By Anannya Baruah
Every Axamiya child grows up listening to stories from Laxminath Bezbaruah’s Burhi Aair Xadhu (literally, Grandmother’s Tales).
As sweeping generalisations go, that one is mostly correct. Except my Aita wasn’t the sort of grandmother who’d sit around telling you folktales. Tall, thin with an oh-so-wry sense of humour and an unbending spine that probably was quite necessary to bring up seven children as an unlettered widow of 26 in a tiny village in Assam, Aita wasn’t prone to displays of affection. They say love is a verb for some people. Aita was one of them. She would rather roast potatoes on the wood fire (and unapologetically save the biggest portion for her favourite grandchild) than sit around it swapping stories or, heaven forfend, cuddling us.
I was the granddaughter who always had her head in a book. I loved stories, and we had a distant, formal relationship — probably the first where I learnt the difference between loving/being loved for who you are and love as perfunctory, born of obligation. I loved stories and she wouldn’t usually tell us any, but on one rainy night, when my parents were out and there was a power cut, I badgered her into telling us one. I must have been around five then, and I still remember the flickering candlelight in that old government residence as she told us Bezbaruah’s Tawoiekor Xadhu (The Uncle’s Tale/ The Tale of Father’s Best Friend).
A dying father tells his young sons to always listen to what their tawoideu has to say. They obey his dying wish and fulfill every diktat of Tawoi’s, no matter how seemingly unreasonable. And they prosper. Throw away that big fish that you just caught, throw it back into the water, and you catch it again a few days later with lost treasure in its belly. Kill that firstborn child, bury it. Kill the next one too, and the one after. Eventually they rebel and demand to know why. At midnight Tawoi takes them where the bodies are buried, and they hear dead babies talk, gnashing their teeth at having been denied their chance to destroy their father. Listen to the wisdom of this old man, he can look at a baby and detect Original Sin. This is the version I remember my Aita telling me; Bezbaruah’s begins with infanticide and ends with Tawoi’s wisdom leading to wealth, along with a nice little homily thrown in at the end.
Did I mention she had an acerbic sense of humour, bordering on twisted? I don’t think I ever asked her to tell me another story. Years later, in college, I remember telling my friends about the only story my grandmother ever told me, of all the stories in Bezbaruah’s julunga (jhola), and wondering what on earth she was thinking. Filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika also chooses Tawoiekor Xadhu as one of the four stories in his film Kothanodi, and I was amused to note that this was one of the only two stories with a happy ending of sorts, and the only one that is almost unchanged from the original.
In Bezbaruah’s Burhi Aair Xadhu, infanticide takes place first under the Tawoi’s aegis, and prosperity comes later. In Hazarika’s story and my Aita’s, there is already some measure of trust in the Tawoi’s wisdom before the father starts burying his children alive. Burhi Aair Xadhu also includes tales like Ou-Kuworir Xadhu — The Elephant Apple Princess’s Tale. A king has two queens: the elder gives birth to a son, the younger to an ou-tenga (elephant-apple). Upset, she tosses it into the garbage, but the ou-tenga follows her wherever she goes. One day, the prince of a neighbouring kingdom goes fishing when he sees a beautiful maiden emerge from the ou-tenga to take a bath. Our lust-lorn prince insists on marrying the ou-tenga, despite the befuddlement of his parents and the ou-tenga’s mother’s humiliation. The ou-tenga lives with him, and eats the plate of food that is left for her, but he never catches sight of her. One day, a wise woman tells him to light a small fire and leave a paste of curd, bananas and milk in a bowl and feign sleep, only to burn the elephant-apple whenever the princess emerged from it, and to bathe her forehead with that paste when she passed away in a dead faint. The wise woman leaves with her bounty, the prince dutifully follows instructions, and everyone lives happily ever after, or so Bezbaruah says.
