Literary Shelf

The Lives of Indian Women

‘An Unfinished Autobiography’ by Indira Goswami

Autobiography is a deliberate opening up of the self. One writes an autobiography out of inner compulsions only. In this sense, it is a very personal kind of genre. One bares oneself knowingly for the world. When a reader touches an autobiography her/his reasons for doing so are mostly emotional. We usually do not go to an autobiography to know exactly when the author was born, what is her/his educational background, or what are the important dates of her/his life and so on. An autobiography is not a CV. Basically to read an autobiography reflects an urge to get personal. We want to live our own weaknesses, fantasies, defeats as well as victories through the life of the author. Life history here does not comprise of facts and dates, but such issues as ‘I cheated someone, I lied, I buttered someone for a favor, I felt humiliated, I slipped, I avenged, I loved someone’ and so on. These things become important in an autobiography. It is taken for granted that the author is talking honestly.

Human life must be imperfect. It must take you by surprise. It must never be predictable. These autobiographies do not make you feel human. It is here Western autobiographies take an edge over Indian ones.

This is the reason why the autobiography becomes so important for women. This genre holds a special place for women. The role of women will always be more substantial when it comes to writing and appreciating autobiographies. Why? Because women have this urge to talk about themselves more than men; women have an innate knack to get personal. Men find it difficult to talk about their inner life, their private moments. They have a social stereotyped role model to follow. The masculinity mantle does not let them be themselves. They are under pressure to perform and succeed. Most men do not know how to cry. Autobiography is purgation - letting loose of your emotional constraints. Only very sensitive men, developed in the emotional faculty can successfully write autobiographies. Men like Gandhi, and Nehru, Rousseau and Mandella, who are not ashamed of their tears - only they can and should attempt this genre.

Moreover, women need this genre badly. Asian and black women in particular need to give vent to centuries of suppression. In India we know what it means to talk about ourselves - ‘childhood days, filial ties, sibling love, and responsibilities, then in-laws’ home, that painful severing from parental home, alien surroundings, mother and sisters-in-laws, their torturous ways, the sudden appearance of motherhood prospects, that longing for husband and his unavailability, mother-in-law’s claim over her son who is now my husband’ - all these unresolved conflicts, pain, and in between rare moments of joy need to be communicated. A woman needs to disclose herself before another woman in sakhi bhava.

Let me elaborate a little on bhavas. A bhava is a state of intense emotional experiencing. In mysticism, particularly in Vaishnava cult, bhavas are directed towards God. We can turn it to other persons and objects as well. When the individual is no longer able to bear the self- restricting routine of day to day life, when yearning for something or someone becomes insufferable, the individual experiences an acute craving for the object of desire; her/his actions, facial expressions, gestures go beyond her/his control - this undergoing is a bhava. A bhava can vary in degrees. In fact, different types of bhavas, namely shanta, shakha, dasa, madhurya, vatsalya, and mahabhava seem to be to be varying more in intensity than in quality.

Shanta bhava is a state of oneness with the object of desire. When the two become one in complete peace of mind, when there is no space for argument and disagreement, when ones vision unites with the other, when formal communication becomes useless, when there is complete clarity and unity of thought - such a state is shanta bhava. Dasa bhava is a state of total and willing surrendering of self before the object of desire. It is mostly described in spiritual literature as the feelings of Hanumana for Rama. Madhurya bhava is having urgent and insatiable erotic feelings towards the object of desire. The crisis of emotions is heightened to such a pitch where separation from the beloved even for a second is like death. This is exactly what Radha and Meera felt for Krishna. We hardly need to explain Vatsalya bhava in India where mother — child bond is so deeply celebrated. Here one feels motherly love for the object of desire. Again Krishna received this bhava from Yashooda. Mahabhava is a combination of all these bhavas. It is also the most intense of all bhavas. (1)

We may turn to Sakha bhava for our purpose. We may twist it a little and call it sakhi bhava as we are talking about the longing of a woman to communicate with another woman. This bond of a woman to a woman is, I think, peculiar to Indian society. It is distinct from male sakha/mitra bhava. It has elements of friendship, sisterhood, sympathy, and trust. It has a conforming tone which is drastically different from the crusading, fighting tone of Western feminist sisterhood. It has no lesbian implication as is explicit in one school of Western feminist thought. This world of women needs no skeptical and critical approach; all that is expected is compassion. Sakhi bhava is essential for a woman’s inner life especially in circumstances where bold and direct expression is not wanted from her. It acts as a safety valve that prevents personalities and relationships from exploding. In a state of free communication and acceptance the woman learns and creates means to cope with the man’s world. Since the two women who converse in sakhi bhava have much in common as far as cultural and social experiencing is concerned, a mere touch on hand, a look, a small gesture says everything. This is part of in-built sustenance mechanisms of a society that help its healthy existence and cohesion.

