Thakumar Jhuli by Mitra Majumder is a classic Bengali folklore that you would remember growing up with. The show used to feature on Sundays on Zee Bangla and DD Bangla too. An entire generation of children in West Bengal would curl up on the sofas with the Sunday breakfast to hear a ‘notun golpo’(new story) from Thakuma. But can we as grown adults hold Thakumar Jhuli guilty of demonisation of females in its folklore?
For the uninitiated, the theme of the series is a Grandmother telling stories to her ever-fascinated children. Thakuma’s Jhuli (Grandmother’s bag of tales) here can be compared to Pandora’s box where there is a never-ending supply of one delightful story after the other owing to popular demand. The creatures from her Jhuli are as fascinating as items from Pandora’s box.
‘Thakumar Jhuli eibar khulbe
Shono shono Thakuma golpo bolbe
Thakumar Jhuli khulbe
Mojar golpo bolbe!
Does this bring back memories?
There is no doubt about the fact that Thakumar Jhuli is a beloved part of Bengali reading children’s childhood. If one had to rate top favourites, Raja-Rani (King and Queen) and Bhoot-Petni (Ghosts) would make it to every child’s list.
Now that I begin to reflect on Bhoot-Petni which allowed a child to peek into the supernatural world, I can recall a lot of Petnis from Thakuma’s Jhuli. It is a child’s nature to believe their elders’ stories blindly. However, it is not always in an adult woman’s nature who saw a lot of her gender being demonised, to hold those same beliefs.
Most of the ghost narratives in media build a supernatural story portraying the disturbed spirits of women and children. If one were to ask someone to picture a ghost, the easy picture of a restless female following us to our washrooms at 3 AM comes to mind. Male ghosts, if they ever existed in one’s figments of imagination, can be seen sulking in a corner for not being taken seriously.
Thakuma brought her children an unlimited supply of female demons and ghosts that would make a child’s bone chill. The dwindling number of feeble male ghosts often pales compared to a child.
One such character that would spook the child even in daylight is Sakhchunni from Thakumar Jhuli.
Suggested Reading: Women Mythological Characters Who Were Feminists
Who Is Sakhchunni From Thakumar Jhuli And How Does Folklore Forward Demonisation Of Females?
Thakuma or the narrator introduces Sakhchunni as a female demon who lives in a tree. In her first monologue to us, Sakhchunni tells us that she desires to be a wife. She isn’t lesser than other women in beauty or skills therefore it frustrates her when she isn’t someone’s first choice. She conveys that she is jealous of Bamuner Bou (Bramhim’s wife) as she gets all the love from her husband, while she sits in her tree unappreciated by Bamun (Brahmin).
She desires to be this particular Brahmin’s wife and she finds that opportunity one day when the his wife is out late in the evening. She disguises herself as an old lady and tricks the wife. She interrogates her on her opinion of the Sakhchunni that lives in the tree. The wife had never met the demon herself but reveals that she’s been told that the Sakhchunni is a very ugly-looking female.
Angry and upset by such an admission Sakhchunni captures the Brahmin’s wife. She disguises herself as her and then later returns to aforementioned Brahmin’s house.
Upon reaching the house, instead of hurting the family members as the audience would expect from a vindictive demon, she surprisingly decides to be a dutiful daughter-in-law. She does all of the household chores and earns praise for it as a Bhalo Bouma(good wife). However, the mother-in-law recognised her as the Shakchunni when Sakhchunni decided to serve her food like a dutiful daughter-in-law while eating.
When the Brahmin comes home his mother sends her son to get an Ojha (sorcerer) to rid themselves of the evil demon. Sakhchunni expectantly comes out of her room to meet with the Brahmin, whose wife she had desired to be for a long time. However, she is met with an evil Ojha.
“Ami Sakhchunni, bhebechilam Bamuner Bou sheje shukhe ghor korbo”
“Shukhe ghor korachi Toke! Holud fora shorshe marbo jhata jorshe!” saying so the Ojha engulfed her with his spells in a ring of fire to burn her. He kept hurting her till Sakhchunni relented injured and relinquished the house after returning their Bouma to them.
A child watching the story is captivated by Sakhchunni’s fire-spitting mouth, extending long arms and neck, and green skin. An adult woman however cannot help but wonder what purpose demonising a woman for wanting marital life served.
Sakhchunni if deprived of her supernatural abilities is a representation of every woman that does not fit into society’s set beauty standards. Such women often find themselves shelved on a tree like Sakhchunni on the marriage market. They are cast aside and replaced by other women who meet society’s appraisal standards.
If you look around, every dark-skinned Indian woman, Dalit woman, disabled woman, transgender woman, short woman, tall woman, obese woman, skinny woman, and every other kind of woman who doesn’t fit the box is a Sakhchunni. Should they then be demonised for having been deprived of privileges that other women seemingly enjoy? It is not unnatural for them to covet what they do not have. Should all of them then be set to fire for ever having acted on their desires?
Having witch trials for women is not a practice that is unheard of. Unfortunately, even as a twenty-first-century netizen one cannot claim to come from a society that has relinquished such practices. Society still puts Sakhchunnis they do not approve of on the pyre. This month saw Rita Devi burnt alive on the accusation of witchcraft in Bihar.
The perverse sense of joy of the people around as Sakhchunni cries out in pain begging to be let go of is the picture of every misogynistic body that commits violence against women.
Sakhchunni is culpable of having the audacity to dream of more when society had already labelled her rotten.
The views expressed are the author’s own.