Bezbaruah’s Champawati also has a man with two wives and two daughters, but Champawati and her mother are the unwanted, or “elaagi” family. Champawati is sent to guard her father’s fields, and as she shoos birds away, she hears a disembodied voice boasting that he will marry her. “Dhanu kham, saulu kham, Champawatik biya korai loi jam.” (I will eat the grain, I will eat the rice, and I will marry Champawati and take her away with me). Initially treated with disbelief and mockery, when her father accompanies her to the fields and hears the strange proposal, he declares that he will marry off Champawati to the suitor if he dares show himself. Out pops a python, and in the twinkling of an eye, despite her mother’s protests, Champawati is married. In the morning, they wake up to a sleeping Champawati covered in gold and jewels and a python missing from a locked room. Jealous of Champawati’s good fortune, her greedy stepmother and father find another python and marry off the other daughter to it. Unfortunately, your average python does what your average python does, even as the greedy mother dreams of her daughter being covered in jewels by a generous son-in-law. There is plenty of supernatural intervention afterwards: a wise woman who teaches Champawati how to turn her python husband into his human form (and gives her some other not-so-wise advice later), and another scheming mother, but suffice it to say, our heroine and her husband live happily ever after.
Tejimola is about a young girl who lives with her merchant father and his second wife, her mother having passed away when she was born. The stepmother is evil and barren and secretly hates Tejimola, but can do nothing while her father is around. When the father, a merchant, has to leave for business for a six-month-long trip, he entrusts the stepmother with the teenaged Tejimola. Evil stepmother decides that this is her only chance to get rid of her hated stepdaughter, and when Tejimola wants to go to her friend’s wedding, she gives her her choicest paator mekhela sador and a bor-kapur, after having hidden a rat in the mekhela sador and a burning coal in the bor-kapur. When Tejimola returns with her stepmother’s clothes in tatters, not only is she beaten to within an inch of her life, but the evil stepmother drags her to the dhekixaal and starts pounding rice with Tejimola shovelling the rice in with her hands. First she grinds one hand, then the other, then one foot, then the other. Finally, she asks Tejimola to shovel rice in with her head, and grinds her to a grisly death. Then she buries Tejimola in the rubbish heap, but a gourd-vine starts growing there and is soon covered with gourds. A beggar comes and asks for gourds, the stepmother says take what you want. The vine sings, “Haatu nemelibi, lau-u nisingibi/kore mogoniya toi/paat kapur logote Mahi-aai-ye khundile/ Tejimola he moi” (Don’t reach for me, o beggar woman don’t pluck that gourd/My stepmother ground me to pulp over her paat mekhela sador/ I am Tejimola). The terrified beggar reports it to the stepmother, who cuts down the vine and tosses it onto a dead tree. Citrus fruits begin growing there, cowherds come to pluck them, the tree sings to them again. The stepmother cuts down the tree and tosses it into the river, where it metamorphoses into a beautiful lotus. The father returns from his travels on a boat, asks his boatman to pluck the flower for him. “Haatu nemelibi, phulu nisingibi/kore naworiya toi/paat kapur logote Mahi aai-ye khundile/Tejimola he moi” (Don’t reach for me, strange boatman/ don’t pluck that flower/My stepmother ground me to pulp over her paat mekhela sador/ I am Tejimola). A little more magical metamorphosis later, Tejimola and her father are reunited, and the evil stepmother is banished forever.
Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi: The River of Fables is a retelling of these four tales, loosely interlinked. The father in Tawoiekor Xadhu sells fish regularly to the father of Champawati and Bonolotika (Monisha Bhuyan), Bonolotika is Tejimola’s best friend, and Tejimola’s father runs into Keteki, the mother of the ou-tenga in Ou-Kuworir Xadhu.
A mother (Asha Bordoloi) puts her foot down in Hazarika’s interpretation of Tawoiekor Xadhu, and demands her right to see her children live, only to bow to the wisdom of the Wise Old Patriarch when she learns that those children might have grown up to harm their father, Ponai (Kopil Bora). In the story based on Ou-Kuworir Xadhu, another mother — no abandoned queen but an ordinary woman, Keteki (Urmila Mahanta) tossed out by her husband for her extraordinary child — lives among strangers and weaves for a living and is followed around everywhere by the ou-tenga she gave birth to. Similarly, in his version of Champawati, Champawati’s marriage to a python with supernatural powers who leaves her unharmed, but showered with gold like Danae, isn’t relevant to Hazarika’s story; her stepmother Dhoneshwori’s (Seema Biswas) greed for a similarly generous reptilian son-in-law is.
