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Re-Reading Tejimola through Nitoo Das’s “Tejimola” and Uddipana Goswami’s “Tejimola Forever”

By Stuti Goswami

In North-East India, more than recorded evidence, it is a strong oral tradition that has been the repository of culture and knowledge. This oral tradition comprises of songs, lyrics, folktales, and myths, among others. Like other forms of expression, folktales too are integral to the culture of each community. A folktale is created out of the community’s experience whether individual or collective and is influenced and shaped by the written or unwritten rules and norms of that society, sustaining itself on the shared communal feeling of the community. Since the folktale is orally circulated and handed down generations, it is naturally subject to modification or alteration in different extents. And once the folktale has been collated and recorded in writing it becomes a part of the written tradition and opens up myriad possibilities of representations.

Tejimola is such a tale that has acquired a cult status over time in the Assamese consciousness. Anthologized for the first time in Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s Burhi Air Sadhu (1911), this tale has continued to stir its readers over the years and evokes different interpretations. Each reading and interpretation has given rise to a different discourse and in each such discourse a different aspect of Tejimola’s story and her character has emerged. For a twenty-first century reader, the access to this tale lies through Burhi Air Sadhu. In Bezbaroa’s version “Tejimola” depicts the suffering of a beautiful young girl (Tejimola), who is lonely and whose stepmother is jealous of her beauty and tries to kill her when her father, a merchant, is away. But each time, Tejimola survives to assume a different (non-human) form and eventually succeeds in making her father (who already has some idea of his wife’s nature) aware of his wife’s atrocities. Tejimola returns to human form and her stepmother is driven out of home. It is, indeed, quite interesting to look at the representation of this tale in two poems: Nitoo Das’ “Tejimola” that was published in Muse India (Issue 38) and Uddipana Goswami’s “Tejimola Forever” from her poetry collection, We Called the River Red: Poetry from a Violent Homeland (2009).

At its most apparent level, Tejimola’s tale is a story of survival. And it is this aspect that is foregrounded in both the poems. In both the poems, the angle of vision belongs to Tejimola and the reader is made to feel the pain and suffering of the protagonist at each stage.  In  Nitoo Das’ poem, “Tejimola”, there are two speakers – an omniscient third-person speaker and Tejimola herself, while Uddipana Goswami’s “Tejimola Forever” uses a first-person speaker in her poem (and that is Tejimola herself). Each time the stepmother tries to suppress her, Tejimola revives herself and assumes a new form as an object of nature. There is a sense of defiance in Tejimola’s voice in both the poems and in their own ways both poems rereads and rewrites the tale as inscribed in Bezbaroa’s text.

Nitoo Das’s poem, “Tejimola” depicts how Tejimola is pounded at the dheki1 by her stepmother and her crushed body is the “husk dust” of grain that is “scattered like rain”. Tejimola is also made to suffer at the loom by her stepmother, who afterwards tries to trap her and suffocate her “like a cloud”. But each time, Tejimola responds to her stepmother’s tortures by respectively flowering into “sharp chillies”, turning into “tart fishes”, and “spry swallows”. Through powerful vignettes, the poem “Tejimola” depicts the goriness of the stepmother’s treatment and how Tejimola gathers herself each time to take up a new identity and sing of her suffering in defiance. And yet in singing thus, there is a poignant moment in the poem when Tejimola says:

No, don’t bait me.
Don’t hate me.
Don’t lead me to my doom. 

It is interesting that each time Tejimola is crushed or sought to be crushed by her stepmother, she returns in a new form, and that too in multiples, for e.g. “chillies” or “swallows”. But Tejimola’s identity proves to be fluid – unlike the rigid identities that a patriarchal society seeks to cage people in – both males and females. The assertion of identity is also a central concern of Uddipana Goswami’s poem “Tejimola Forever”. In this poem, Tejimola looks back at her past, when she was made to suffer by her stepmother, who tried “a thousand and one ways” and she in turn pleaded for mercy but in vain. To the present Tejimola, revived to human form by her father’s love after her stepmother is punished, her past self seems pathetic to her as she says:

What a pathetic creature I was!
Crying and cringing, letting her grind me in the mortar
And throw me away in the backyard.

