Aesthetics of the Grotesque Body: The Dismemberment Metaphor in the Assamese Folktale “Tejimola”


Jharna Choudhury

Jharna Choudhury is a Ph.D. Research Scholar, from the Department of English, Tezpur University, Assam. She is currently working on her thesis, “Spectres of the Corporeal: The Grotesque Body in Contemporary Fiction”.


The exaggerated bodily perimeters with the poetry of ugly bridges the collective thought of variegated cultural worlds. This paper talks about death and femininity through the botanical reincarnate of the flesh, the grotesque trope and the metaphor of dismembered body. The ancient oral folktale “Tejimola” has been chronicled in early twentieth-century development in literature, a rendition of the Assamese writer Lakshminath Bezbaroa in his book Burhi Air Xadhu (Grandmother’s Tales). This version is a regional configuration of the physical grotesque of Northeast India’s folktales, which has a resonance of the Cinderella narrative. “Tejimola” has been a part of popular cinematic adaptations over time. The feminine, the mother/stepmother figure, her maternity and metamorphoses are associated with the bizarre image of food, as a catalyst of annihilation and renewal. Through the banquet imagery of Mikhail Bakhtin’s reading of Rabelais, discussion of “literary death” (Sander L Gilman), re-presentations of dead bodies (in Elisabeth Bronfen and Elizabeth Grosz), this paper observes the cultural implications of hunger, orifices and body fluids in the Assamese folktale context. The subjectivity of the victimized female does not die with death; she is rather agential through her own elegiac songs. The use of literary devices manipulates the body horror of dismemberment, pertaining to the degree of reception of the audience/reader. It is in death that the feminine breaks the constraints of body boundaries, undertaking newer embodiments in earthly, unearthly sources, being the architect of her origin. 

Keywords: Assamese folktale, Tejimola, Grotesque aesthetics, Dismemberment metaphor, Female Body


The noticeable oppressed motifs and the popular stepmother tale-specimen has given a fair amount of light to the Assamese folktale “Tejimola”; mostly, as a rendition of oral literature connected to the world-wide Cinderella cycle. The authorship of such narratives has always been in question due to the identity politics of the tribal and non-tribal groups and the language variations. “Tejimola” came to the fore as a children’s tale; chronicled from the oral tradition to Assamese literature in the collection of stories “Burhi Air Xadhu” (1911). The title establishes the grandmother as the storyteller of the Assamese household. Under the tutelage of the writer of humour, Lakshminath Bezbaroa (1864-1938), this collection of stories could finally give shape to the folklore of Assam and open ways of connecting to the North-Eastern Indian folktales, “tribal” Indian folktales and the corpus of work done by Bopp, Herder and the Grimm brothers. Bezbaroa, in his Preface, mentioned that folktales are significant cultural indicators; and Tejimola’s narrative undoubtedly preserves social issues like polygamy of merchants, infant deaths, trade travels, stereotype of stepmother’s jealousy, domestic violence, socially accepted magic realism and riddles from the dead people. In contrast to the discourse of passively dead female corpses, this paper renegotiates the idea of femininity and death in terms of resurrection (as in Toni Morrison’s character Beloved, Sylvia Plath’s "Lady Lazarus", Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Melquíade), grotesque plantation of the human body (as in J.M.Coetzee’s character Michael K, who plants the ashes of his dead mother) and posthumously active (as in Addie Bundren, in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying). Such dynamic iterations of corpses who self reports the unsaid story of his/her death or reappears as an absent/present body, gives a novel dimension to the aesthetics of the corporal as hyperbolic, grotesque and uncanny.