And most Axamiya children have grown up listening to Tejimola’s story, sung as a lullaby. “Haat-u nemelibi, phoolu nisingibi, kore naworiya toi?/Paat Kapur logote mahi aai-ye khundile/Tejimola he moi.” There are no lullabies or happy endings in Hazarika’s Tejimola, though, only monstrous stepmothers, irresponsible fathers and the demons that we carry within us. In Kothanodi, Tejimola’s father (played by Adil Hussain) is a Xodagor, a merchant who sails away on work, leaving behind his (new?) second wife, Senehi (Zerifa Wahid) and teenaged daughter (Kasvi Sharma), never stopping to think if it is an arrangement either of them are happy with. He runs into Keteki, who is followed everywhere by an ou-tenga, and it piques his curiosity. This man who has left his family behind on business sets everything aside to solve another woman’s mysterious problem. Men who stick their noses into everyone else’s business while being completely unable to see what’s going on right underneath their noses are far from uncommon, even if Bhaskar Hazarika batted away my question during the discussion after the screening organised by the Indian Express Film Club about whether it was a deliberate choice to interlink these two stories. Maybe it is a saviour complex, helping a helpless young single mother. Or maybe, as the Xodagor himself says to Keteki, it is because he is a Man who has Travelled Far and Wide, seen and heard of Strange Things. He is Wise, and he can help, just like Ponai’s Tawoi. Because stories have power — not just the undeniable power of knowledge, but the power that makes you think you can change them, shape them, retell them, collect them — just as Bezbaruah did with this collection of folklore, and put a Grandmother’s name to them. Hazarika replaces the wise old woman who advises our lustful young prince with the Wise, Well Travelled Man instead. The violence of burning the ou-tenga to free the strange albino child within, and the child’s cries of pain and Keteki’s concern for her child in the face of the Xodagor’s determination to “solve” this problem reminded me of the imagery of violence that runs through Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s very romanticised short story, “Samapti” in Teen Kanya. (Soumitra’s raised hand, the caged bird and Puglee’s dead bird). Perhaps the demands of men that we submit to their wisdom, “grow up” and leave our shells are indeed impossible to fulfil without some measure of violence.
Champawati and Bonolotika’s father is another such irresponsible father, swayed by greed into marrying not one but two daughters off to reptiles. And yet, even Champawati’s mother blames Bonolotika’s mother Dhoneswari’s machiavellian ways, not her spineless husband. Of all the repositories of male wisdom in this film, I found the Deo’s (the Brahmin purohit who conducted Champawati’s wedding and was to officiate at Bonolotika’s) finger-wagging before Bonolotika’s wedding the funniest — he didn’t stop Champawati’s wedding even though her mother was catatonic with grief because he recognised the divinity of her serpent/husband, but was intervening in the case of the favoured daughter of the house. Dhoneswari’s response is arrogance personified — if not this priest, another Brahmin will do, even if he is her husband’s Man Friday and not a real priest. What Dhoneswari sees as a confident mother’s faith in her daughter deserving a wealthier, if reptilian spouse than her stepdaughter is of course seen as madness by almost everyone else around her. “Aidewe nijor palengkhon koinar mother usorole nice je?” “Teuk aru boliyali koribole selu lagise ne?” (Why does my lady want her bed moved near the bride’s room? Does she need any excuse for her madness?). Scarier in its ordinariness is her attempt to soothe a nervous Bonolotika before her wedding night — “Does anyone ever fear their husband? Whatever he does, accept it as his love.” It is the theme song of a thousand nightmarish well-intentioned lectures to victims of domestic violence.
Madness and women, the hysteric and the witch. The violence in Hazarika’s version of Tejimola begins almost the minute the Xodagor turns his back on his family, as Senehi hits Tejimola across the face and keeps abusing her at every opportunity she gets. Tejimola’s stepmother is the stuff of nightmares, her vicious abuse only slightly scarier than the occasional, fleeting moment of sweetness towards her teenaged stepdaughter that turns rancid almost immediately. Senehi drinks in the day, she sails away on a boat on a moonlit night to meet a demon lover with crazy hair when her husband is away, and he eggs her on to torment her stepdaughter further. (Those of us with crazy, untameable hair also resent this comparison to creepy demons).
There is a hint that she might have mental health issues, especially when Senehi’s demon lover pops up unexpectedly behind her to whisper in her ear just as she hesitates for the tiniest moment before ordering Tejimola to shovel rice with her head, and I am not sure how I feel about mental health as an explanation for abuse. Because what Senehi does to Tejimola is nothing but the most vicious, terrifying sort of abuse. Senehi doesn’t just abuse her hated step-daughter physically, although that is graphic enough in the film to make your stomach turn — she also gaslights her constantly, and that point towards the end where a broken Tejimola dully repeats after Senehi, “I hate you and I made you do this to me,” sickened me.