With this background I want to emphasize that when an Indian woman attempts autobiography, much is expected from her. With English language and Western influence around, we naturally expect and usually get autobiographies set on Western norms and format. But the unmistakable Indian spirit is very much hungered for. The big question is transparency? Can Indian women finally throw off the Sati Savitri shroud? Can they talk freely about their failings and fallings? That these women are not ideal Sati Savitries is a fact. Yet the model is very much there. The model dictates that a woman should never even think of any man other than her husband. Marriage is a spiritual and religious bond. A woman’ life is meaningful only in serving her husband in every sense of the word. She should pray to get the same husband in coming seven lives. The power of Satitva (the element of complete fidelity) is such that a woman can bring her husband back even from the cruel hands of Yama, the death god.

The highest luck for a woman can only be her death before the death of her husband. The flaws of this model are self-evident. It leaves no space for a woman’s inner life, her emotional fulfillment, her dreams, her intellectual, artistic thirst and finally her individual encounter with the other life, God, the supreme reality. It makes her a mere appendage to her husband. Moreover, the model cannot be put in practice. With working women being a necessity of our times, with our irretraceable march towards liberalization, formal education and modernization, Satitva as it was conceived originally is not possible any more. Then the question arises that the final embellishment of a woman’s life, her dying before her husband cannot be guaranteed by Satitva.

What will happen to that woman who unfortunately loses her spouse before her own demise? If the concept of ideal womanhood is taken to its logical conclusion, the practice of Sati or jouhar, a woman’s burning of herself at her husband’s pyre, is the only way out. When the purpose of a woman’s life (serving her husband) is no more there, why should she live? She must also go. The absurdity, the brutal, nonsensical out dated feudal, murderous, torturous buffoonery of the whole thing is not even worth going into.

The Indian women are not practicing this model of ideal womanhood in totality but it does form a thick layer of their psyche. The model works twofold - on one hand it anyhow sustains Indian marriages, family structure and thereby social structure. On the other hand, it generates suffocation, hypocrisy, and doublespeak. To speak in plain words, Indian women do have so called unholy liaisons; they do fantasize, and also live out their fantasies but at the same time keep projecting the Sati Savitri image. As some studies suggest, the rate of incest and extra marital relationships in India may be the highest in the whole world yet we keep trumpeting our purity, chastity themes. And the most interesting part is that everyone knows everything. It is all a bundle of contradictions but life itself is like that, isn’t it?

There is hardly any option. Options exist in books and intellectual discussions alone. Real life does not offer options. Women who are really crushed and exploited do not write autobiographies. They can only whisper to a sakhi. They will cling to the Sati Savitri model, no matter what. It will take ages for them to open up. On the other hand, those who write autobiographies, who are conscious of gender bias, and are aggrieved by it, cannot go back on the march towards Westernization. In this latter group, Sati Savitri model is just cosmetic. And when these women lie, it is unacceptable. I am not trying to create division in Indian sisterhood. That is not my intention. But contradictions are an integral part of Indian socio-cultural matrix. It is always there. One just cannot help it.

When we take an autobiography by a Delhi University Professor, a Gyanapeeth award winner, we have every right to expect transparency. Unfortunately, autobiographies in our country are written to justify the actions of the author. It has become a pattern. When you read an autobiography, you feel that the author is a born angel who has come to this world only to think nobly and act gracefully. No murky business is expected here. The writer is on the defensive - ‘I did the right thing. I never lied. I never cheated. I never buttered. I never had any affairs and if I had, it never got physical- a crucial point to be noted.’ These autobiographies are nauseating because of their deceit and insincerity.

Indira Goswami’s ‘An Unfinished Autobiography’ is no exception. Here is a life dipped in Dettol. The whole thing is spotless, germ free. There is nothing undesired. Everything is perfect - life history, attitudes, experiences, just everything. And by this the life itself becomes unreal, hollow- devoid of any substance. No imperfection, no impurity, then what remains of life? Human life must be imperfect. It must take you by surprise. It must never be predictable. These autobiographies do not make you feel human. It is here Western autobiographies take an edge over Indian ones. They are truer. They give you that satisfaction for which you picked them up in the first place. Their tone may be different, more materialistic, more militant; yet they are real.

