Rongali Bihu will be celebrated the world over by the Assamese community on Sunday 15th April. Rongali Bihu is one of three major cultural festivals from Assam, the North Eastern state of India from where my family originates. This festival marks the beginning of spring and celebrates the harvest season with a wide range of festive treats including Til’or Pitha and Narikol’or Laru (do try out the recipes for these by clicking here).
But today’s post is not going into depth about Bihu. Proudly Assamese, I wanted to take advantage of this upcoming special occasion and share a beautiful piece of Assamese folklore with you. Every culture has treasured ‘hand me down’ fairytales that have been whispered down generations, and the Cinderella-style struggle story that has a prominent part in Assamese story-telling is that of Tejimola.
Tejimola is an Assamese folktale and is very close to my heart. As a third-culture kid, it was very special having a bedtime story that originated from my roots, and my father always pointed out how similar the name was to my own (my name is Tehzeeb, and many Assamese mis-pronounce it as ‘Tejib’… and you know me as Tezzy, so think ‘TezzyMola’!).
The story of Tejimola was first published in 1911 by renowned Assamese writer and poet Lakshminath Bezbarua under his collection of short stories entitled ‘Burhi Air Xadhu’ (which translates to ‘Old Granny’s Tales’ ).
The story captured the imagination of many a creative type, and has since been reinvented in quite a few variations, but the main premise of the story is that of struggle and rebirth. This poignant, heart-rendering tale is centered around Tejimola, a young girl who is brutally tortured by her step-mother. She is reborn in many forms of nature, and finds nirvana in her newfound freedom.
Tejimola by Joi Barua
Tejimola has been interpreted in various forms by various Assamese artists, and by far my most favorite has to be by Assam’s very own Rockstar Joi Barua. He released his soulful musical rendition of Tejimola in 2011 as a part of his debut album entitled ‘Joi Looking Out the Window’, the year I became a mother. I remember humming it to my newborn, and the track still reigns high on my personal playlist.
And then I got the BEST Bihu gift ever… Joi Barua sang a ‘Tezzyfied’ version of Tejimola for me!
Joi Barua has really revolutionized the Assamese music scene with his poetic, yet universally catchy tunes. Bollywood buffs out there will recognize Joi Barua’s deep, soulful voice from popular blockbusters including Atif Aslam’s ‘Tera Hone Laga Hoon’ (where Joi choruses the English verse ‘shining in the setting sun…’). Read up more on Joi Barua by visiting his Wiki page, click here.
Here’s my very special Joi Barua video… what a treasure, thank-you Joi!
Tejimola – The Folktale
Once upon a time, there lived a merchant who had a lovely daughter called Tejimola. The merchant lost his first wife, and the little girl was therefore raised by her step-mother.
To please her husband, the step-mother would pretend to love Tejimola, but deep inside she burned with envy of the girl’s beauty, intelligence and the obvious love her father had for her.
One day, the merchant had an urgent need to travel for business. He bid adieu to his little family and was gone for months.
The evil step-mother took this chance to show her true colors, and abused Tejimola at every given opportunity. She would slap and scold the girl for the smallest of things, deprive her of food and make her perform the most tedious of tasks.
And then a wicked idea crossed her mind. Tejimola was nearing marriageable age, and her husband would have to pay a fine dowry. Why waste it on this orphan when she could enjoy it for herself? All she had to do was murder her.
One day, Tejimola got invited to a friend’s wedding and to her surprise, her step-mother agreed to let her go. She even packed the girl a parcel of clothing and ornaments to wear at the wedding, and told her to only open the parcel when she got to the venue, lest anything got lost in the journey.
Tejimola was elated and felt she will surely be the best dressed at the wedding. Alas, a horrible surprise awaited her when she opened the parcel. In it was a torn, stained old rag and several broken bits of jewelry. Tejimola wept with horror. More than looking totally out of place at the wedding, she was mortified at the thought of what her step-mother would do to her when she saw the torn clothing and broken jewelry.
A kind friend lent her an outfit, but when she got home she had to bear the wrath of the evil step-mother.
The evil step-mother took out her fury like never before. She took Tejimola to the dheki (the traditional Assamese wooden rice pounder), and made her pound the rice. As she was doing this, she slipped the girl’s hands into the heavy tool and crushed them.
She then ordered her to put the rice in the dheki with her feet, and she crushed them as well. Tejimola howled in pain. Her head fell on the dheki, and the evil step-mother took this chance to crush her skull. The girl died on the spot.
The evil step-mother buried Tejimola in the backyard, and when concerned neighbors asked about her whereabouts she said she had gone to visit a friend.
