Publication date: April 26, 2013
Publisher: Zubaan Books (India)
1) Tell us about this book and its original author.
AK: The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction. It follows the life of Thengphakhri, a Bodo freedom fighter. She was employed by the British colonial administration as a revenue collector, the eponymous “tehsildar”—perhaps the first woman to be employed in that post—who eventually revolted against the colonial administration.
Set in late 19th-century Assam, Thengphakhri is a fascinating character that the author recreated from folklore and songs and stories that she had heard in her childhood. The image of the protagonist, galloping across the plains of Bijni kingdom in lower Assam to collect taxes for the British, is a compelling one that inspires awe and admiration. It is a complex tale wherein the foundations of the colonial rulers were shaken by insurgents seeking freedom across Assam just before the rise of the Indian National Congress.
2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?
AK: I have long been an admirer of Indira Goswami’s works. Also, this was an exceptional project that contributed toward peacebuilding in strife-torn Assam.
And, as I wrote in my introduction, the novel is set during 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. At that same time, in Assam, there was a woman working shoulder to shoulder with the British officers as a tax collector—riding horses, wearing hats, and sporting knee-length black hair.
3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?
AK: Goswami’s evocative language is hard to replicate. I also found it challenging to translate many words and phrases that were in common use in Assam during the colonial period.
4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?
AK: I wish more readers knew how a book can change the political conversation in a state. The Bodos have long fought for a different homeland and the rhetoric and militancy have eroded the social fabric. This book contributed toward healing relations. By foregrounding Bodo life and culture in this re-narrativization of India’s freedom struggle, Goswami helped change literary, historical, and sociocultural discourse about and in Assam, especially about the often-overlooked smaller kingdoms like Bijni.
5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?
AK: I am currently translating short stories by Abdus Samad, a writer from the immigrant Muslim community of Assam. He writes in Assamese and his work is strong, provocative, and deeply critical of the impulses of the state’s politics.
Author Bio: Indira Goswami, popularly known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami, wrote in Assamese and English. One of the most important writers of her generation, her novels set in Kashmir, Assam. Japan, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Uttar Pradesh, and mostly Assam and Delhi, were hugely popular and translated into many Indian languages. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker, based on the lives of widows in Assam’s Vaishnavite monasteries; the book was adapted into a National Award-winning movie called Adajya. For her fiction on the lives of the marginalized sections of society, she was conferred the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary prize, and numerous other literary prizes. In 2008, she was honored with the Principal Prince Claus Award: a prize of 100,000 Euros that she donated to build a hospital in Assam.
Translator Bio: Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He is the author of His Father’s Disease, and the novel, The House With a Thousand Stories. He has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan Books, 2013). His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Catapult, Bitch Media, The Boston Review, Electric Literature, The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He also writes in Assamese, and his first Assamese novel is Noikhon Etia Duroit (Panchajanya Books, 2019).
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.