Perhaps I am not being very fair to Goswami by carrying on in this vein. But since her book disappoints me severely, I have to put it. I appreciate her book for reasons other than emotional identification, purgation and satisfaction. The book has its assets elsewhere. Or we can say that Goswami comes to the problems of Indian women (thereby her own) in a round-about manner. As the title suggests, it is an unfinished autobiography. It is divided into three parts - (i) Life is no Bargain, (ii) Down Memory Lane, and (iii) The City of God. In my view the third part is most enriching and resourceful.

In the first two sections, Goswami describes her childhood days, marriages, and her blissful life with her second husband, Madhu. As I have already suggested, the tone seems phony. Her childhood is remarkable for one thing and that is her obsession with death even at that tender age. That way, perhaps, Goswami is trying to justify her attempts at suicide during the later years of her life. First, she traces the origin of her family to big and influential people of Assam. In India, we are all descendants of Nawabs and Zamindars. You hardly come across someone who while describing her/his origins, does not refer to some king, or courtier, some big land owner or Chaudhari of a place. It is a symbol, a funny remnant of our deep embedded caste sense, the thing that separates and sets you above others. I do not mean to say that what Goswami says is wrong; only it is a bit archaic.

Then comes the first tragedy of her life - her father’s death. The family experiences a downward plunge. Goswami admits having a number of boyfriends but denies having ‘crossed the limit’ with any of them. Getting her married becomes almost an impossible task for her mother. She is also taken to Kamakhyan temple where horrible occult rites are performed on her. But still, marriage through the settled mode remains a distant dream. In panic that she might not die a spinster, she marries one of her lovers in court. The chap is from her street only. Now she escapes physical relationship with this first husband also. Her first marriage is hastily annulled. Then she goes on to marry the man of her life, Madnu, who is a construction engineer. She lives happily at remote sites with her husband, meets other men, receives their advances but never ‘crosses the limit’ Then comes the final blow and that is truly tragic- Madhu’s untimely, pathetically devastating death.

There are touching passages on sorrow - the nature and feel of real sorrow. Sorrow is tangible in these pages. Goswami’s struggles with bouts of ‘thanatos’, obsession (wish to die) and her efforts to go on living are poignantly heroic. Then comes another deciding turn in her life. Her old Professor, Dr. Lekharu (who by then had started living in Vrindaban) sends her the proposal to work for Ph.D. under his guidance. She goes to Vrindaban to do her Ph. D. on Ramayana literature under Prof. Lekharu's supervision. The third part, ‘The City of God’ has her experiences at Vrindaban.

Before we go on, we must pause to remember what Vrindaban means to a common Hindu. Brij Bhumi has tons of meaning for us. Vrindaban is the place where Lord Krishna spent his childhood days - the gopi days, the makhan days, the charming, naughty childhood days with Yashoda. The child Krishna forms a very thick and deep layer of the subconscious of every Hindu. In fact the Indian child utopia in its marked difference from Western concept of a child is much due to the story of Krishna and its intuitive acceptance by the Indian masses. At the level of thought, childhood in West is relevant only because it is the preparing ground of adulthood.

Childhood in itself is a sort of disturbance in the adult scheme of things. In India (and I must emphasize that at the thought level only) each child is a reflection and celebration of the divine. The mischief of the child, spontaneity, naturalness, foolishness and enjoyment of the self are viewed as divine attributes. So much so that in an adult centered world, lessons of fighting and forgetting, of vivaciousness are considered desirable. A fresh wind unfurling the soul blows when we turn to poems of Sur, Rahim and Rasakhan because the center there is the child. Such small activities as Krishna’s eating, his feeding his own reflection, a crow taking a piece of chapatti from his hands, his crying, getting beaten, his stealing, lying, playing - everything is beautifully, lovingly, dotingly sung and celebrated. Indeed the ideal concept of the child in India is radically different from that of the West. (2)

With this kind of collective consciousness which is reinforced in our everyday thinking, reading, bhajan listening, and conversation, Indira Goswami’s Vrindaban comes nothing less than a deadly shock. The first and foremost jolt is regarding the condition of Radheshyamis (widows) living in Vrindaban. It is believed, we are told, that widows living in Vrindaban can avoid their tragic lot in their next birth by devoting their widowhood days to the service of Lord Krishna, the universal husband. If this theory feels fanciful, its practical is equally horrifying. Many Radheshyamis from all over the country, particularly Bengal, stay in Vrindaban, not to improve their fate in the next birth but because they have no other option. They are helpless. They are destitute. They do not have money to pay for their last rites (ourdhadehik). They live with beggars and lepers, eating dirty crumbs thrown by devout pilgrims. Sometimes, their bodies are eaten by worms. These women are forced to live this hellish life devoid of any dignity, or peace. Goswami writes, ‘One day, while visiting Shahji’s temple situated at a corner of the market to have a look at the marble gopis in dancing posture, I came across another destitute Radheshyami, lying prostrate in a dark alley nearby. She was in rags and was clinging to some odd items picked up from garbage dumps. She looked more like a vulture with broken wings than a human being.’(3) Some cleverer, younger and smarter Radheshyamis surrender themselves to the lust of men and survive. All this happens in the city of child Krishna with a flute in his hands and peacock feathers on his head.


