Retelling as resistance


PEOPLE tell stories. But stories tell a lot more about the people who tell them. Folktales, especially, reflect the collective consciousness of the folx/peoples who tell them in more ways than one. If their contents reveal what Emile Durkheim calls the ‘beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society’, the tales also serve to reveal the multiple social realities of the individual parts that make up the collective organism. These individual parts may have agency or be silent/silenced, but together, they form a composite social organism that simultaneously resists and reiterates the super narrative of the dominant few. In this sense, then, stories can be read as text, hypertext, metatext, as well as context.

The multiple ways to read and connect with individual stories indicate that stories are resilient. Their resilience is additionally revealed through their retelling: stories do not die; they are retold and have many afterlives. These afterlives take on different forms that collectively constitute a ‘supersaga’: ‘an extended utterance whose components are like words… together they constitute a kind of sentence’. The term supersaga was invented by Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov in 1922 to refer to the texts he created which ranged across genres, and where he assumed different personas, but which referred and connected to each other. These different texts are like words that are comprehensible in themselves, but it is for the reader to identify the syntax that unifies them as a sentence.

A similar challenge of stringing together the many parts to identify a coherent whole is what informs this essay’s exploration of the story of Tejimola in Assam. Tejimola is a folktale that has lived many lives, in many different genres of writing, telling, and performing. With each retelling, the tale resists oblivion. What do the individual retellings reveal about the larger social realities of Assam, especially as they pertain to different constituencies such as the dominant few, or the many marginalized entities (for example, the women)? How do they reflect the evolving social consciousness? And finally, what is the supersaga that emerges from these multiple manifestations of this tale about a young girl and the violence she encounters? The essay picks up the story of the Tejimola tale following its conversion from the oral to the written form for the first time.

Tejimola’s story made its debut in written literature in 1911 in Burhi Air Xadhu, the first collection of Axamiya folktales collated by Lakhminath Bezbarua. Bezbarua and his contemporary writers and thinkers were among those who shaped the contours of Axamiya nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their project of nation-building was in response to the anti-colonial sentiments sweeping across British India at the time. Assam – and other parts of Northeast India – were yoked to mainland India 100 years after the British colonized it, but the growth and development of anticolonial sentiments and movements in both the periphery and the mainland were nearly contemporaneous. Assam’s intellectual and political leadership aligned itself with the mainland, offering up Assam as India’s numaliya ji or youngest daughter, a sub-nation within the great Indian nation.

Despite this willingness to be a part of the new nascent nation, there was, nonetheless, a significant strain of thought that advocated for the Axamiya ‘to live as an autonomous and distinct people’ within India. Lakhminath Bezbarua, among others, maintained that Axom Dex (Assam Country) was, ‘till recently… an independent country, independent of any Indian ruler’. Such an assertion of (sub)national pride emphasizing uniqueness amidst alignment, was not at odds with the spirit of the Indianness-in-the-making at a time when, in Ranabir Samaddar’s words, ‘the universal of the nation (the anticolonial nation) was being produced out of the negotiation of the singulars’.

Revisiting a long, living cultural and literary heritage became one of the ways to shape Axamiya nationalism as a rich and richly contributing constituent of this non-monolithic Indian nation. As his introduction to the book reveals, Bezbarua was acutely aware of the connection between folk literature and nationalism when he set about showcasing the cultural treasures of Assam’s oral traditions in Burhi Air Xadhu. Reclaiming the tales in this anthology served to instill nationalist pride among the people of Assam.

As with all efforts to record oral narratives in the written form, the stories in Burhi Air Xadhu retrieved their characters from their amorphous existence as oral lore. Being recorded in writing saved them from obliteration, should their transmission through generations stop when the knowledge sources – the storytellers – cease to exist. In the process, though, they congealed these characters as defined, definite entities. Their evolution beyond this codified existence – that oral retelling allowed relatively freely – became more challenging. Tejimola is among the few tales that have repeatedly defied the limitations of the written text and escaped definition.

It is the story of the eponymous heroine, a young girl who is subjected to violent death multiple times by a cruel stepmother while her loving father is away. Every time, though, she comes back to life in a non-human form – a plant, a fruit, a creeper, or a flower – and sings of her mother’s cruelty. Finally, her father sees her blooming as a lotus as he returns home from his travels by boat, brings her back to her human shape, and punishes the evildoer.

An archetypal character, playing out the common motifs of folktales in a common tale type, there seems to be nothing apparently outstanding about Tejimola. And yet, since her debut as a written tale in Burhi Air Xadhu, the narrative of the tortured and tormented young woman has captured the imagination of many prominent Axamiya writers of fiction, poetry, and music among other art forms. Tejimola’s ability to transmute seems to have infected her tale as well; and like her obstinacy to live on, her tale has also insinuated itself into different genres of art and literature, taking on different forms, lending different meanings, and allowing diverse interpretations over the years.