In her re-reading of Tejimola’s story and character, Goswami makes Tejimola refuse to accept her marriage to a man who, as she says, loves her but it is a marriage fixed by her father. In Bezbaroa’s version, the story ends with Tejimola being revived to human form and her stepmother banished from home. But in Goswami’s poem, Tejimola’s fate has been decided by her father in marrying her off to Dhonpur. Having experienced freedom and liberation through her avatars as a bird, a lotus, etc., she feels constrained in the role of a wife, a role she had neither chosen nor desired for in the first place. Also, when she acknowledges that she had probably allowed her stepmother to ill treat her (for she says, “…letting her grind me in the mortar”), there is also the hint that she would not allow someone else to seize control over her fate and life in future. And this is seen when she rebels against her father’s decision of getting her married. The role of a wife stifles Tejimola and she walks out of that relation in order to survive. The poem begins: “I am a survivor, I am.” This assertion of being a survivor is also underlined by the title of the poem – how Tejimola has embraced her multiple identities (of  a plant, a creeper, a vine, and a flower) and wishes to remain fixed in those identities forever (to ‘live and die’), unshackled and unhindered by human (patriarchal) rules, norms, and prejudices. Compared to this alternate ending, Nitoo Das’ poem ends with Tejimola registering her voice of protest before multitudes by making them aware of her position as a victim (“soaring words/clamoured a strain to the crowd). The poem “Tejimola” ends thus:

No, don’t snare me.
Don’t scare me,
said Tejimola out loud.

In both the poems, Tejimola emerges as a stronger person, one who refuses to be victimized, and one who is defiant of her circumstances, who fights in her own way to survive, a contrast to Bezbaroa’s heroine. It is her effort that ennobles Tejimola more than the outcome. The sketches of all the three characters of this folktale and their depiction in both the poems throw up interesting insights. If we are to gauge these characters through the perspective of the victim-victimizer relation, Tejimola would be seen as the victim and her stepmother the victimizer at its most apparent level. However, this relation is not a binary but a dyadic relation and this victim-victimizer dyad is a complicated one. The dynamic that is at work in this dyad is the “abuse dynamic” that stems from misuse of a vantage position and the wielding of power over the one without power. Aggressive or violent behaviour, intimidation, generating fear in order to exercise control, or establish a position of power are common to all abusive relationships. The stepmother engages in all of these in order to make Tejimola suffer. And yet, she can play the victimizer’s role only in the absence of her husband that automatically places the stepmother beneath the father in the power hierarchy. In fact, for long the stepmother has been vilified. In Bezbaroa’s version, the stepmother’s evil actions are accounted for as her evil intentions; she is the doer or executor of which Tejimola is the receiver. In contrast, the actions of the stepmother do not seem to be the focus for both the poets; rather Tejimola’s response to her stepmother’s actions and her voice of protest occupy centre stage. In Nitoo Das’ poem, the word ‘She’ has been used to refer to the stepmother. The prior knowledge of this tale makes the reader presuppose the stepmother’s role as the victimizer. In Goswami’s poem on the other hand, though the mahi aai or stepmother has been mentioned, at the end of the poem the reader finds Tejimola rebelling against a decision that had been made by her father. The father can be also seen as a representative of the patriarchal society, thereby obliquely hinting at the father (and the patriarchal society by extension) too being the victimizer. And in this new equation, both Tejimola and her stepmother can probably be viewed as victims. Of course, the stepmother is silent on all occasions, in both the poems. Victimization occurs within a particular context and therefore if the relation between these three characters is to be viewed by using the Karpman drama triangle,2 they would loosely fall into the following categories – Victim (Tejimola), Persecutor (stepmother), and Rescuer (father). In Bezbaroa’s version, Tejimola would be seen as a victim not only because she is made to suffer but because she is oppressed and helpless. In the two poems, Tejimola, far from wallowing in self-pity, seeks to subvert the narrative that the stepmother wants to lay down for her. In fact, Tejimola in both the poems refuses to allow herself to be victimized and her efforts give meaning to her struggle rather than the results. But in Goswami’s poem, Tejimola also at one point seeks her Rescuer:

I knew pitai would come back soon.
I’d then tell him about his wicked wife.

