The composed person, ever smiling, nimble footed and strikingly kind, considerate and alert, Maini Mahantas' is not an exceptional rag to riches story but a genuine, authentic and nearby account of making the most of one’s aptitude and talent with a healthy, calm and determined approach. She is a woman who knows herself; and allows herself to be known to those people whom she strives to know. There needs no formal arrangement for an interaction with this renowned lady, who would at the very first encounter be chatting freely with anyone as the ‘girl next door’. It is no one-way traffic in such conversations but people love Maini because they know Maini loves them. The celebrated editor of an Assamese monthly, TV personality, author of novels and short stories, lyricist and script writer is, above all, a devoted listener to the people around her and her success as writer, commentator and analyst is certainly ingrained in her fine-tuning to all kinds of sounds and echoes around her. Maini belongs to an increasingly rare breed of public figures including writers who, instead of listening to people attentively, take resort to rhetoric vehemently as the be all and end all of ills troubling their innocent fans. Fortunately, Maini is strong enough with her commitment to ignore a rampant mockery of intellectual prowess.
Maini Mahanta’s public life demands an extensive exercise whereas I intend to focus on certain aspects of her short stories. These stories are as fluent as her day-to-day words. She has never allowed technique or style to overtake her literature, but instead decorates her characters with the most easily available signs of human response that cement a bond among readers, the fiction and the writer finally.
A college girl comes to the city, finds accommodation at a girl’s hostel and goes on to seduce a somber middle-aged man, who owns the hostel, as well as his flamboyant son evoking envy and suspicion among her modest hostel mates, all working women away from home and supposedly deprived of love and sex, and horrifies the devoted, fulfilled housewife, who used to be a dancer before marrying the successful businessman. This is the gist of an Assamese short story by Maini, named Samriddhir Pisot Edin which literally means ‘A day in search of affluence.’ No counseling, no judgment, no argument at all in the narrative. It is simply a commentary, free from any conclusions whatsoever, of solitary women living under a common roof. Its appeal lies not in the essentials of a sexual adventure but in the collection of feelings that encircle each of the hostel borders on a Sunday morning in the wake of such an episode.True to her merits, Maini decries none in the story - be it the sex hungry father-son duo, or the sex merchandising college girl who merrily spends ‘A day in search of affluence’, or a sexually pious middle aged lady who innocuously harbours her insatiable husband and immoral son. The writer allows herself to be fascinated by a group of energetic sports-enthusiast girls in the vicinity and invites readers to make out who is to be blamed for what.Starting from the so-called sex bomb in the hostel, in an all-encompassing attempt to trace a woman’s sex-lacunae, the writer is evenly earnest about a maid servant’s physique as well as an eager woman’s response to her introvert male colleague, who calls on her regularly with no further advancement. The crux of feminine treatment by Maini lies in not debasing men folk for the sake of feminism but in excavating the woman’s mind and dilemma. How do the other women react to a sex thriller unfolding just in front of their eyes?
Decades ago a literary luminary in Assam, when asked about female characterisation in Assamese literature, had replied that in absence of women writers (in those days), true depiction of Assamese femininity was missing. The writer refused to accept those women presented by men-writers as authentic or complete. Happily Assam has witnessed over the last two decades a steady emergence of successful writers from the fairer sex, who, unlike some of their predecessors, are not stereotype feminists. Yes, they do espouse women’s rights and duties, protest discrimination against women, but they are not hysterical, the outrage is never a sign of frustration. Rather, such writers are equally at ease with masculine benevolence and feminine meanness. Maini Mahanta is certainly one of them, a level-headed feminist, if at all a feminist she is. Incidentally, celebrated Mamoni Roisom Goswami says she is a humanist in place of being a feminist.
Let us have a look at one of Maini’s male characters that is no spectacular success like the owner of the girl’s hostel or his wicked son, but a hardworking waiter in a city restaurant where he gets to serve film stars and college girls while his lone teenage daughter languishes at a rundown hut. The waiter is happy with his girl child, committed to her education and refuses to go for another baby in the hope of a male successor. This is the height of magnanimity of an illiterate, unskilled, male private worker in Maini’s fiction. The girl is sent to an expensive English medium school as desired by her father, who often serves his daughter’s classmates in the posh restaurant. On one festive occasion, the waiter plans to treat his wife and daughter in the luxury restaurant only to learn that his daughter would not step in at a restaurant where her father is a petty waiter.
So, this is feminism justified in Maini Mahanta’s literature. A champion of feminism is not necessarily man-o-phobic; they are warmly capable of reciprocating man for his courage and valour. Consequent to dwelling on feminine characterisation in Assamese literature for years, it is certainly the time now to discover male characters by women authors.