Indira Goswami was relatively unknown in Europe until now, but after winning the Principal Prince Claus Award 2008, that is sure to change. The Indian writer from Assam is being awarded the prize because her work portrays how ordinary people experience poverty and oppression. Although she describes a harsh reality, her work is extremely poetic and soft. "You have to be poetic because the subject is so hard and rough. You must protect your subject like a mother protects her children. My stories are based on harsh reality, but I transform it. I turn it into literature; otherwise it would simply be a pamphlet. You must be an artist to do that, a great artist, or people will not read it."
She is being read. Although she writes her novels and stories in Assamese, her work is translated into the various Indian languages and English. In 2000 Goswami won India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith Award. Her success also has a wonderful side effect: social change. "My work and that of other writers plays a part in the changes taking place in my country. I have looked up the people I write about: day labourers, isolated widows, and have studied their problems. I did that with my husband, who built bridges, but after his death (when Goswami was 24, Ed.) I went on my own. I talked with the labourers about their lives. Their wages were next to nothing; they had no rights and were treated like old shoes. Once their work was done, they were simply discarded. I also visited widows whose lives were horrible because of the rituals they submitted to. That is what I described in my book The moth-eaten howdah of the tusker. In part thanks to literature, the position of these people has improved."
A few years ago the writer was asked to mediate in the ethnic conflict in the region where she was born. "Assam was an independent country until 1824", she explains. "In 1824 the Assamese asked the British for assistance in their battle against the Burmese. But the British stayed on, and after the independence of 1947 we fell under Indian authority. The independence movements are raking up this history. They believe that Assam should be independent. I talked with these people and tried to mediate in the conflict. I believe that we should be economically independent at the very least. Assam has oil and tea, but most of the population is dirt poor. They feel like they have been abandoned."
Goswami’s experience as peace mediator will be reflected in her newest book about the Bodo people’s battle for independence. The 66-year old writer continues to expand her oeuvre, despite the stroke she had last year and the fact that she could easily retire with the €100,000.00 award. "That money will be used to make an old dream come true", she says. "I am going to build a hospital in the village where I was born, and I am certain that it will be wonderful."