A number of women writers have also contributed substantially to the literary world of Assam. We find mention of Padmavati Devi Phukanani (1853–1927), daughter of Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, whose Sudharma’s Upakhyan (Sudharma’s Tale) penned in 1884 was the second Assamese novel. Thanks to her visionary father who had also batted for women’s education, she became one of the first Assamese women to have been formally educated. She later wrote a book for students, Hitahadhika. As a feminist writer too, her contributions are noteworthy. Widowed at 32, she penned articles on the travails of a widow in Bidhoba and on the social status of women in Samajat Tirutar Sthan.

Gunabhiram Barua’s daughter Swarnalata Baruah (1871–1932) penned Aarhi Tirota (Model Woman) besides contributing to Asam Bandhu and Bijuli. Barua’s wife Bishnupriya Devi also wrote a storybook, Niti Katha. Dharmeswari Devi Baruani (1892–1960), influenced by romanticism, composed poems like “Phulor Sorai” way back in 1929. Jamuneswari Khatoniyar (1899–1924), in her short life, not only left a collection of Assamese poems (Arun in 1919) but also organised the Juroni Sabha, a religious and literary gathering at her house every evening.

Perhaps the most well-known of women poets in Assam from the Jonaki era was Nalinibala Devi (1889–1977). Her Sandhyar Sur was noteworthy as was her autobiography Eri Aha Dinbur (The Days Gone By). She became the first woman president of Asam Sahitya Sabha in 1954, to be followed by Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi only in 1991. That is the 105-year-old history of the foremost literary body in Assam, only two women have risen to the position of president thus far hints at the intrinsic patriarchy in Assamese society.

This is particularly deplorable when one takes into account the trajectory of Assamese women writers starting from the likes of Padma Priya who was one of the earliest poets in Indian vernacular literature. Much later, in the Avahan era, Chandraprava Saikiani raised many an eyebrow by writing her short story “Daibagyar Duhita” (The Brahmin’s Daughter). A tale of a child widow, her story had given Assamese literature yet another Menoka who chose to not remain silent in the face of patriarchal practices. Saikiani herself became an unwed mother. Her stories in Banhi and Avahan in the 1920s, like “Devi” (in Banhi, 1921), “Akul Pathik”, and “Daibagyar Duhita” (in the first issue of Avahan, 1929) had “carved out a space for women as writers and women as the radical subject of delineation in literature”.

Noted Assamese feminist writer Aparna Mahanta in Journey of Assamese Women (1836–1937) remarked, “If Chandraprava Saikiani had concentrated on writing, she would have become an important short story writer but her energies were diverted to her social and political activities.” Hemjyoti Medhi, in her essay in Communities of Women in Assam, showed that the way Saikiani led her life was in itself a powerful message to the society of her times. “The dynamics of sexual morality, caste and class construct acquired new significance when Chandraprabha Saikiani assumed leadership of the provincial AMS (Asam Mahila Samiti) as the founding secretary. Saikiani belonged to the Sut caste and was a mother outside of marriage. She unapologetically carried her toddler son in most of her socio-political engagements, whether as a volunteer in the Indian National Congress in Pandu in 1926 or as an AMS secretary during the Golaghat AMS conference in 1929.”

The first women’s journal in Assamese, Ghar Jeuti, began in 1928 and ran till 1932. Medhi, highlighting how various women tried organising themselves during that period, had pointed out that the Agarwallas (the family of Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla) of Tezpur provided space in their house Poki to women to start a sipini bhoral (weavers’ store) and reporting the activities of the local mahila samiti in their weekly Asamiya (started in 1918). Several magazines of the times had also facilitated community mobilisation.

Post-Independence, in the Ramdhenu era, a galaxy of women writers began penning short stories, novels, and poetry. Nirupama Borgohain, Sneha Devi, Kamalini Borbora, Nilima Sarma, Anima Dutta, Prabina Saikia, and Indira Goswami (Mamoni Roisom Goswami) were among the top names to attract readers’ attention. Nirupama Borgohain’s short story “Anthropologir Saponar Pisot”, though written in her college days, is still talked about in Assam’s literary circles as a great piece of literature. In 1996, she bagged the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel Abhijatri.

Celebrated author Indira Goswami (1942–2011) followed the course of Assamese women writers offering a peep into the inner world of women through their work through a succession of extraordinary novels. Goswami truly became the one who could cross the threshold of Assamese literature to become a national literary figure. A huge amount of research has been conducted around her characters, particularly in the discourse of feminist writing, be it Giribala in Datal Hatir Uye Khuwa Hawda (1988) or Houdamini from Nila Kantha Braja (1976), Damayanti in Sanksar, or even the depiction of her own life in her marvellous autobiography Adhalekha Dastabej (Unfinished Autobiography). Her novels have also been translated into multiple national and international languages. Goswami, through her writings, also brought to Assamese literature characters and plots from the rest of India. Her novel Mamore Dhora Taruwal (written in 1980 for which she was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982) showcased the plight of construction workers at a building site in 1960s Madhya Pradesh.

In Nilakantha Braja, she presented the utter poverty and sexual exploitation of the widows of Vrindavan. Having witnessed the 1983 anti-Sikh riots of Delhi, she wrote the poignant novel Tej Aru Dhulire Dusharit Pristha. An expert on Ramayana literature, her Dosorothor Khoj is worth a read. Her novel Chinnamastar Manuhto is based on the ritual of animal sacrifice practised at the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati; she remained a vegetarian all her adult life in protest against that ritual.

Goswami’s literary genius also pivoted around short stories and poems. In 2000, she was conferred the Jnanpith, making her the second Assamese writer to be given that prestigious award. After formidable writers like Goswami entered another set of distinguished Assamese writers, like Arupa Patangia Kalita, Tilottama Misra, Manorama Das Medhi, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, Karabi Deka Hazarika, Rita Chowdhury, and Moushumi Kandali. The list is only getting longer.

An excerpt from The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community, Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, Aleph Book Company.