Most prominently, with her unending cycle of death and reinvention of self, Tejimola has become the quintessential female survivor of an oppressive patriarchal society. She symbolizes the triumph of the feminine spirit in Ratna Dutta’s Axamiya novel Dittiya, and Monalisha Saikia’s short story ‘Punor Jonom Loi Tejimolai’ (Tejimola is reborn).

As a feminist icon, her refusal to cease to exist also connects with stories of other willful and defiant girls/women around the world. In the Grimm’s tale, ‘The Willful Child’, a young girl who ‘would not do as her mother wished’, is punished by God with illness and death. Even in death, she resists authority and keeps raising her arm up from the grave till her mother strikes the arm with a rod and ‘at last the child had rest beneath the ground’. In her discussion of it, Sara Ahmed notes that the tale does not mention what the girl resisted/disobeyed. The will of the authority figure is seldom questioned, and ‘one form of will assumes the right to eliminate the others’. This is where violence begins.

In contrast to the disobedient daughter, Tejimola’s tale depicts her as following her stepmother’s instructions diligently, unquestioningly. She is still crushed under the mortar, still cut down and drowned. The nature of the violence of the authority figure – the dominant one – is such that whether one silences oneself or is deliberately silenced in the telling of the tale, there is no escaping it. Resistance to this violence, however, need not end with the end of life as a human being. For both Tejimola and the willful child, defiance continues after death. Tejimola, in fact, learns resistance in death. She reinvents herself every time she is killed by her stepmother, becomes one with nature, assumes different life forms, and sings out her story for the passers-by to hear. In a patriarchal society, such bold, vocal women pose a threat to authority and must be violently suppressed. But as an inspiration for the silenced, marginalized, and violently oppressed in society, they hold out hope.

In Anglophone poet Nitoo Das’s poem, Tejimola becomes the ‘soaring words’ that clamor ‘a strain to the crowd’. In my own poem, ‘Tejimola Forever’, I give her the agency to choose not to be her father’s dutiful daughter meeting societal expectations when returned to her former, human self:

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.

Now I live and die

A plant, a creeper,

A vine, a flower.

I live and die,

Tejimola forever.

In Bezbarua’s telling, of course, there is no questioning of why Tejimola’s absentee father left his young ward in charge of a cruel stepmother, of why he was unaware of his wife’s machinations, or indeed of why a widower remarries with the expectation that the second wife will fulfil the duties of housekeeper, care giver, and babysitter. In a patriarchal society like Assam’s, the male authority figure is above question and righteous, the savior who is beyond reproach. The loving father and benign patriarch, he returns Tejimola to her human form where the tale ends. It is assumed that Tejimola would now do as her father wishes, get married, and remain a grateful daughter and obedient wife: her defiance of death was but to this end.

Meanwhile, as in most tales around the world, the second wife remains the female authority figure who must be subdued/killed/banished for the evil they perpetrate. However, in his Axamiya novel, Tejimalar Makar Sadhu (The Tale of Tejimola’s Mother), Mridul Sarma treats the stepmother empathetically
and questions her portrayal as ‘cruel’. The writer’s proximity to his father’s stepmother, who was extremely affectionate, apparently led him to retell the tale from the point of view of the woman stereotyped as spiteful and vindictive. But he admits that this continues to be the dominant image of the stepmother as ensconced in Assam’s political fable of the Indian state as an unjust and unkind pseudo-parent.

In Assam’s meta-narrative of postcolonial conflict with the Indian State, Tejimola’s agency – and the end to which this agency is allowed to be exercised in Bezbarua’s tale – seems to reflect how, and under what terms, Assam was offered up by the pioneers of Axamiya nation-building as India’s numoliya ji. The sub-nation would remain the dutiful daughter so long as the state acted as the benign patriarch, but resistance would follow if the state meted out ‘step-motherly’ treatment to the people of the periphery. This is what happened in the decades following independence. Resource exploitation, violent suppression of political and ethnic aspirations, marginalization, and mismanagement of postcolonial concerns like in-migration and border disputes all led to the discontented people of Assam rising in revolt since the 1970s.

Since the Assam Andolan (1979-1985), the people of Assam have – violently and non-violently – resisted the Indian state. For decades, Assam has remained in the throes of death and disasters caused by insurgents and counter-insurgents, state and non-state actors, pseudo-revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. Everyday people, meanwhile, got entangled in the intricate web of violence that decades-long social and political conflicts bring with them. Like Tejimola, they continue to be caught in an endless cycle of brutality. Since the second decade of the current century,  an apparent calm has set in after peace accords, treaties, and memorandums of understanding were signed and most armed groups were disbanded. But this post-insurgency period is not a peaceful/non-violent one. Like most zones of protracted conflict, Assam also has become conflict habituated. Here, violence is normalized, and society is largely criminalized and brutalized.

