Synopsis: Originally written by Lakhshminath Bezbaruah in his book of short stories for children named “Burhi Aair Xadhu”(translated in English by Nripen Dutta Baruah), the story of Tejimola is a part of Assamese folk culture that has been worked upon by several writers with different outlook. Tejimola lives with her doting father and step-mother who has an acute aversion for the girl. Once while the husband was on a business voyage, the step-mother brutally killed Tejimola who however takes many forms of nature and succeeds in informing her father. When the husband discovers, he banishes the wife and Tejimola transforms back to her human form. The following short story is a sequence to the folklore of Tejimola from the outcasted wife’s perspective.
It was Aloki’s every morning ritual. She prepared the scanty meal she gathered from the previous day’s earnings and bathed her pet frog, fondling it as an infant and fed before taking any food for herself. “If it was not you, I would have been a tattered dead woman,” whispered the old lady to her pet frog. Coated with dark olive and golden spherical patches, this was no ordinary frog but an outsized hoarse croaking frog that could decipher the words of the lady and resonate with a loud husky croak or she imagined it to be so. The frog had been the constant companion of the pre maturely ageing woman ever since she discovered it near the river side after being ousted by her husband. Speaking to the amphibian was her soothing sacrament to preserve the remaining sanity which was otherwise on the verge of dismantling. Over these past 10 years the frog has begun to interpret the deep anguish and trauma behind her cyclic laments. It leads out a large croaking sound every time she breaks down to tears. Thus the lady begins again this morning after her famished scanty meal.
I lived once in that village beyond the river and I too was my father’s princess like Tejimola. My father married me off to a rich merchant from the neighbouring village of Tenkhuwa gaon1 in an attempt to secure me a happy life. But on my wedding night I discover that the man I’m betrothed to, already has a wife and a grown up daughter. Thus my wedding vows remained futile so did my wedding bed as my husband showered all his fondness and love to his dotting daughter while I remained confined within the household to look after their needs. A few days passed and his old wife dies which brings much gratification to me for she too had been cold towards me. Day in and out I only wished my husband’s love but he had no love to offer me, but only demands: requirement
“Have you made my Teji’s favourite outenga2? Did you stitch her gown, what will she wear in the village fair? Stitch her a new doll, the old one has worn out... my Teji, my Teji.”
Over and over these repeated derisions wrung on my head, cringing the meagre worth I vindicated. While I starved with half filled appetite, all the milk would go to Teji, my emaciated torso laboured throughout to sustain the duo’s necessity:
“You brought her oranges and mangoes but none were offered to me. She was your daughter, I your wife, how much would it have cost you to share some love with me.”
My whinges were reverted with scoffs of selfishness and unmotherly demands. How could I mother someone else’s child who had already robbed me of my husband’s love? No, the poor girl holds no culpability, it is not her fault. But he made me do all those and reduce me to my present state. Had I not desired a daughter of my own and asked him to bring those fertility herbs from his way back? Twice did I take my reluctant husband to the village boiddo3 to ail my barrenness which the boiddo said would perfectly get cured? But he resolved to shun it by careless mutters that the expenses were steeply unaffordable. “Was it really so? While I toiled hard the entire day, I had let Teji play her heart only to please you.” He made me cook omita4 khar5 and alu-pitika6 every day for his daughter loved it. While I did everything to please him and make him happy including rearing up his daughter, he had nothing to offer me beyond some meals and shelter. So that day when he bade us farewell for his seven months voyage, I was glad to grab the chance of harming Teji by confining her to inscrutable punishment. Probably if Tejimola is gone out of our life like his previous wife, some love will be restored between us and he might as well desire another daughter from me. So I made her work hard and taunted her all throughout, venting out every frustration that this man had filled on me. Poor girl, she only sobbed and worked to please me just as I did to please him. I spoilt her friend’s marriage by sending her a torn mekhela6 and broken kharu7 to be worn by her. She was shivering in fear that night when she returned home from her friend’s place that I might brutally punish her which I gladly did. I had transmuted to being this cruel woman whose conscience was replete with vengeance.
