Why do we read fiction? Because we want to learn more about our- selves; because we enjoy being with people the likes of whom have inhabited this world, past and present, and with whom we can, to a certain extent, identify. Enjoyment is the ultimate goal—whether it is the enjoyment of discovering truth or, more correctly, what the writer perceives as the truth of life or even the pleasure of getting to know the mind of the writer. Even fables and parables whose chief purpose is to teach, and satire whose purpose is to correct through ridicule, gives us pleasure. But what if we come across a work which offers none of these things? Where the mind of the writer is as shrouded in mystery as those of her characters? Where only horror, stark and terrible, unqualified by any contrasting emotion, engulfs and numbs the senses? Horror that is inseparable from the view of life that the story presents. We go through the events that lead to a final catastrophe; weave our way through a complex narrative technique in which the author directs our attention and guides our expectations by how much or how little she chooses to reveal about her characters; their thoughts and emotions and the philosophy by which they live.
And it is the sheer macabre terror of it all that keeps us glued to the pages. Such a piece of fiction is Indira Goswami’s The Man from Chinnamasta. In writing it the author draws heavily upon myth and history, religion and folklore, rituals and cultural practices. But she draws from within too—from the historical and geographical spaces of her mind. Armed with such exterior and interior wealth she is able to resolve all disequilibriums—her own and that of her readers. She is able to actualize herself. To put her powers to use. In short, to write an intensely creative novel. The central theme of the book is that of blood sacrifice in the temple of Kamakhya in Assam. Steeped more in legend than in history Kamakhya, perched on top of the hill of Nilachal, is one of the most important of the fifty-one peethasthans where Sati’s body parts had fallen during Shiva’s angry tandav over her dehatyaag consequent upon her father Daksha’s insulting behaviour to her husband. The yoni or vagina having fallen in Kamakhya it became the most significant site of Shakti worship in India. The sanctum sanctorum of this Kali temple is a tiny cave in which a stone shaped like a woman’s genitalia is constantly moistened by a hidden spring of water beneath. For three days, each year, the water turns reddish. Known as Ambubachi or the period of the Goddess’s menstruation, this is a time of rigorous fasting for brahmin widows. The goddess in the temple of Kamakhya is imbued with legendary powers making the site a renowned place of pilgrimage especially during Ambubachi. Indira Goswami, born of a long line of powerful and wealthy brahmins of Assam, has first-hand knowledge of Kamakhya lore. And because of her knowledge, springing perhaps from deeply embedded cultural memory, the horror and cruelty of animal sacrifice; of human suffering and shocked conscience are delineated with thoughtful analysis and a complete absence of the judgemental. Her characters are drawn from many different streams of life. There are the common folk who sell their lands and homesteads and travel miles to the temple with a goat or a buffalo in the hope of divine intervention in their lives. There is a strange character called the Jatadhari who harbours snakes in his dreadlocks and seems kin to Jon Godden’s sunnyasi. Living in one of the seven islands that form a chain in the Ganga, Godden’s sunnyasi is constantly surrounded by snakes, squirrels, eagles and fishes ‘moving in and out, above and around him in complete affinity’. (Jon Godden, The Seven Islands, Chatto and Windus 1956). There are frenzied priests intent on perpetuating the age old ritual of blood sacrifice, both animal and human, in the belief that the Goddess thirsts for blood and will not be appeased with anything else. There are those who argue that offerings of fruits and flowers are sufficient propitiation. This polarization is seen in the form of a signature campaign against blood sacrifice started by the students of Cotton College and the violence it sparks off. Blood sacrifice, though, was not and is not limited to the Hindu pantheon and tantrik practices. It exists, equally and more significantly, in Judaeo-Islamic traditions. The Old Testament tells about Man’s earliest ancestors Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel a shepherd. Cain offered God the best crops from his fields, Abel ‘the firstlings of his flock’. And God ‘loved Abel’ and welcomed his offerings. Thus the Bible carries the implication that the blood sacrifice ranked highest with God. We also know of God’s testing of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac—an event commemorated, to this day, in the Islamic Id-ul-Zuha. Coming back to the book. As Dr. Prafulla Kotoky, who wrote the Preface to the original Asomiya Chinnamastar Manuhto, says—it is difficult to categorize it under the genre of the novel in the strict sense of the term. It can at best be described as a loosely woven web of Kamakhya lore. Lacking a consistent story line it is a mélange of narratives, scenes and events that took place around the temple of Kamakhya during the nineteen thirties—the last few years of British rule in India. It is under the influence of British education that the students of Cotton College start the signature campaign. Though the students are seen to have received the benefits of a liberal education, Indira Goswami does not give the British in India a clean chit. She gives out, in fact, a strong hint that the colonials followed a policy of non-interference in native affairs in their own self-interest. Guided as much by their conservatism—to each his own is best—as by their sense of imperial interest which could best be served by disharmony and division among the subject people, they not only kept themselves apart—they encouraged each community in India to maintain its own institutions and live by its own traditions. A terrible fear haunts the colonials—that of the seductive power of the East over the West. When one of them, Dorothy Brown, crosses over ‘to the other side’ they are rudely shaken. ‘It was an affront to the Empire, their Britishness, their heritage’—a betrayal punishable by death. The excited shooting of innocent birds during target practice, the carcasses falling in heaps at the temple precincts betray the innate violence that lurks behind their civilized exteriors—a blood thirst comparable with that of the temple priests. Goswami’s characters, like herself, maintain an enigmatic silence about their thoughts and feelings. The jatadhari, rising like a prehistoric land mass from the depths of the Brahmaputra, with his piercing gaze and considerable erudition does not conform to any known ascetic stereotype. Of all the voices in the book his is the most assertive voice against animal sacrifice. Dorothy Brown’s escape from a coarse, insensitive husband is understandable. But her eager, joyous surrender, physical as well as spiritual, to the jatadhari poses a number of questions. Who is the jatadhari? Is he a real man or a symbol? Is it possible that in him the author seeks to present an embodiment of the true spirit of Hinduism in which inclusion, unity and love are the chief components? Does the child that Dorothy carries in her womb represent a potential coming together of East and West—a possibility brutally destroyed by narrow Imperial interests? Prashant Goswami’s translation does justice to the power and poignancy of the author’s pen. A few examples: The Brahmaputra trailed across its misty coverlet—white against dappled white. Mighty shanks striped silver, a leucoderma victim, nuzzling at a widowed mother’s breast. The Brahmaputra roared. The pale moonlight had bleached the river’s heart to the colour of a faded rag. With the onset of the monsoons, the trees had closed in. The sculpted crowns of the bheleu trees were heavy with green blossoms. Gulmohar and moroi were in full bloom. The stalks of the bhatgila, were pregnant with seed—like eggs in a lizard’s belly shown up by the sun. The round gandhasoroi leaves shone like coins stamped with the queen’s seal … A powerful, disturbing novel even in translation. One that stays with the reader for a long time. Aruna Chakravarti, a critic, writer and translator, retired as Principal, Janaki Devi Mahavidyalaya, New Delhi.