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The Bronze Sword of

Thengphakhri Tehsildar

The Bronze Sword of


Thengphakhri Tehsildar

INDIRA GOSWAMI
Translated and Introduced by
Aruni Kashyap
With an Afterword by
Preeti Gill

ZUBAAN
an imprint of Kali for Women
128B Shahpur Jat
1st floor
New Delhi 110 049
Email: contact@zubaanbooks.com
www.zubaanbooks.com
First published by Zubaan, 2013
Copyright Assamese, Indira Goswami
Copyright English translation, Aruni Kashyap, 2012

All rights reserved


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
ISBN: 978 93 81017 08 1
Zubaan is an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi,
India, with a strong academic and general list. It was set up as an imprint of
the well known feminist house Kali for Women and carries forward Kalis
tradition of publishing world quality books to high editiorial and production
standards. Zubaan means tongue, voice, language, speech in Hindustani.
Zubaan is a non-profit publisher, working in the areas of the humanities and
social sciences, as well as in fiction, general non-fiction, and books for young
adults that celebrate difference, diversity and equality, especially for and about
the children of India and South Asia under its imprint Young Zubaan.
Typeset in Bembo Std 12/15.7 by Jojy Philip, New Delhi 110 015
Printed at Raj Press, R-3 Inderpuri, New Delhi 110 012

Publishers Note
kl

t is a year since we lost one of our most talented and


celebrated writers, Indira Raisom Goswami (1942
2011) and we at Zubaan are proud to be able to pay tribute
to her by publishing two of her well known novels in
translation (both mark important firsts for us). Her last book,
The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, is the heroic tale
of a Bodo woman who was the first revenue collector in
British India and this is the first time it is being translated
into English. Her iconic The Blue-necked God, published
in 1976, is the first novel where a writer highlighted the
exploitation and poverty of widows dumped in a sacred
city to eke out their days in prayer by uncaring, callous
families under the guise of religious sanction and tradition
and we present this in an all new translation. Both books
carry Introductions by Aruni Kashyap a young writer and
scholar who has a deep understanding of her work as well
as Afterwords by Namita Gokhale and Preeti Gill.

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PUBLISHERS NOTE

Mamoni Baideo, as she was fondly called by her many


readers, was one of Assams most well known, immensely
gifted writers, and she spoke out boldly and with passion
about those whose voices had been silenced or never
been heard, women, the marginalized, the powerless, the
unfortunate. She has many awards and prizes to her credit
including the countrys highest literary prize, the Jnanpith
Award.The Assamese government has honoured her with
the Asom Ratna award posthumously in recognition of
her great contribution to literature, art and culture and
social service for among her many achievements is her
unswerving commitment to peace, and her endeavour to
bring to the discussion table the members of the militant
ULFA in her homeland Assam, something that she faced
severe criticism for but which nevertheless proved her to
be a woman of immense courage and conviction.
Considered among the foremost writers in her home
state as well as a brave campaigner for peace, she did not
receive the importance she deserved at a broader level in
India or even beyond. And this was partly because of a
lack of quality translations of much of her work and also
perhaps the fact that she chose to write about subjects and
in a style that is very different from what is considered
marketable or popular in todays urban, metro centric,
fast paced milieu. It is precisely for her courage in doing
this, and for her achievements as a woman, that we at
Zubaan are proud to be the medium for passing on her
legacy to the wider world.

Introduction
kl

dont remember exactly when Indira Goswami had


announced to the Assamese media that she was working
on a novel about the forgotten, legendary Bodo heroine
Thengphakhri, who had apparently worked as a Tehsildar
during the British regime in Assam. Thengphakhri is
a compelling character to write a novel on. At a time
when educated Indians, social reformers and the British
government were trying to fight misogynist practices
such as sati, child marriage and the purdah-system and
encourage widow-remarriage, in Assam there was a
woman working with the British officers, shoulder to
shoulder, as a tax collector who rode a horse, wore a hat
and had knee-length black hair.
The image of Thengphakhri galloping across the plains
of Bijni Kingdom in lower Assam to revenue circles with
her long, shiny hair conditioned in elephant-apples juice
is no doubt an intriguing image for a novelist. I could
understand why Goswami was fascinated by the figure
since childhood. She had heard tales about the Bodo