What else could you have expected from a woman driven by her passion for self happiness contrary to the societal expectation of the sacrificing goddess? So while I made her run all the errands without any stipulation which otherwise was left on me, I whiled and watched her with utmost contentment. She only wept and sobbed for her mother but never rose to complain. And so I decided it’s time I scrape her from our life forever. I get the dheki8 ready for pounding the paddy and command her to put the rice in the inlet. As she put her right hand full of rice inside, I gleefully crush it with a pound and there she lets out a shriek of pain. I order her to do the same with her left hand, and obediently the bleeding innocent girl repeats it again as I crush her left hand this time. Wriggling in pain, Teji puts the rice with her right leg this time at my command. I crush her right leg as well and in the same way her left leg too. And now she lies there unconscious, bleeding profusely with multiple fractures. Her head rests on the dheki and at once I crush her head with a swift action of the lever. A stream of blood gushed through her head as Tejimola slowly stopped breathing. She was so innocent that even her immobile face reflected a beamed smile while dying. I had no tears to proffer her for a thirst of freedom grew so acute within me that I hurriedly figured out a way to dispose off her motionless corpse. As I dragged her to the backyard I could hear faint cries from all around. Perhaps even the gods did not approve of her leaving the world. Meticulously I bury her stealthily in the backyard kitchen garden, remove all traces of the murder done and go off to sleep as if nothing had happened. In the morning the neighbour ladies came looking for Tejimola. In a quick concocted tale I shooed them off by narrating that Tejimola has gone to her friend’s place and has not returned. Days pass and I go about the village spreading the same story till every individual gets informed. For a week, first time in this married life I feel some freedom, no one to answer to and no one to rear. I could be my own master, be a child again, the child that I was in my father’s household before my nuptial servitude. I could do whatever I want, go wherever I wished and cook what I love to eat.
One morning while I was getting the dheki ready, in came a poor beggar asking for a bottle gourd from my garden. Flabbergasted I replied that I had no such creeper in my backyard. She took me to my own garden and both of us spotted the loaded vine exactly at the spot where I buried Tejimola. I asked the woman to quickly pluck as many as she could but as she approached the creeper a soft voice addressed her, “pluck me not old lady, I’m Tejimola, my father is not here and my mother has killed me.” Petrified the beggar rushes out as my conscience prick me again. I uproot the vine and flung it off to another corner of the garner. Next morning another neighbour asks for some plums. Surprised I deny the existence of a plum tree in my household. She takes me to my own garden and spots the luscious plum tree. I ask her to pluck as many plums as she can. When she approaches to pluck one of them, the fruits whispers, “pluck me not old lady, I’m Tejimola, my father is not here and my mother has killed me.” The woman whisks out trembling while I stood there numb of my guilt, unready to twig the incurred catastrophe. I axe off the tree with mighty strokes that my feeble arms could strike and pitch the remains in the river on my way to the market.
All these while seven months had already passed and it was time for my husband to return. I started to emolliate my neglected skin to look young and pretty. I wanted a new beginning, the moment I never received as a young bride, to be loved, desired, wooed, and admired by my husband. I wanted him to ache for me, to get lured at my charm. As for my spouse he had exhausted all of these on his earlier partner and his marriage with me was more of a convenience. He was getting older and so was his wife. He got a young body to devour at night which had no other use otherwise. Also the rheumatic pain bent the older woman day by day, making her more and more scrawny and cold. The chores were left out and a young daughter needed to be looked after, hence I. Nevertheless, this discovery didn’t withdraw my hope and I tried all attempts to win his heart. So this time when he returns he shall have none to share his love with but me. Judge me not if that is selfish, but this is what the family women told me, “Win his heart through all means, he is your life now.”
Far away Teji’s father is crossing the river to get back home at the quickest pace, not wasting a minute. Cloud of thoughts overshadows his mind as he runs his hand through the river ripples. “What should be the best gift for my Teji ? She is more precious than any gem, her face shines brighter than those silk shawls.”
