The Discovery, Recovery and Representation of Thengphakhri: A Post-Colonial Reading of Indira Goswami’s The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri TehsildarDr. Anuradha ChaudhuriIn the present day world when women register their active existence and project their identity by various means, are more vocal and forceful, women’s organisations are also offering their utmost effort in highlighting the causes of women, the literature produced by women litterateurs and the upsurge of literary theories like postcolonialism and feminism etc. have been effective in voicing forth the challenges and threats, potentialities and possibilities, the complexity and ambivalence involved in women’s life from novel perspectives creating a vibration and echo not only in the life of the marginalized and colonized women but in the life of those so-called builders of the society who are found to be in slumber and are apathetic to the concerns of the underdogs and deprived beings, suffering from anonymity and injustice. Postcolonial literature along with many other issues makes an attempt in representing the concept of femininity, foregrounding female voice and space allotted to them, female experience, female psyche, the politics working behind the stereotyped female constructs and their typical literary and media representations under the conventional patriarchal social set-up. Along with the rest of the country, a galaxy of women writers of North-East, and specially of Assam have virtually been fulfilling a great mission of focusing on the women-centric and women-related issues in postcolonial situation facilitating the exposure of certain unknown, unheard and unrepresented facts and figures of the past.
Here mention is to be made of the distinguished litterateur of Assam, the Janapith and Sahitya Academy Awardee Indira Goswami, popularly known as Mamoni Roisom Goswami and lovingly called Mamoni Baideu who has contributed to the integration and solidarity of the state through the creation of the Bodo legendary woman Thengphakhri in her last fictional writing The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, keeping in mind the ethnic conflicts shattering the very foundation of the state of Assam as there has been the rise of secessionist forces, even among the Bodos in past few decades. Thengphakhri with her horse-ride, hat and knee-length black hair galloping across the plains of Bijni Kingdom in lower Assam performing her unique act of tax-collecting, working with the British officers shoulder to shoulder at a time when the educated Indians, social reformers and the British Government itself took the mission of demolishing the citadel of age-old conventions and inhuman practices related to women like sati, child-marriage, purdah-system etc. is traced out to be a compelling, intriguing and fascinating character for the imaginative and inquisitive mind of the author, an advocate of the cause of women, fed by the mesmerising stories and songs celebrating that Bodo freedom fighter. This discovery, recovery and representation of the forgotten but exceptional heroic figure was a landmark in the socio-political life of Assam and in the realm of literature as well, done quite sincerely and effortlessly, capitalising on the historical as well as the oral sources. During such a socio-political condition, that the most responsible task of tax collection could be entrusted upon a tribal woman is sufficient enough to imagine the most powerful personality of Thengphakhri. It is a wonderful wake-up call to those who intentionally evade those episodes in the history of nation-making and nation-building which record the contribution of the people placed on the margin. The author is actually relocating the Bodo life and culture, acknowledging their contribution to India’s Freedom Movement and bringing them to the centre of India’s and Assam’s literary and cultural imagination and discourse as such.
The transformation of Thengphakhri from a loyal British servant to an anti-colonial, anti-Establishment activist with the symbolic ‘sword’ on her hand after all makes the story so engrossing and remarkable. Goswami’s creative endeavour inaugurates not just the life of a forgotten personality, but also rejuvenates interest in a hitherto under-represented region of Assam’s history. Though a very short duration of the active life of the protagonist has been taken into consideration in the novel, yet the artistic genius of the author has succeeded in demonstrating with profoundness a slow but complex transformation of Thengphakhri from a loyal British servant to an anti-colonial rebel drawing much academic attention and critical acclaim. In the words of Amitav Ghosh, “Indira Goswami is one of the pre–eminent literary figures in India and a woman of remarkable courage and conviction….
She has also been an important voice in championing women’s causes, and has done much to highlight the plight of widows….
a social and political activist”.(The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar 2009)It was a challenging task for an accountable writer like Goswami to draw the central figure of the novel at the absence of proper historical evidence about the lady who has been again delineated as an introvert, having a small amount of dialogue to her credit in order to bring out the complex emotions and the thought-processes of the character. The close mapping of her psychological developments could not be made as actions rather than speeches are made to unveil her true nature, still the character appears with its own excellence to have a long-lasting impression on the minds of the readers and admirers. The history of Assam is said to have overlooked, underestimated or has maintained a silence about the smaller kingdoms and communities having absorbing dramatic histories and enthralling royal families, a fact regretted by Dr. Goswami in the preface to the novel. Ignoring the controversies involved in the justifiable creation of the character of Thengphakhri and her history, the students of literature are desired to focus on the literary truthfulness of the character and its far-reaching impact on the serious thought for inclusive growth of Assam.
In Postcolonial period, the Indian writers, even from North-East have thus awakened to the indigenous ethos and have become conscious of their true identity. A revival of indigenous socio-cultural milieu and its projection from a fresh angle of vision has been the mission of the writers with a concern for social reconstruction and its development, as well as the liberation of human mind-set. A journey from the darkness to light, from bondage to freedom and from ignorance to enlightenment has been the crux of the writings of postcolonial authors. A common feature of all the Postcolonial writings is its commitment to the uplift and nourishment of native cultures squeezed by colonial regime and trampled by colonial onslaughts.
