Sabita Goswami’s ‘Along the Red River’
Three strong women who lived with a rare passion and commitment chronicle their lives as memoirs. Although their lives and times were drastically different from each other, we see a latent energy running through the stories that connects not just them but the womanhood in general. The memoirs account for the pioneering work they did and the numerous roles they played. I often wondered how it was possible to pack in so much in a single lifetime. They showed the path and then there was no turning back.
I am referring to Ismat Chughtai’s A life in Words , Vina Mazumdar’s Memories of a Rolling Stone and Sabita Goswami’s Along the Red River. The last is, however, an excellent translation from the original Assamese language in which it was written. Each reading of these unusual memoirs helped me find answers and take courage to forge my path through the life’s hardships. They taught me to think and ponder, to be unafraid, to dissent, to believe in dignity, compassion and the vulnerability of human life.
Today I will write about Along the Red River, a powerful autobiography of the acclaimed veteran journalist, Sabita Goswami, who was the first woman reporter in the North-East to have worked for organisations like AFP and BBC. The book is translated from the original Assamese, Mon Gongaar Teerot by her elder daughter, Dr. Triveni Goswami Mathur, who is also a journalist and an academician.
Honestly speaking, I had a very sketchy knowledge about the Assam Movement and the complex socio-political history of that region until I read this firsthand account. The book is an objective, unbiased and insightful documentation and analysis of almost three decades (1979-2004) of turbulent events from the heart of the volatile state of Assam in particular and the North-East in general. For the first time I read an insider’s view of a senior journalist and a social commentator who had keenly observed and examined the various aspects of the unrest and crisis in her state.
The book also gave an insight into the life of an ordinary woman, who fought to live on her terms whilst being constantly confronted by gender biased patriarchal setup within which she had to operate. It also narrates the emotional and social obstacles she faced during her struggle to establish herself professionally and personally.
There is a display of tremendous courage as she overcomes the challenges of a troubled marriage, even to the extent of sacrifice and suffering, as she takes on the financial and emotional responsibilities of her two young daughters. She goes to lengths to educate and keep them safe, and copes with the demands of a career in journalism which was not just a profession but a passion for her. The conviction and determination to confront the inequalities faced by her is commendable. Not once one gets a feeling of victimhood in her memoir. Fiercely independent, Sabita Goswami comes out as a modern woman who juggles different roles with exceptional expertise and finds something positive and meaningful in each adversity. It is this ability of finding joy in adversities that connected strongly with me.
Every woman’s life is a struggle and each of us deals with it differently. For weeks after I read the book for the first time, I tried to visualize and place myself in that scenario and think how I would have dealt with those issues. Then I would reflect on my personal struggle and try to comprehend a way to turn them into something positive. There was a continuous introspection and conflict within as the book opened a new perspectives for me.
Empowerment is one of them. Married at the tender age of 17 in a conservative family, it is extraordinary to read how she braved the personal and social odds to pursue her dream in the field of journalism without compromising her integrity. “To be in the thick momentous events, to be able to record history as it happens was a heady feeling. This was something I had dreamt of doing ever since my youth,” she writes.
She came from a humble background and struggled hard to reach the professional heights practically debunking the myth that a woman from a traditional background could seldom make it in the man’s world. If you put your heart into something and go for it with utmost courage and belief, there is nothing in the world that can stop you from getting it. It is eventually the strength of your heart that sets the course of your life.
Children are often the driving force in the circumstances which may be otherwise unbearable. I can say this from my personal experience. It is a bond that nourishes and strengthens each other. In her narration, we see how her daughters became pillars of strength to her and how, in the chaos that surrounded their lives, she ensured that they get the best of education and inculcated the values in them which made them who they are today. She could achieve it due to her own education and economic independence, a privilege not many women in such circumstance have. I think another important message here is of women’s education and how it can impact the course of our lives and those of future generations.
Another interesting thing about the narrative is the almost poetic imagery about the places she travelled to. Water as a metaphor is evident in many of the books I read about the North-East, especially Assam and here too we find her reminisce about her home state as a “lush and well hydrated land”. Then there is a mention of the “mighty Brahamaputra” which was an integral part of her growing up, “the river Mandovi merging into the vast sea” and then “the gargling river Ganges”.
There is another instance that touched me very deeply keeping in perspective my own relationships:
“I looked at the vast Brahmaputra. I saw two tiny boats floating on the amber waters of the river.
On the western horizon the sun looked like a blood red sindoor bindi. I wanted to sit on the steps of Sukleshwar Mandir on the banks of the Brahmaputra to watch the sun set. I asked my husband to come with me. He did not refuse. Silently the two of us sat on the steps.
We didn’t utter a word. In the illusionary ambience created by the setting sun I expected an assurance. I hoped that my husband would hold my hand. He did not. Indifferent, he sat on a step above mine staring at the Brahmaputra, while I gazed at the setting sun.” (Chapter 11)
I have often used the imagery of boats floating on silent waters and reading this part instantly touched a nerve.
I could relate with her inner insecurities, her agonized frame of mind in the context of her marriage and how life will chart their course as husband and wife. The red river becomes a metaphor for her life and for many of us. The setting sun is symbolic of not just the coming of night but also a promise of a new day. A new beginning which will test her strength as she negotiates the turns and tides along the river of life.
The boat and water imagery comes alive again at the end of the book as she gazes at “a tiny boat in the midst on the amber hues sprinkled by the setting sun.”
The sea and the sky fill her with contentment unlike the last time she sat at the edge of the vast Red River. Our lives are like rivers, we are made of water and we flow until we merge into the ocean, a larger consciousness. We are also the boats carried by the river of life to our final destinations.
Nature is a great teacher and healer.I In the midst of strife and anguish, the author finds the joys in the nature and effortlessly transports the reader back in time. As she writes:
“My thoughts, like always took wind and escaped to my wonderful childhood and the exciting days of my youth. The lush paddy fields, visible from the front yard of the house.” “My romantic youth when the intoxicating fragrance of kanchan and sewali flowers perfumed the air, the vast expanse of tiny white wild flowers in the backyard that glowed in the purity of the moonlit night, the colourful little fish that frolicked in the clear waters of the Jia Bhoroli river.” (Chapter 19)
I paused here to inhale the fragrances of these flowers and feel the water take away all the burdens of life.
I believe that the lives of women across the globe are connected with each other and there is a river that runs through them, filling them with strength and calm. This is what Along the Red River did to me. Recounted with poise, honesty and a rare passion, this book is a compelling read. I often find solace and a voice of reason in its pages.
Tikuli is a blogger and author from Delhi. Her short stories and poems have appeared worldwide in print and in online literary magazines. Her debut poetry book, Collection Of Chaos, was published in 2014 by Leaky Boot Press, England. She blogs at: tikulicious.wordpress.com
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.