One day, an old beggar woman knocked on the door. She asked the evil step-mother if she could please pluck some of the lau (Assamese gourd) from her garden. “But we don’t have any in our garden” she said, to which the old lady took her to the backyard.
At the very spot where she had buried Tejimola stood a giant creeper of ripe, green lau. Mortified, the evil step-mother walked away and let the old lady start harvesting.
As the old lady reached out to her very first lau, a soft, sad voice sang out:
“Hato nemelibi lawo nisingibi kore mogonia toi, pat kaporor logote mahi aai khundile Tejimolahe moi.”
(Don’t stretch out your hands or pluck my fruit oh beggar woman. My name is Tejimola and my step-mother buried me here, all dressed up in Assamese finery.)
The old lady got the scare of her life and reported this to the evil step-mother. Hearing this, she chopped down the bush and threw its remains in a desolate corner of the garden.
A few weeks later, a group of travelling gypsies knocked on the door. They greeted the evil step-mother and told her they were admiring her blooming plum tree from afar and requested the permission to pluck some flower and fruit.
The evil step-mother said she didn’t have a plum tree, to which the strangers took her to the very spot where she had discarded the creeper plant. Shocked once again, she left the gypsies with the tree and went indoors.
Just as they were about to pluck the very first plum, the tree began to weep and sing in a soulful voice “Please don’t pluck me. Tejimola is my name. My evil step-mother murdered me, and now I am a tree with plums.”
Startled beyond belief, the gypies left the tree and promptly reported this to the evil step-mother. Infuriated hearing this, she took to the tree with an axe and chopped it down.
She then threw the remains of the tree into the river and went to sleep. Her husband was coming the next day, and she was very excited to see him after all this time.
What she didn’t know was that he was coming home by boat. The merchant had a long trip away from home and was really looking forward to seeing his beloved daughter again.
As he looked out to the waves of the rolling river, he spotted the most beautiful lotus he had ever seen in his life. It was large, and a beautiful bright pink with etches of white. “How my Tejimola would love it!” he thought and reached out to pluck it.
As his fingers caressed the very first petal, the lotus sang out in grief “Please don’t pluck me father, this is I, your Tejimola. Your evil wife murdered me and now I am a lotus.”
Stunned, the father thought it to be some kind of witchcraft and decided to challenge the lotus. “If you really are my Tejmola, turn into a bird and enter this cage I hold up and come home with me.”
The merchant held out a cage, and before his very eyes, the lotus turned into the most beautiful white dove and flew right into his cage.
When he got home, he asked his wife where Tejimola was, to which she said the girl had gone to a friend’s house and never came back.
The merchant turned to the dove in the cage, and said “If you are really Tejimola, turn into your human form and come out of the cage.” The dove flew out and morphed into the beautiful Tejimola.
The evil step-mother could not believe her eyes and fled the house forever. Tejimola and her father embraced and lived happily ever after.
Tejimola… Beyond the ‘Happily Ever After’
I grew up hearing the story till the evil step-mother fled, but there are longer anecdotes that go on to talk about the all-new, liberated Tejimola.
Many months after the evil step-mother ran away, the merchant started looking for prospective grooms for his daughter. However, he was shocked and infuriated when she refused each and every one of them.
Tejimola had now tasted freedom in her newfound avatars of nature. She felt liberated as a flowering creeper, fell in love with the wings beneath her wings as a soaring dove, and had blossomed into a pragmatic, self-loving flower for the umpteenth time.
She has therefore camouflaged into the wilderness, and you can hear her humming when you put a mindful ear to the wind. No longer is the voice woeful, but rather one of strength and liberation.
In the words of famous Assamese poet Lakshminath Bezbarua’s original Tejimola (1911):
I’ve been a creeper,
A flowering plant and a lotus,
Why should I want to be a wife?
Nobody asked me what I wanted,
So I left, misunderstood.
They searched for me,
But I learnt the art of disguise
And now they gave up.
The Evil Step-Mother
We grow up reading of evil step-mothers, but what makes them so wicked? Angelia Jolie’s take on Maleficent went on to show that there’s never really a black and white, but many shades of grey.
Similarly, Tejimola’s step-mother can also be seen as a victim. She is left to fend for herself alone for months, with a child who is not of her own. She is a prisoner of her own house, and her frustrations are therefore vented onto Tejimola.
Perhaps seeing her plight has put Tejimola off marriage altogether.
Who would have thought that an old Assamese folktale can exude so much #GirlPower and question the notion of patriarchal power in marriage?
Tejimola lives on and will be passed on to many more generations to come.
I am leaving you with the unplugged rendition of Joi Barua’s ‘Tejimola’. Happy Rongali Bihu everyone!