His prompt hands worked fast as he oared the river pacing the wind blowing across. His nao9 moved at a silent pace crushing through the river lilies, “yes, those are the perfect reflection of my Tejimola’s heart,” thought the doting father. “My daughter’s thoughts are as pure as these peaceful lilies, her soul is untainted as the white petals, this can be the perfect gift for her.” Wistfully his hand reaches out to the beautifully bloomed river lilies. He fondles them carefully not to disturb its apparition and attempts to pluck the largest and whitest one. A faint sob snivelled from the lily, “Do not pluck me o father, I am Tejimola, my mother has crushed me and killed me.” Numbed with shock he realised it was her beloved daughter’s voice and I must have done something heinous to her. Certainly he was sure of that, for he knew well how much I hated Tejimola’s presence although I carried out all his orders with the utmost sincerity. He takes out a pinch of tamul10 from his stained mouth and places it on his left palm while puts a sweet on the right and speaks out loud, “if you are my daughter, my Teji, peck the tamul in my palm or else take the sweet.” A few seconds later a bird glides into his open palm and pecks the half chewed betel. Abruptly the clue works and he puts the bird on a silver cage and brings her back home.
I bear in mind that evening well when my husband returned home. His bags were filled with gifts, dresses, eatables and I wondered what not. Surprisingly he was carrying a silver cage with a tiny little bird inside which he clogged to his chest time to time. He spoke less and only fumbled with gestures. The yellow and gold bordered mekhela I wore that day was the chosen attire for all special occasions. I wore it on the village fair, for the neighbour’s wedding and also on the day he had come to seek my hand at my father’s house. But today it had no impact on him who is already consumed with other thoughts. “Where is my daughter, my Teji?” , he uttered with such contempt that at once I replied, “she never returned back from her friend’s wedding.”
“Have you drugged yourself with Apong11, you mad woman? Have you not looked for her, did you not enquire with her friends or the village headman? Have you become so irresponsible and absent-minded in my nonexistence?” he retorted. I choose to be silent not out of fear but out of grief. Yes it is these very accusations that I had bore with silence all these years and it is these allegations that prompted me to kill Tejimola. I remember he had the same contemptuous allegations towards me when I refused to let Teji wear my necklace for a wedding He bellowed that I was not only an awful mother but a terrible wife too. I should have realised it that day, “What has marriage brought me, but only agony?”
At once he sets free the silver caged bird and commands it to take its human form. Ghastly pale I turn as my unbelievable eyes witnessed the little avian creature enlarging its form to become the Tejimola I had brutally crushed to death. Her groans and wails echoed in my ears as I see her coming alive. The truth was disclosed and I had no answers, yes, I admitted my folly and indeed I was cast away with no second chance. And so I land here in this deserted territory for my defamation had spread far and wide the village to harbour anymore. I pleaded, begged mercy and tried to convince that old man who closed his heart and ears to any form of supplication, only to realise that they were closed to me even before.
I was given an hour to pack whatever I had and be gone after I vow never to show my iniquity face again. I looked at my husband who could offer me only spite and venom and then took a look at the innocent girl’s face which reflected only one question- “why”. I had no answer to her question except bowing down and move from sight for indeed she was wronged, but I was wronged too. It took me a whole day’s journey to find an asylum for a cast away bride is a terrible bad omen. Deuta12 had passed away a year back and aai13 even before surviving me with my only kin and twin brother Dipen.
I cover my face and take a dinghy14 to cross the river on the other side to Dipen’s house. I narrate everything, but he was reluctant to lodge me even for the night. However he promised to visit me once in a fortnight wherever I will be living for the rest of my life. Despaired at his negation, I head towards this deserted village defamed for paranormal presence. When I was a child, aita15 would tell stories of this Hautu gaon16 where kesuwasur17 bhoot18 lived. The ghost would pick up children who never found their way back to home again. As a result, the village turned barren and deserted. But I don’t see any kesuwasur now for I only realise when all had abandoned me, this village offered me haven. There is everything in ample here. I go out as I please, bath in the river at all hours with no neighbourhood women to jeer at my childlessness, no husband to pore over my chores and no children to feed. The initial emotional breakdown was counter attacked by this newly found freedom that I forever longed. The only sporadic heartfelt desire was to be loved. The day before my wedding, Aita had whispered something in my ears which I recollect to know its meaning now, “love yourself if none loves you”. True to her words, I have begun to love myself now, but only if it was that easy to forget everything of the past.