Postcolonialism questions and reinvents the modes of cultural perception——-the ways of viewing and of being viewed. In Postcolonial agenda, the deprivation of the “other” by the “self” undergoing injustice, subjugation, persecution, marginalization by the colonial male hegemony gets a theoretical representation in straight-cut binaries created by Edward W. Said which gets a further conceptual development in the writings of Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak. The concept of writing back and re-writing are well established in Postcolonial literary criticism; many authors throwing their concern to correct the misrepresentation of the culture and history of the ‘other’. Thus with colonialism came colonial resistance, getting reflected even in the novel studied. As said by Spivak in “Can the Subaltern Speak” that ‘If, in the context of colonial production, the Subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow.'(28) In this light, the thrust will be in the consciousness of the colonial woman in Assam as is explored in Goswami’s ‘Thengphakhri’. The colonial woman is depicted as an efficient but mute revenue collector under the British whose attractive personality overwhelms the British as well as the nationalists to fulfil their needs.
Thus, gazing at Thengphakhri from a postcolonial eye will help in visualizing the latent spirit and extra-ordinary facts of her life justifying the mission of women empowerment undertaken by different forces at different times with a vision of bringing about social equity and justice as such. All credit goes to Indira Goswami for rescuing an important segment of the eventful history of glorious Assam. Set in the late nineteenth century, the story depicts its protagonist Thengphakhri, to be initially in favour of the British because though the British presence was unwelcoming, that they shielded the local people from the incursions by the Bhutanese army was sufficient to keep her silent.
But she soon faced an inner conflict when she found the absolutely inhuman act of the colonialists milking the poor farmers of their last pennies even in a drought-hit year. The novel ends with Thengphakhri picking up her famed bronze sword to join the underground nationalist movement. The Postcolonial writers like Goswami makes an acknowledgement of the historically muted subject of the subaltern women. For much of this story, Thengphakhri is depicted as an observer rather than an actor.
Her position as an official working for the British marks her as something as an outsider within her community. She has close friendships with two British men and is particularly shocked by the death of her mentor, Hardy. Although Hardy, Macklinson and the other British characters in this novel are never mere villains and it is perfectly possible to see them as decent men making a genuine effort to do what is right. Yet the British presence in the novel, is a sinister one, made doubly so by the fact that much of the time the Indian characters from whose perspective we read have swallowed the party line. It is Macklinson who teaches Thengphakhri to be hard-hearted while collecting revenue and Thengphakhri’s silence will implicate her later when we see a family ruined by their inability to pay the state what it claims is it’s due. The growing unease with the role of the British is not just played out publicly, then, as revolts and raids increase and merely political men are accidentally shot, it is played out privately within the heads of its characters.
Women’s history is never recorded which has been reiterated by Woolf in her essay, “Women and Fiction”. Keeping women silent is a narrative strategy developed by male hegemonic literary world. In the dominant discourse, silence has always been seen as the binary opposite of the voice and agency; silence has been made an appendage of oppression, but what needs close scrutiny is the role of silence as something powerful, rebellious and transformative. The novel highlights the silencing of the subaltern history by the dominant narrative through the fictionalised retelling of Thengphakhri.
Her silence is filled with ambiguity and possibility.Transforming itself into an alternative story telling medium, silence became its own agency to hand down an art form of resistance that the colonizers could neither comprehend nor challenge and such is the silence of Thengphakhri and the silence that pervades the novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar by Goswami. Silence and oppression have always been associated with colonial subjects and women.If Goswami has endeavoured to form her identity through her writings, Thengphakhri has been able to form her own identity through her silence and action. Thengphakri’s unbreakable silence in the beginning of the story reminds us of the proverb: ‘silence is more vocal than speech’.
As a Tehsilder under British administration, she has diplomatically maintained her identity as a silent and hard working woman belonging to the marginalized section of the society in colonial period. But as an Indian, she has adopted the trope of silence as a mark of disagreement with the position she held and that is why she perhaps didn’t hesitate to join the nationalistic agencies like INC by breaking her suppressed silence to voice forth her protest against the British excesses. Colonial India in the context of Thengphakhri’s story becomes a very powerful site for colonial encounter between the dominant and the subjects questioning the stereotyped binaries. The emblematic bronze sword that Thengphakhri finds among the ruins of a barrack belonging to a Goddess’s temple indicates in an oracular manner, her immense power in the postcolonial context. The text can be further scanned in the postcolonial context because of its inherent potentiality of multiple layers of meaning.The lines towards the climax of the fiction such as “Don’t try to look for me. This is my Motherland. I will come back to this land” is highly symbolic of the nationalistic feelings ingrained in Thengphakhri .
“You will win”—–“your bronze sword with you” by Tribhuban Bahadur when he touched her head and blessed her is a projection of his immeasurable trust on the courage, urge for victory and optimism traced by him in Thengphakhri.Indira Goswami asserts herself through her characters like Thengphakhri Tehsilder, an epitome of bravery, extreme self-confidence, diplomacy, administrative efficiency, active participation in social life etc. the things which undeniably characterize the character of the novelist herself. She finds her own space for being free and emancipated through the agency of silence and such kind of silences are available in the novel under consideration. Works CitedGoswami, Indira. The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar. Trans & Intro.
Aruni Kashyap. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013.Internet Sources.Pruthi, Raj Kumar, Rameshwari Devi& Romila Pruthi. Eds.
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