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heroine when she was a child. Listened to songs sung in


praise of her. As a person who had always championed
womens causes, Thengphakhri was no doubt a figure
of inspiration and awe for the young Indira Goswami.
But the sad truth is that, until Goswami wrote about
her, most people in Assam hadnt even heard of this
extraordinary woman.
Assam had heard of Mula Gabhoruwho fought
Turbaks army in April, 1532 commanding a battalion
of male and female soldiers; of Phuleswaree Kunwori,
a devadasi who sat on the throne of the Ahom Dynasty
and ruled Assam from 1722 to 173 when devadasis were
not respected, lived under deplorable conditions in most
parts of India; of Kanaklata Barua: the fourteen year old
martyr of the Quit India Movement, 1942. Thengphakhri
remained only among the memories of some old people,
in folk songs, in folk tales that were told and retold. Hence,
Goswamis choice to reconstruct the life of this heroine
from historical as well as oral sources may be perceived as
a significant intervention into the socio-political life of
Assam. To explain this further, we have to briefly touch
upon the trajectory of the Bodo movement in Assam
and their subsequent demand for a separate homeland
through violent means.
The Bodos, also known as kacharis are the largest group
of plain tribes in Assam. For a long time, the Assamese
middle class, both Hindu and Muslim, have denied them
equal share and representation in various spheres of Assam.
In the past, the All Assam Students Unionan influential

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pressure grouphad demanded the ending of reservation


for scheduled tribes in various government sectors. When
the Bodos wanted to adopt the Roman script for their
language, Assams erstwhile Chief Minister Sarat Chandra
Singha had opposed it, advocating the usage of Assamese
script instead. After the signing of the Assam Accorda
memorandum of understanding between the Government
of India and the representatives of the Assam Agitation
(19791985)it brought out Assamese chauvinism in an
ugly fashion as it had rested power mainly on the Assamese
middle class, percolating insecurity among Bodo people.
Since their larger ethnic aspirations were denied by the
Assamese middle class who controlled most aspects of
Assams political and social life, the Bodos felt alienated
and started demanding a separate homeland.
The extremist outfit National Democratic Front of
Bodoland was formed in 1986 with the aim to establish
a sovereign Bodo nation. Later, in 1996, another armed
outfit, Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force was formed to
establish a separate state of Bodoland within the Indian
nation. By 2009 when Thengphakhri was published, a
peace accord in 2003 between the Indian Government
and the BLT, placed the former insurgents in positions
of power, allowing them to fight elections and form a
government; the NDFB had been maintaining a ceasefire
from 2005 (at present they are split into anti-talks and
pro-talks NDFB). But the past two decades of violence,
the xenophobia of the Bodos, their popular slogan Divide
Assam Fifty-Fifty had created an irrepairable chasm in the

I N T RO D U C T I O N

relationship of the Bodos and the Residents of Assam (I


mention the term residents of Assam very consciously
because the brunt of the Bodo movement has been faced
also by Assamese settler communities such as Nepalis,
Bengalis, Marwaris, Biharis, etc. who made Assam their
home for several generations.)
The growth of Bodo-nationalism was not only a story
of bloodshed. The Bodo Sahitya Sabhas patronage had
led to the growth of Bodo literature. Popular Assamese
books were also translated into Bodo that played the role
of promoting understanding among the communities and
kept hope alive. Anjali Daimary, a well known professor
and activist, who had translated Indira Goswamis The
Unfinished Autobiography into Bodo language, is the sister
of Ranjan Daimary who is the founder of NDFB. That
the publication of Thengphakhri was a significant cultural
moment for the Bodos is attested by the fact that Indira
Goswami was awarded the 7th Upendranath Brahma
Soldier of Humanity Award by the Upendranath Brahma
Trust. Brahma is one of the most revered Bodo leaders
and the award is offered to any person who has made
remarkable contributions to the society.
I remember, how proud Mamoni baideo was when her
book was translated into Bodo. I know her well enough to
say that a French, Italian, or German translation that many
authors in India would kill for, wouldnt have made her
as happy. As a visionary, she could see what role literature
could play to bring the two communities together. Indira
Goswami was immensely popular also among the Bodo

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readers. The act of writing a novel on a forgotten Bodo


heroine by one of Indias most respected writer has deep
significance: Goswami was actually transplanting Bodo
life and culture, their contribution to Indias Freedom
Struggle into the centre of Indias literary and cultural
imagination. I was in Guwahati to attend my favourite
book festival in the entire world when Thengphakhri
was released in 2009. A few days after the book was out,
she had called me to her house, handed me a copy of the
book and asked me if I would like to translate it. I was,
of course, very honoured and readily agreed to do the
translation because I, too, wanted to participate in this
historic process of bringing the story of Thengphakhri
to the centre of Assam and Indias literary discourse.
The novel covers only three years of Thengphakhris
life from 1857 to 1859. When she appears in Chapter 1,
Suez Canal, she is already a loyal British servant. The
circumstances around her in the next few years would
compel her to change her role to that of an anti-colonial
rebel. Goswamis book is interested not in the dramatic
consequences of her choice, but in this complex, slow
transformation.
It is an ambitious project not only because of the
lack of proper historical evidence about Thengphakhri,
but also because Goswami creates her as an introvert.
She rarely speaks and we only see her in her actions.
Unlike her previous novels, where the thoughts of her
characters are very closely mapped, Goswami took up
the challenging task of showing the complex emotions