            The phrase “grotesque aesthetics” is an oxymoron in itself. While the word grotesque is connected to the elements of gross, excess, ugly, repulsive, horrific and gothic, the word aesthetics mostly imply the philosophy of the beautiful. In the book On Ugliness, Umberto Eco rightly states that ugliness and grotesque are polysemic in nature and on being revisited they are seen as constructions of “socio-political criteria” (Eco 12). In the very heart of the collection “Burhi Air Xadhu”, is the metaphor of ecdysis or molting like that of the snake, a rather “ugly” conceptualization for children stories. Bezbaroa’s Tejimola, the coming of age protagonist, is killed by her stepmother, pounded into pulp, under the rice pounding “dheki” (manual grinder-like instrument). Her renewal happens in agrarian forms: types of vegetable, fruit and bird; common to the Assamese culture. Like molting, Tejimola changes her skin. Similar affinity is found in the other stories of the same collection, where the story “Tula and Teja” has bodily transformations from a woman to a tortoise, trees and bird; Panesai is hatched from an egg and becomes a duck, Champavati’s husband is a god reincarnate as a snake, Ou Kuori is a girl inside the shell of an elephant apple. The exterior body peels off, breaks, or is burnt with the story progression. The identity of the flesh is bizarre as well as culturally rooted.  Moulting is the inception of the dismemberment metaphor. Elizabeth Grosz saw such types of bodies as “not only inscribed, marked, engraved, by social pressure external to them but are the products, the direct effects of the very social constitution of nature itself” (Grosz x).  It is however difficult to make a clear cut distinction between the types of body metaphors, as source domain or target domain, employed by Juliana Goschler in her essay “Embodiment and Body Metaphors”. The metaphoric mapping in Tejimola is such that the distortions of body leads to comprehension of the cultural life, which makes the metaphor source domain, but when the vegetal nature of Tejimola leads us to her human body, then the metaphor turns into target domain. Here, one domain is interconnected with one another, slipping inside, like a möbius strip (Elizabeth Grosz), or one domain mapped onto another (Goschler). 

In A Handbook of Folklore Material of North-East India, the narrative of Tejimola appears as a wonder tale. This version is extracted by the writer Birendranath Datta, from J.Barooah’s book Folktales of Assam (1963).  We can loosely divide the story in the following structure, with the purpose of locating the types of dismemberment:

a)      the exposition: includes the death of Tejimola’s biological mother, the hatred of her childless stepmother, who saw Tejimola as a rival of love for the father figure (the merchant);

b)      the social obligation of the father as the breadwinner, his merchandise, trade travels and a prolonged departure, separation from the most beloved daughter;

c)      stepmother’s scheme of ill-treatment, fault finding, which leads to the final plan of murder to eschew Tejimola’s upcoming dowry;

d)      the pretext of the friend’s marriage: Tejimola’s escape from her stepmother’s cruelty for few days parallels the ball motif in the Cinderella cycle;

e)      the role of dress: the best garment is used as an alibi to attack the victim Tejimola, in this case, “a lovely silk riha and fine silk mekhela and a gold-embroidered khonia wrapper” (Datta 240),which is folded into a parcel with a mouse and a handful of embers inside;

f)       discovery: the shreds of the garment shock Tejimola, and on her return after the wedding, she is brutally beaten up for the loss;

g)      the body violence magnifies when she is being dragged to the assigned place of death, the rice pounding dheki, the symbolic guillotine;

h)      the rhythmic supply of paddy in the hole is disturbed and the stepmother pounds Tejimola’s body parts one by one, leading to dismemberment and demise;

i)       hiding of the dead body: her pulp was accumulated and hidden in the eaves of the rice pounding shed, and she grew back as a pumpkin plant, discovered by a beggar woman; she re-grew as a shaddock tree, discovered by the cowherds, then into a lotus plant/water-lily in the river to be discovered by the boatman and her returning father;

j)       the validation of truth: Tejimola transforms into a bird (myna) and validates her truth by eating her father’s chewed areca; then she submits to the comforting cage of her father;

k)      back at home, the confrontation begins; through magic, the father transforms Tejimola into a human again;

l)       the merchant drove his wife away, and in some versions asked her to walk a thread on top of a well, where she falls and dies owing to her falsity. 