Goswami also reports incidents where painfully saved money of Radheshyamis is taken away just like that. ‘The old Radheshyamis who had lost their all, could only bewail their lot. They could produce no written evidence of their deposits with the Brahmin from Uttarkashi, for they had kept none. Nor did they have any knowledge of the man’s whereabouts.’ (4) The young Radheshyamis, as already hinted, are exploited. One of her acquaintances, Lalita Dasi tells Goswami, ‘You must have observed the ways of these munshis (the secretaries). They engage these young widows for doing their household chores. Sometimes they force them to sleep with them.’ (5)

The next dismay is at the behavior of so called saints, pandas, babas, and the whole lot. They (pilgrims) seemed to have only the skin of their bodies left to surrender to the pandas... I saw with my own eyes, those pandas searching hapless pilgrims for money, like an old vulture prying closely about a dead animal, before it finally falls upon it to tear it apart. (6)

Goswami goes on to describe other peculiarities of these so called holy men. After losing her husband, Goswami undergoes an acute sense of loss, worthlessness, and depression. She seeks spiritual solace. On one such occasion when she is trying for peace of mind (through gurus) she comes across a fiery eyed and robust bodied holy man coming directly from Himalayas. Well, at the end of her encounter, the holy man tells her, ‘I shall one day sit in meditation in that hovel. You shall have to sit beside me for some time. But you must not have a thread on... However, red garlands made of bamboo strips and leopard skin you can put on. There are pieces of such skins in our go- down. Many do their meditation in this manner. A number of young girls like you also have gone through it.’(7)

The monopoly and dictatorship of these religious men seem to be complete. They throw their left over crumbs of food falling from their mouths to the devotees. Devotees on their part, received those crumbs with utmost reverence, put small bits on their heads and ate up the rest.’ (8) In short, there is nothing spiritual, pure, inspiring or good about these charlatans whose eyes rivet ‘more upon the fleshy curves of the youthful women’s bodies’ (9) than anything else. All the practices of Vrindaban, sung all over, shown on picture post cards, tourist brochures - Holi, makhanchori dramas, annakoot festival- all have a lusty tinge. Our original makhanchor with childish mischievousness is missing in today’s Vrindaban. A huge structure of corruption has cropped up over the legend or myth (as you like to call it) of Krishna but the true spirit of devotion, religiosity, and spirituality is gone. One gets to know the dark side of Hindu practices through this book.

Notes and References:

  1. Knowledge of Bhavas is common to Indians. We, sometimes see its perverted form when during Navaratri or some other occasion, in a temple or religious gathering of women, some odd woman starts experiencing a bhava. This, to my mind is more like hysteria cases of Sigmund Freud where suppressed female patients of the time consciously or otherwise used hysteria as a let out mechanism. But in their true significance, bhavas have been discussed in the literature of Vaishnava mysticism. Mahendra Nath Gupta’s ‘Sri Ramakrishna Vachanamrita’ which has been translated into Hindi by none other than Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ has very good discussion on this. The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by William James (New York: Longmans) also deals skillfully with the subject.
  2. For a comparative discussion on Indian and Western concepts of childhood, see Sudhir Kakar’s ‘The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India’ (1978. New Delhi : OUP). Ashis Nandy writes in his ‘At the Edge of Psychology’ (1980. New Delhi: OUP), ‘There were times when infanticide and the torture of children were widespread in the world, yet some of the most sensitive and humane thinkers of the age never protested against them. In Fact, children were tortured by men such as Milton and Beethoven….some of the greatest Greek philosophers enthusiastically supported the homosexual use of children.’(33) More detailed information can be found in The History of Childhood (1975) edited by L. De Mause (New York: Harper Torchbooks).
  3. Goswami, Indira. 2002. An Unfinished Autobiography. New Delhi: Sterling Paperbacks. 119.
  4. ibid, 152.
  5. ibid, 157.
  6. ibid, 135.
  7. ibid, 138-139.
  8. ibid, 145
  9. ibid 147.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3368      Comments: 1

Comment A frank and bold well written essay by Prof Tiwari with absolute balance of mind and not singing eulogies of the book's author or the religion!

G Swaminathan
06-Mar-2013 21:34 PM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.