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of her character only through her actions with very little


dialogues to help her.
In 2007, Goswami had visited Bijniwhere
Thengphakhri had lived and worked until her death in
1879 or 1895 (disputed date).A symposium was organised
by Bodo scholars to help Goswami at the Badosa Bhavan
in the presence of Sub Divisional Officer Ujjwal Sharma,
Member of Legislative Assembly Kamal Singh Narzary,
and the President of the Bijni chapter of the Bodo
Sahitya Sabha, Maneshwar Basumartary. During that
visit she had met an old man named Batiram Bodo who
claimed to have met Thengphakhri. He told Goswami
that she used to come to his village Bogeedara, from her
village Khamoriguri, with a British officer called Naken
Sahib. Naken is an unfamiliar British name, but so are
several names mentioned in the novel. I believe, though
Goswami had moored her book on historical research,
she had to rely mostly on memory and orality. A lot of
names have been colloquialized in due course of time,
and only remembered in their distorted versions. In a
way, she had to create Thengphakhri nearly from scratch
and it is amazing how vivid and real is the world she has
etched meticulously, despite her obstacles.
The Ahoms ruled Assam for six hundred years until
the British took over in 1826. This long period of Assams
history is recorded with great detail by the Ahom scribes
in the form of chronicles known as buranjis.The first buranji
was written following the order of Ahom King Sukaphaa
(12281268 AD) who had established the Ahom Kingdom

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(1228826 AD) and that practice was followed by the later


kings. Among the most well known of these are Asaam
Buranji by Harakanta Barua, Asaam Buranji by Kashinath
Tamuli Phukan, Assaamar Padya Buranji (written in verse)
and many others such as Tripura Buranji by Ratna Kandali
and Arjun Das, that recorded the history of neighbouring
powerful kingdoms too. A special office called Likhakar
Barua was created that commissioned scribes to write these
chronicles on the basis of official documents such as state
papers, judicial proceedings, diplomatic correspondence,
etc. But these buranjis are silent about the powerful smaller
kingdoms such as Bijni Kingdom, Dimoriya Kingdom,
Tiwa Kingdom, Kamata Kingdom, Kachari Kingdom,
of middle and lower Assam regions. Modern history
writing in Assam has also maintained a silence about these
smaller kingdoms with fascinating, dramatic histories and
intriguing royal families. Indira Goswami laments this in
her Prostavana to the novel. In a way, Goswamis creative
endeavour inaugurates not just the life of a forgotten
heroine, but also rejuvenates interest in a hitherto underrepresented region of Assams history.
Though the novel was published as a book in
December 2009, most readers of Assamese literature in
Assam and abroad had already read it as it was serialised
in the prestigious literary and cultural fortnightly Prantik.
Unlike Indian English literature, many important
Assamese novels are still published serially like Victorian
novels. Often, a revised version with feedback received
from readers finds its way to the press to be published

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as a book. It is a practice that curiously thrives only in


some regional literary cultures of India where space
for literature in mainstream periodicals hasnt shrunk
alarmingly, like it has in English publications.
While the novel was published in Prantik, Assams
media witnessed vigorous discussion and debate on
the historical accuracies of Thengphakhri. After the
publication of the novel, it was also argued by some
scholars that she wasnt a Tehsildar, but held a lower
position.When I started translating the novel, I was aware
of those existing debates. But I was interested only in the
literary truth of the novel. What does the literary rebirth
of Thengphakhri mean for the Bodo people? How does
it change the way Assamese people have been perceiving
Bodos? Does it generate understanding among the two
nearly-warring communities? Would the slogan Divide
Assam Fifty-Fifty change because of this event and
everyone would try to work towards a more inclusive
Assam now that Indira Goswami has written this novel
that underscores the contribution of Bodo people to
Indias Freedom Movement?
We will have to wait to find answers to these questions,
but Thengphakhri has no doubt joined the ranks of
Kanaklata Barua and Mula Gabhoru because of Goswamis
literary intervention and hopefully, one day, will also be
remembered in the same way as Jhansi ki Rani.
Aruni Kashyap
November 2012, Minnesota, USA

Suez Canal
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ven today, as soon as her shift was over and shed


seen off the eight borkandazes who worked under
her, Thengphakhri stood staring out at the setting sun as
it played games on the broad chest of the Brahmaputra.
The river looked like a pregnant woman with a blood red
cloth wrapped around her. Thengphakhri stood staring,
waiting for a special steamer to come in.
Will Captain Hardy really come back? What if he
doesnt? She thought, as small drops of sweat gathered
on her forehead.
At headquarters, she had heard that several steamers
had come and gone. Each had brought soldiers.The camps
near the border of Bhutan were gradually becoming
plump with them, shed heard.