In the line of thought of Edwin Sidney Hartland’s (in The Science of Fairytales) idea of märchen and Dean Thompson’s motif index (in Motif Index of Folk-Literature), well known Assamese folklore researcher Prafulladatta Goswami (Ballads and Tales of Assam) remarks of the tale as “a world where birds and beasts think like men and where things change their form whenever it is necessary” (Goswami 84-85). The dismemberment is widespread in the twelve points we have structured in the tale. To reconfigure the body as the centre of ideas and not a dualistic compromised “other” of the mind, Elizabeth Grosz overcomes the “common metaphors that have been used to describe the interactions of mind and body, metaphors of embodiment, of containment, machine metaphors, two-sided coins, hydraulic models” (Grosz xii). The use of the dismemberment metaphor aligns with Grosz’s use of Lacan’s möbius strip, a model where body and mind are both integrated with the other. The narrative of Tejimola begins with her separation from the maternal body leaving her with her father. Her stepmother intervenes with hatred and jealousy, causing a filial dismemberment of the original structure. The separation, which was at the behest of a psychological conflict, turns physical with the departure of the merchant father. This builds the ground for inflicting torture. The stepmother, shown as a villainous character (in the surface level), plots against the victim girl, commanding Herculean household tasks, and in the real sense of the term breaks her back with sticks and brooms. Popular cinematic representation of the story in Kothanodi (2015 feature film, based on renditions of Tejimola, Champawati, Ou Kuwori and Tawoir Xadhu) has developed a catalyst to instigate villainy in the stepmother. This catalyst figure is a grotesque body type, sometimes an old hag with a hunchback, sometimes a ghostly forest figure with carnal traits. It is an inclusion to the oral narrative and Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s story. However, we cannot totally neglect the fact that Tejimola’s mother is a foil to the innocent and complacent nature of her daughter, and such female with agency have often been shown in a dangerous light in fairytales (Christy Williams). It is only through the grotesque trope which has historically challenged authority (king, dictators) and literary canon that the marginal women in the story partake in an active role.

Tejimola is not an isolated being, detached from societal communications. She confides to a friend about her problems. But it is her friend’s marriage and the consequent lack of proximity ordained by the patriarchal set up that is to eventually isolate her. With marriage comes the question of inheritance of the mother’s clothes. Riha, mekhela and khonia are garments that embody this aspect. In Tejimola’s case, her stepmother lends her the traditional garments with malice. Tejimola, on reaching her friend’s house opens the parcel to find dismembered pieces of clothes. In this context, the sheds of clothes appear as a dismemberment metaphor, a prolepsis to her body decadence. Dismemberment is a signifier which has plural significations in a socially constructed feminine world; exemplars being clitoridectomy or clitorectomy, female fetishization, which shreds the body with biased interests in specific body part (mostly sexual organs). However, in this text Tejimola is a prototype of dead women speaking back to claim one’s already dismantled stature as a confined woman in the house, thereby posthumously claiming mobility. To quote “these dead women, at least the more literary ones, constitute a tradition sin which writers address pressing social issues that refuse to stay dead” (Norman 1). In Tejimola’s story, it is the patriarchal kinship structure, hierarchy, land rights and the confinement/unspeakability of women.

In the essay, “Representing Dead and Dying Bodies”, Sandra L. Gilman explores two types of death; one, when aesthetics disbelieve the reality of death and preserves the body through literature and art, the other being the Hellenistic tradition that de-aestheticized death with realism.  When we talk about the material body of Tejimola, although there is a portrayal of body horror in her dying, she undergoes a type of literary death, preserved in amber of words, through Bezbaroa’s work. To quotes, “Literary death is in truth a denial of death” (Maude et al. 151). The death of Tejimola ensue multiple metamorphosed body types. A significant thing to note here is the attribute of fluidity and mobility explored by these new metaphors. The pumpkin plant which is the first manifestation of Tejimola after death is a creeper which has some agentiality on its own accord. Like the pumpkin, the shaddock fruit, the second manifestation of Tejimola, has a similarity of form. The texture of the outer cover differs from the inward flesh, analogous to the human form. The body fluids ooze on being smashed. The third manifestation of the dead woman as the lotus, floating unfixed in the river, is a testimony of her liminality. The regulation of these three metamorphosed feminine bodies is incomplete without the perspective of the stepmother as the “other” creator, integrally involved in the process. The dismemberment metaphor connects the two obvious women in the story: Tejimola and her mother, the one who endures and the perpetrator (always debatable) respectively. The stepmother dislocates Tejimola from her roots, in any living form, forcing her to recreate her own body. Like Frankenstein’s monster Tejimola’s body is resurrected not only in corporeality, but also in the act of reading the story again and again, or recreating it in film, poetry (Nitoo Das’s “Tejimola”, Uddipana Goswami’s “Tejimola Forever”) and fiction (Aruni Kashyap’s His Father’s Disease). “Whether heralded or denied, this notion of a death denied through the act of reading is the lynchpin of literary deaths” (Maude et al. 155). The unending interpretations of the story makes Tejimola’s body a palimpsest of its own kind.

