



GRACE PERSONIFIED Indira Goswami at the Greater Kailash outlet of Cafe Turtle in New Delhi PHOTO: S. SUBRAMANIUM

The prearranged hour to meet up with her was half past one at the Café Turtle restaurant atop Full Circle in Greater Kailash. But as you walk up the wooden stairs to the café, five minutes before time, you spot her through its glass door. Occupying a table already! A sense of hurry takes over your steps. Nonetheless, the mind holds back, nudging you to stop and stare.

Oh! What grace! Those frizzy locks, the thread-like eyebrows arching over her heavily kohled eyes, the high cheekbones so honest to her Northeastern origin, and a shocking red sari splashing colour on the whole. Intact with that well-preserved mix of charm and acumen on her face, something that one has grown up familiar with in Assam. By seeing her, by reading her, by talking about her.

Well, one is going to meet her today!

"Since I stay at the Delhi University campus, I am either too late for an appointment or too early," Indira Goswami confesses. The celebrated Assamese author, the first Assamese woman to be conferred the Jnanpith award, the former Head of the Department of Modern Languages in DU however, doesn't forget to lace it with that much-photographed smile, which once led Sir Vidia to call her "the most gorgeous woman." Though Mamoni baidew (she is often addressed so in Assam due to her pen name Mamoni Raisom Goswami) has spent years in the city, calculating travel time accurately still eludes her, she adds.

Juice and sandwich

Taking no time to settle for a glass of apple and beetroot juice with crushed ice and mint, a grilled sandwich and a some vegetarian kababs, she initiates the conversation.

In the air-conditioned milieu, safe from the humid weather outside. About the new book she is writing, about her truce talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom vis-à-vis the Central Government, about the many books she has penned to great acclaim, about the death of her husband in Kashmir just 13 months after marriage, about her extensive research on the Ramayana, about her stay in Vrindavan, the plight of widows there, about life on Guwahati's Chenikuthi Road (where most great Assamese authors and poets, including her, once lived) and more.

Solution with ULFA

Sipping the blood-red juice, which pairs so well with her sari, Goswami says she got introduced to the ULFA cadre without even knowing it. "Every summer, I go home where I attend numerous functions on the invitation of my students. This function in Lower Assam was also no different till I was ushered into a room and asked if I wanted to go to one of their camps. I was horrified but also thought this was one opportunity I would not get again. And I agreed. It was the time of Operation Bajrang in the late `90s and so we had to get into a jeep with headlights off and go on and on in the wild at three in the morning. There, I saw hundreds of injured boys and girls. I was so moved, I thought, this way, Assam would lose its younger generation. My heart was bleeding." The incident led Goswami to take up the issue of bringing ULFA to the negotiating table with the Government.

"Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured me of a solution. I am hopeful. We desperately need peace," she says.

The waitress intervenes, with the grilled sandwich and the kabab platter. "Good that I have come to this vegetarian restaurant. I am a complete vegetarian. I love animals, so I have no problem sacrificing masor jhul (tangy fish curry), something that an Assamese can die for," she says. The cook at her house does however make endless dishes of non-vegetarian curries for visiting guests and Assamese students in DU. Being always busy, Mamoni baidew can hardly squeeze in time to enter the kitchen. But she has no regrets.

"I have never liked cooking. That has never been my cup of tea," she says. Having written her autobiography "Adhalekha Dastabej" ("Half-Written Treatise") a long time back, which was translated into many Indian languages, she is right now putting on paper the second half of it.

"I don't know when it will go to press. I don't give myself any time frame," she says, over bites of sandwiches and the occasional kabab. Often stopping in between to compliment the food to the waitress standing nearby.

Though happy that her books are now a part of the syllabus in many Indian universities, Goswami says she needed to write more than literature needed her. "Without writing, I would have been ruined. Too many personal calamities have touched my life. It would have been difficult to survive," she admits. It was the death of her husband that led her to follow her guruji's footsteps to Vrindavan (which led her to write the award-winning book on the widows of Vrindaban "Dotal Hatir Uye Khuwa Houda", later turned into the National Award winning film Adajya).

"I wanted to go to the Himalayas, away from people, but my guru advised me to join DU," she recalls, relenting under the waitress's persistence to serve her a cup of cappuccino. It arrives with a slice of freshly baked chocolate cake, a personal choice, says the smiling waitress, seemingly from the Northeast. Coffee over, you let her leave, with half a heart, with a promise to meet again. For, the lady, you know, is beyond a single story idea.

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

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