The apparent connection of this brutalization with Assam’s history of conflict continues to be obfuscated by those claiming to have engineered peace by doling out substantial financial packages and propping up former rebels in positions of political power. Traumatized by decades of unspeakable violence, the people have also succumbed to a collective amnesia about the conflict years. Consequently, instead of working toward countering the violent cultures and structures that have become endemic, the people are playing into a public narrative of fear and hatred.

This narrative is being weaponized by those at the centres of power to instigate hatred, contempt, and aggression between communities, while deflecting attention away from real issues like misgovernance, resource exploitation, and unmet basic human needs. As a result, fissures between and within the communities of Assam have multiplied. This is reflected, for example, in the prevailing anti-migrant and anti-Muslim responses and rhetoric, or the alarming increase in violence against women. Because of such fragmentation and alienation, the many marginalized constituencies cannot form solidarities across the divides. Such solidarity and sisterhood alone can bring positive, organic peace to Assam by challenging and changing the narrative of violence.

This peace will have to be a way of life, rather than merely a contingent cessation of violence by insurgents while the state monopolizes it. The message of hope and renewal that will make way for this sustained and sustainable peace is embedded in the story of Tejimola. By holding up the possibility of reinvention, it indicates how a violence-habituated people can also imagine an alternate, creative, and positive future. Tejimola is the ultimate inspiration for a society that is facing an urgent need to resist violence and reinstate order, peace, and justice.

A century ago, Bezbarua’s contemporary Chandrakumar Agarwala had invested Tejimola with the ability to connect human hearts even when faced with inhumanity:

Manuh kutume    doliyay pelale

Kaknu kutum pali?

Maram-bethare    ajoli kuwori

Etaike nija korili

(Your human kin discarded you/who is now your own? /With love and sorrow, naïve princess/you’ve made every heart your own)

At a time when human compassion has almost disappeared from our current political and public discourses, remembering Tejimola and revisiting her tale is not an exercise in art that is removed from our social reality. It is – and must be – art that is also activism: a conscious, strategic exercise in building empathy among a conflict-ravaged people who are traumatized, desensitized, and made violent toward both people and the planet. For one of the ways in which people are being kept quiescent in the post-insurgency period is with spectacles of success and promises of ‘development’. Such spectacular developmental projects invariably come at a heavy cost to the environment and the habitats and livelihoods of small peoples, indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups. Peace among and with people is, therefore, intricately linked to peace with the planet.

In her multiple metamorphoses within the tale, Tejimola generates a rethinking of the relationship between the human and non-human/natural. Her interspecies experience reveals the continuity that humans share with the environment, a continuity that can be extended to understanding conflict and peacebuilding as well. More potently, though, it is in her retellings that she reveals this deep and undeniable interconnection.


In Agarwala’s poem, she is invested with a mild eco-consciousness at a time when such concepts were not part of the larger conversations. Thus, Agarwala’s Tejimola laments:


Hatu nemelibi    phulu nisingibi

Kore naoria toi

Manuhe phulor ki jane ador

          Tejimola he moi

(Don’t stretch your hand, don’t pluck the flower, /what boatman are you? /Humans don’t understand the value of flowers/it’s me Tejimola.)

More recently, in the song, Tejimolaasung by Joi Barua, the lyricist Ibson Lal Baruah, exhorts the young girl to keep smiling, even though,





maahi aaie

khundi khundi

sepi dhore

baagisa tair

(pollution, commotion, the stepmother of the environment, crushes and chokes her garden).


In an era where climate change and environmental degradation are being increasingly recognized as conflict-inducing, and social movements are pushing for climate justice and equity for all, Baruah’s Tejimolaa reminds us of the importance of acting upon this understanding. The conflict years inflicted extensive harm upon Assam’s environment. In the post-insurgency period too, natural resources continue to be exploited and the environment lacerated by the people in power and their corporate cronies. It is the everyday people who are left to deal with the consequences. By repeatedly reminding us of our intricate connection with nature and the non-human, Tejimola inspires these everyday people to be human while striving to be humane. Her tale, therefore, must become the supersaga of a people who were crushed by violent conflicts, but who emerged from this terrible reality with their humanity intact, fighting for justice and equity for all.


Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.

Lakshminath Bezbaruah, Burhi Aair Sadhu. Lakhi Prakash Bhawan, 2010 (1911).

R.M. Bhagabati, Axamiya’r Puharat Axamiyar Sari Daxakar Itihax (Four Decades of Axamiya History in the Light of ‘Axamiya’). Journal Emporium, 1998.

N. Das, ‘Tejimola’, Muse India 38, July-August 2011.

E. Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society. Free Press, 1997.

U. Goswami, Green Tin Trunk. Authorspress, 2014.

U. Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation-state in Assam and Nagaland. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000.

R. Samaddar, Emergence of the Political Subject. Sage Publications, 2010.

Mridul Sarma, Tejimalar Makar Sadhu. Aank-Baak, 2011.

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