Book: ‘The Bronze Sword Of Thengphakhri Tehsildar’. By Mamoni Raisom
The brave Bodo women Thengphakhri remembered as well as the Jnanpith Award winner Mamoni Raisom Goswami . Rich tributes were paid to the Goswami on her third death anniversary across Assam. The Bodos remembered the writer of the Book: ‘The Bronze Sword Of Thengphakhri Tehsildar’.
The author had soft corner for the Bodos and worked for the uplift of Bodo literature. In fact, one of her last works Goswami was a novel called ‘Thengfakhri’ based on the life of a fiery woman revenue collector of the Bodo community in Assam during the British Colonial period. In The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, her last work of fiction, Assamese litterateur Indira Goswami draws her protagonist from a popular Bodo legend. Thengphakhri was a tehsildar (tax collector) in Bijni kingdom in lower Assam that was then ruled by the British.
It was the late 19th century and Thengphakhri was the first woman to fill the post.With her ‘long, shiny hair conditioned by elephant-apple juice’, Thengphakhri rode her horse from village to village collecting taxes at a time when, elsewhere in the sub-continent, women seldom stepped out of their homes, child marriages were common and, in a kingdom nearby, five queens burned on their husband’s pyre.Relying on oral sources, Goswami’s book reconstructs Thengphakhri’s extraordinary life.
In the process, she touches on the social and political history of the Bodos, an indigenous Assamese tribe, whose lives have seldom been chronicled. This bypassing of the Bodos in Assam’s history is one of the main reasons for the Bodo movement in the late 1980s.Goswami faced trouble while researching this book because of the lack of historical sources on Bodo life and history. In fact, critics contested the veracity of the details of Thengphakhri’s life when the book was first published in the Assamese language in 2009.But then this is a novel that relies heavily on oral folklore in the absence of conventional documentation.Thengphakhri, a quiet but feisty widow, is a woman of few words who takes on misogyny in an unassuming way. Goswami chronicles her journey from village girl to tehsildar and later as a rebel against the colonial rulers through her thoughts and actions. In translator Aruni Kashyap’s words, the book ‘is interested not in the dramatic consequences of her choice, but in this complex, slow transformation’.Thengphakhri did not possess extraordinary strength, but her prowess in sword-fighting and horse-riding propelled her to a position very few women could then dream of. Her pedigree helped. Her grandfather was an employee of the British and taught her how to hold the sword as a child. Thengphakhri impressed the British in Bijni when she shot a man-eater mid-air as he pounced on an unsuspecting villager on the banks of the Brahmaputra. They first appointed her izardar, and promoted her to tehsildar, within a year. Thengphakri was initially in favour of the British because they shielded the people from incursions by the Bhutanese army.
However, she soon faced an inner conflict when she found the colonial taxes were milking poor farmers of their last pennies in a drought-hit year. The novel ends with Thengphakhri picking up her famed bronze sword to join the underground nationalist movement. The book is not as moving as Goswami’s other novels — The Shadow of Kamakhya, Pages stained with Blood or The Moth-Eaten Howdah of the Tusker. It has none of the rawness, sudden metaphors hiding within mundane activities and complex conflicts typical of a Goswami novel. It is almost as if, in her last offering, Goswami chose to exit quietly.