What struck me the most was not the demon lover as phantasm who suddenly appears behind Senehi’s shoulder to urge her to the killing blow. What struck me about Hazarika’s interpretation was Senehi offering her stepdaughter Tejimola her own mother’s mekhela sador to wear to Bonolotika’s wedding, the sador she would deliberately destroy as an excuse to destroy Tejimola. When a terrified Tejimola returns home with the mekhela sador in shreds, Senehi does not drag her to the dhekixaal immediately, unlike in the original. Instead we see her keening over the mekhela sador that she herself destroyed, wrapping it around her face before consigning it to flames, bit by bit. Mothers and daughters… who knows what demons lay in this woman’s past? This woman, married off (reluctantly?) to a much older widower with a daughter not much younger than herself, a man who leaves her behind and goes off to far-flung shores in search of adventure and trade. “Xodagore biya kori anute muk koisil moi ghoror rani hoi thakim..” (When the Xodagor married me, he promised me that he would treat me like a queen…) she screams at Tejimola while beating her half to death.
The performances in the film are uniformly good, but as someone who saw her in several glamour doll roles in Axamiya movies, I have to make special mention of how spectacularly terrifying Zerifa Wahid was as Senehi. Kopil Bora, haunted and gaunt as the father forced to commit infanticide thrice, was also a far cry from his usual chocolate boy image in Axamiya cinema. Urmila Mahanta is stellar as Keteki, her expressive eyes speaking volumes as a woman trying to make the best of an incomprehensible situation, even as the world mocks her for her strange offspring that follows her everywhere, and her confusion and wariness is evident as she deals with a strange man who insists that he will solve her problem, whether she wants him to or not. The young actresses are very good, particularly Kasvi Sharma as Tejimola. If I have a minor quibble to make, it is with the established stars, Adil Hussain and Seema Biswas who seem to me to strain our credibility (or do it a little too brown, as Georgette Heyer would say) in the beginning, but more than make up for it as the film progresses. The film is beautifully shot, especially in how it uses the river and Majuli. For a film that manages to be goose-bump-inducingly terrifying with its performances, the sketchy special effects in the climactic scenes in both Tawoiekor Xadhu and Tejimola undercut the eeriness somewhat. But given that it had to be crowdfunded due to lack of funds, the slightly patchy production values are understandable.
I was in my teens when I learnt that Aita was my Kokadeuta’s second wife. He was a widower in his mid-thirties with three young children, she was just 16. Apparently she told my mother and my aunts that when the match first came, she was very annoyed. “Tumitu burha, nijor boyoxor burhi kele biya nokoruwa?” (“You are an old man, why don’t you marry someone closer to your age?”). Widowed at 26 with seven children to bring up on her own, it took me a while to see why she would never tell us any other stories when she spent a lifetime battling the weight of such stories while holding her family together. It doesn’t surprise me now that she chose to tell me Tawoiekor Xadhu, because the only way to survive what life threw at her and ensure no one could dare say a word to a young widow was by sticking to every rule in the book and becoming the most intimidating woman in the village.
Instead I read to her once I was a little older. I read Bhaben Saikia’s Moromor Deuta to her when I was 10, and when she was very ill and being treated at our home, I read her short stories and funny jokes. She was fond of Bhaben Saikia’s writing. “Manuhjone bhal likhe, kintu olop digholiya.” “He writes well, but his stories take a little time.” We watched Brikodar Baruahr Biya, a popular TV show about a man who wants to get married, but all the matches keep falling through, and other Axamiya TV shows together, although I would make a speedy escape whenever her mythological serials came on.
This February it will be 16 years since she passed away, but if she were here, I think she would have enjoyed watching Kothanodi. “Okonman lahe lahe arombho hoi, kintu bhalke bonaise.” “It starts a little slow, but it is a good film.” I can think of no higher recommendation for the film than this — my Aita would have loved this interpretation of Bezbaruah’s stories.
Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi will be premiered in Assam tomorrow on the island of Majuli, at Uttar Kamalabari Satara, 6pm.
Anannya still dreams of writing sentences that do not run away with themselves. Unfortunately, her clauses continue to be the stuff of a Malthusian nightmare.