If the structure of the house is the location of Tejimola as a woman, her dead body is continually distanced from it. The stepmother performs as a synergist, while Tejimola transfigures her fluids into other kinds. From the interior of the house she is dragged away to the point of death (the dheki house), from there she is hidden in the “eaves of the rice pounding shed” (Datta 241). The sight of the creeping pumpkin plant shakes the conscience of the stepmother. “The merchant’s wife understood what it was and went with a knife to the spot and cut the plant off, root and all, and threw it away in a remote corner of her garden” (Datta 242). Tejimola’s subhuman identity is expressed in language as “it” a thing, waiting for a cut. The brutal act of the knife causes a second death to Tejimola. She then physically moves away from her house to the garden area, transforming into a juicy shaddock, as if sexually tempting the cowherds. The stepmother then “went to the spot and uprooted it completely and threw it into the river” (Datta 242). The river is the farthest location from the house, in the storyline. It is the exterior where Tejimola is pushed to. Soon “in one of its shallow pools, it rested as a lovely water-lily” (Datta 242). Rest here essentially means a grave. “If you be really my own Tejimola you will appear as a myna and chew the areca on my left hand...The lily at once transformed into a myna” (Datta 243).

The analogy of women as the embodiment of food has been a part of Assamese folktales, analogous to the folktale literature around the world. The grotesque nature of feasting is latent in Bezbaroa’s story. Elizabeth Grosz insists on avoiding a metaphor which implies a structural homology or one-to-one-correlation. Instead, meanings should be plural, twisted, ambiguous. The treatment of Tejimola can be related to the role of the banquet by Bakhtin; to do so the feasting images need to be extended in the following manner of meaning-making:

a)      the beggar woman wants to eat the pumpkin also becomes the beggar woman wants to eat Tejimola;

b)      the cow herders want to pluck the shaddock, cut it open and relish; this implies the sexual interest of the cow herders, where the fruit resembles a woman with body fluids;

c)      Tejimola transforms into a myna bird and chews on the areca spat out by her father; a view of ejection which hints at Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel images of feasting at one’s own body fluids.

Tejimola is seen as an essential property/object of love to her father, and hence his own self, whose proximity is culturally defined by this image of ingestion. This can be related to the latent carnivalesque of the lower strata of society. It is their act of feasting, which mocks the established order of edible and inedible food. In this case, there is a parallel mockery of the animate and inanimate body of Tejimola. To quote, “food images are connected with those of the body and of procreation (fertility, growth, birth)” (Bakhtin 279). In folktales, according to Bakhtin, death is not the end of the story, but it has the potentiality of new beginnings, in this case, hinted by the banquet imagery. If we consider the dismemberment images of the beggar woman devouring Tejimola’s dead body or the cow herders relishing her, the story reconstructs itself into newer models of anthropophagus and necrophiliac individuals. Such type of imagery is relatable to the body-oriented metaphors like “the rhizome, assemblage, machine, desire, multiplicity, becoming, and the Body without Organs (BwO)” (Grosz 167). It re-centres the location of death, making it multidimensional. Recent developments of vegetal intelligence in the field of botany, performance studies, culture, hermeneutics talk about the somatic being, recreating its rhizomatic thread; theories forwarded by M.Marder, T. Morton, A. Olsen, M. Hall, L.Irigaray, M. Gagliano, D.Chamovitz, etc. They see the plant-being (in our case Tejimola) as instinctive, self-created, with negative and positive gravitropism (D. Chamovitz), with judgement of thinking (Marder draws from Hegel), capable of adapting and resurrecting. However, when the vegetal becomes corporeal in effect, the addition and deduction which goes into the picture of the human anatomy gives rise to a spectral grotesqueness, a flesh drama. The aesthetics of blood is a development streamed from Bezbaroa’s Tejimola-tale which has been taken up by feminist endeavours like the “disposable theatre” by Kankhowa.

The intensity of grotesque is manipulated in the cinematic representations of “Tejimola”. In the oral narrative, the grotesque is created by the use of words. It is true, however, that bodies in pain have an inexpressible quality to it when it comes to adequate disclosure (Elaine Scarry). In the case of cinema, the use of profound colours, their symbolic dimensions provoke meanings. Tejimola’s pain has taken the visual effect of the contrast of red trickling and flowing in the white colour (of the rice flour), followed by an earthy combination of brown and green. In cinema, the stepmother’s villainy is also regulated by the performance and direction. While the Assamese VCD film starring Barsha Rani Bishaya, showed the stepmother engulfed in guilt and pain after her act of torture, weeping with a hand on her chest on the death of her daughter, the recent adaptation Kothanodi (2015) shows the mother in a fit of schizophrenia, taken by the madness of laughter, leisurely burying the body. This minute difference has a lot to do in comprehending the effect of dismemberment on the executer herself. In the first case, the sight of broken arms, the spillage of blood sends a shock wave, furthered by a reckless escape from the event, trying to erase the body totally. The latest film, however, puts it differently, where the stepmother, in a more carnival spirit admires her exploit. This aggravates the impact of the dismantled body. 

