Aparna Dutta Mahanta’s name is synonymous to years of hard work and determination. She was Assam’s first woman doctoral graduate in English, and a renowned feminist icon. She recently passed away and is survived by her husband and noted scientist, Dr. Paramananda Mahanta, and two children.
Aparna was born on August 20,1946 in SivaSagar and completed her schooling at St. Mary’s in Shillong. She pursued her graduation from St. Mary’s College and did her further studies (Master’s) in English Literature from Gauhati University as well as the University of Leeds under a British Council scholarship program.
Aparna Dutta Mahanta was conferred a Ph.D. from the Dibrugarh University in 1982, making her the first woman to hold a doctorate degree in English in Assam. She went ahead to work as a Professor of English at Dibrugarh University and was the founding director of the Women’s Study Centre at the same university. She has also authored several books like Nareebad, and launched an Assamese Magazine named Adeiour Jonki Baat,which primarily focused on women’s issues.
In an interview, Aparna Dutta Mahanta has openly spoken about her life, path of education, and personal views on various aspects. She has expressed her gratitude for the exposure she received in her years of education which pretty much went smoothly, in times when girls’ education wasn’t preferred and encouraged.
She grew up with girls, surrounded by five other sisters, and was admitted to a girls’ school. The difference did not really hit her all the while due to the absence of male presence and hence, understanding of gender based issues as well as the gap that comes with it came much later. Aparna has been vocal about the times when the expectation of her entity as a woman was to marry and bear children and run a family.
It was during her teaching years that she began to realise the lack of importance given to her opinions by her male counterparts. This sparked her journey into becoming an opinionated, feminist individual.
She highlights the role of a supportive companion in a feminist journey, wherein she has talked about how her husband has encouraged her throughout her journey and played a very important role in fuelling her career. Being a mother brings a lot of challenges and responsibilities, and she navigated her path to her education by seeking the help of her mother to take care of her daughter.
Aparna Dutta Mahanta was well read and exposed to several feminist figures and books. She met diverse people at Oxford, and celebrated different cultural festivals with her friends there. She returned to India during the time of emergency, which made her focus inclusive of social and political issues in the country. She has publically embraced her leftist orientation, and in the year ‘85 she celebrated Women’s Day with her female colleagues by visiting the University’s female hostel and organising a few meetings on women’s rights.
After years of effort and engagement, Aparna Dutta Mahanta was finally able to launch the magazine titled Aidor Jonki Baat which is now published by Pragatishil Nari Sanstha. The launch of the magazine brought disappointment to her as the press necessarily ornamented it with flowers to denote its stereotypical target of women.
The magazine included stories of men and women, facts, and news. It also talked about the police torture that women had to go through during the Assam movement. She travelled to various other rural parts of nearby areas to address the issues of violence and facilitate women to express themselves and fight for their rights. With time, she attended conferences, met other intellectual figures, and widened her arena of work to sexual harassment at the workplace, specifically in context of the University she worked.
Post her retirement, she was a part of Mahila Samakhya, where she worked as a part of a think tank. She believed that we, as a society, have not been able to progress because women’s role is still perceived as secondary.