But this is the Tejimola of the past and the reader witnesses an evolution in the mental framework of this character. So while Tejimola at one point in the past did seek her Rescuer, her experiences seem to have emboldened her to an extent where she rebels against that same Rescuer. And in the absence of the stepmother, who has already been banished from ‘home’ (that again in a patriarchal setup is the father’s domain), the father steps in to play the role of the Persecutor though to a lesser extent. And so at the end, Tejimola assumes different identities and is able to evade the searching gazes. As she says:

But having been a creeper,
A flowering plant and a lotus,
I did not want to be a wife.
But nobody asked me.
So I left when it got to me.
They searched of course
But I’d learnt to disguise well
And they gave up.

By stating that “they gave up”, Tejimola also seems to announce her victory. It is significant that in the folktale (as we read in Bezbaroa’s book), it is the father who arrives at the end to set things right and deliver justice, thereby deciding the fate of both his wife and his daughter. But in the two poems, the father never really appears; rather he is referred to: “devoured my father’s brain” in Nitoo Das’s poem and “I knew pitai would come back soon”, “I sang out as his boat went by” in Uddipana Goswami’s poem. In the power hierarchy, the stepmother stands beneath her husband. It is true that hierarchy has always existed in human social structures. While the stepmother is in a powerful position in the context of Tejimola, she too is under the authority of her husband, Tejimola’s father. Though for Tejimola her father is her saviour, and viewed from the wife’s perspective, the husband, who throws her out of his home and his life, could also be seen as an overarching figure. Of course, Tejimola’s stepmother remains silent in both the poems. The stepmother’s character is enigmatic too – for there is no explanation of what makes her so cruel towards Tejimola, or whether she has been a victim herself. It can be said that “as survivors struggle to adopt alternative relationship roles, they often move out of victim roles and into abuser roles” (Cloitre, Cohen and Koenen 51). Tejimola’s suffering and her resurrection each time ‘goads’ the victimizer to ‘greater excess’ (Prado 145) as Foucault says, “[w]here there is power, there is resistance, and yet… this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (Foucault 94-95). Tejimola in both the poems resists the stepmother’s exertion of power and in “Tejimola Forever” she also resists her father’s (and the patriarchal society’s) exertion of power.

Nature plays a very important role in folktales in general and Tejimola’s tale too is no exception. Nature not only gives Tejimola refuge but also provides the space where she, the oppressed, in a way ‘plots’ her liberation. Her voice is heard by multitudes when she becomes a part of nature (“Tejimola”) and eventually she embraces life in nature’s lap, compared to the life of a wife in human society (“Tejimola Forever”). She assumes different forms and survives to tell her tale of oppression to her father and to the world. This is important because in both the poems the speakers (Tejimola in both cases) talk about the sufferings that place them at an advantageous position unlike the stepmother, who is silent in both poems. In Nitoo Das’ poem, we read:

I flowered
into sharp chillies
and burning words
devoured my father’s brain.

And again,
I cowered
into spry swallows
and soaring words
clamoured a strain to the crowd

In fact, in Uddipana Goswami’s poem, Tejimola seems to acknowledge that she had let her stepmother ill treat her but would not let that happen again with her father. Probably the root of the abusive nature of the stepmother lies in the society to which she belongs. Her social interactions are in contrast with that of her husband, who goes out for long stretches sailing across the river for work while the stepmother remains confined to the home and hearth. Of course, these are speculations that emerge out of a re-reading of the folktale as manifested in the two poems “Tejimola” and “Tejimola Forever”. In these poems, the character of Tejimola undergoes a transformation and the helpless, terrified, and sorrowful heroine of the tale in Burhi Air Sadhu emerges as a woman who offers resistance to injustice, who seeks to establish her distinctive identity, and who is determined to survive against all odds. In this way, these two poems unravel a new discourse of Tejimola.

1. Dheki is a wooden implement to husk paddy with a pedal that is pressed by foot.
2. It is a model of social interaction suggested by Stephen Karpman.

Art-work: Reetuparna Dey

Stuti Goswami teaches in the Department of English, Jagiroad College, Assam.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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