The Assamese culture portrayed in the story “Tejimola” is phallocentric in nature. There is a hierarchy in human relations, where the master-slave or dominant-submissive binary persists. The problem is evident in the lack of security faced by the stepmother in the structure of the family. In some versions, she is shown to be threatened by the overarching masculine presence of her husband, often beaten, ridiculed, undermined for being childless. Bezbaroa’s children tale filters out such details. The stepmother uses the same tool of power, and revokes in a dangerous way (like in a revenge drama), harming her husband’s precious Tejimola. Although the resurrected body of Tejimola is seen as uncanny and fantastical in nature, the critic Norman Brian argues, it is through speech that the posthumous woman, asserts her rights, previously denied to her (Norman, 4).

Tejimola dies multiple deaths. However, she asserts her life through elegiac songs. The beggar woman is taken aback by the words: ““stretch not thy hands nor pluck a pumpkin- thou strange beggar woman, my stepmother did crush me for the silk clothes and it is I, Tejimola”” (Datta 242).  Again, she warns the cowherders saying: ““Oh, my brothers dear, cowherd boys of the village, neither stretch your hand nor pluck the fruits- return home- it is I, Tejimola who am buried here crushed to death by my stepmother”” (Datta 242). The song also reached the ears of the father, this time Tejimola yearned saying: ““Father dear, neither stretch your hands nor pluck the lily. It is I, Tejimola who was crushed to death by the stepmother only for the silk clothes”” (Datta 243). The silk cloth becomes a significant aspect of the metaphor map in the story. It turns out to be a “source”, and the body of Tejimola the “target”, the characters (beggar woman, cowherders, boatman, father) are being led to, and in fact the readers as well. But, Tejimola’s self-articulated mourning, makes her own body a metaphor (source domain), leading to the cruelty of her stepmother (target domain). Goschler says, “The difficulties increase in emotion metaphors where it is hard to decide what is source and what is target domain.” (Goschler 47). 

The structural division of the story of Tejimola, extracted from the written and oral record, have enabled us to evaluate the matrix of body horror. The dismemberment metaphor highlights the female body of Tejimola, which is seen at the threshold of life and death. She is the nodal point where nuances of Assamese culture, fatal causes of murder, forms of vegetal reincarnate meet.  In the variegated written versions and cinematic representations, a sort of narrative manipulation occurs, which reshapes the body of Tejimola. The equation of the narrator and the narratee keeps on changing: sometimes between the grandmother and grandchildren in storytelling methods, or teaching in a classroom situation, also in communication of characters and readers, or performers and audience on a stage/cinema, thereby making Tejimola’s dismembered body an elastic metaphor. There are layers of dismemberment which are projected in adjacent objects as well, like shredded clothes and physical distance from the frame of the house. Tejimola is “re-presented” in the story, and her death is a literary death that allows her to speak from the other end of the world, return and resume a new life, eschewing all possibilities of finality and non-being. Bezbaroa’s character has the abject quality that Julia Kristeva insists as one who “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4), in the process of dying and resurrection. Lisa K. Perdigao’s monograph titled From Modernist Entombment to Postmodernist Exhumation: Dead Bodies in Twentieth-Century American Fiction (2010) discusses the difference between the modern burial/ entombment of the dead body and the postmodern exhumation (excavation) of the corpse. In that line of thought, Tejimola is a sheer exhumation. She is excavated and uprooted within the textual frame, creating a grotesqueness, exquisite and aesthetic in nature.  Tejimola’s body is a text in itself, with body inscriptions, loaded signification, signifying a breakage from the traditional setup of the Assamese society and nonnarratibility as a woman. In correlation to the grotesque aesthetics, which “subverts our categorical expectations concerning the natural and ontological order” (Caroll 308), the corporal in Bezbaroa’s text escapes the limitations of bodily matter. Tejimola straddles the boundaries of real and hyperreal/magical and stands out as architect of her origin.  Intertwined with the dismemberment metaphor(s) within the text, her body renegotiates the linear aspect of death and femininity, through its interpretative textual openings.


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