Bhikhari Thakur (8 December 1887 to 10 July 1971) was one of the greatest folklorists of modern India. My book, The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar, carries one of his representative folktales, ‘Gabargichore’.
Galeej, a youth hailing from a low caste, got married to a woman of the same caste and equal status. She was from the neighbouring village. He brought his bride in a palanquin—a local band party in tow—and began living with her in a small hut in his village.
The pangs of poverty did not allow marital bliss to last long. He soon left for the city in search of livelihood, leaving his wife behind. She began working in the agriculture fields and managed to make ends meet by planting paddy seedlings, sowing wheat seeds and removing weed from landowners’ plots. She was beautiful, but her poverty had weighed her down, robbing her off her youthful exuberance.
Weeks turned into months and months into years. The woman waited for her husband to return. She nurtured the dream that her man would come one day, bringing her garments and jewellery. She grieved for him every day. But Galeej did not return even after fifteen years.
Eventually, in Galeej’s long absence, his wife and another youth, Gadbadi, got into a physical relationship and a son was born. The villagers named the boy Gabarghichor—a name questioning the legitimacy of his birth. But she raised him with all her motherly care and love.
As the years passed, Gabarghichor turned thirteen, and began accompanying his mother to the farms and helping her with her chores. With a son in the house, the woman was no longer lonely. However, some villagers made snide remarks, teasing Gabarghichor and describing his mother as a woman of easy virtue. But it made no difference to the mother and son, who shared a bond of love and trust.
As it so happened, a villager went to the city where Galeej was working and updated him on the affairs at home. Galeej was living a wretched existence in the city. He pulled a thela for a living and squandered whatever he earned on country liquor and prostitutes. He had almost forgotten his wife and home.
As the villager told him about his wife and son, he was filled with nostalgia. He got excited to learn that he had been ‘blessed’ with a son who was grown up now. The villager advised him to return to the village and take care of his family.
‘If I bring my son to the city, he can work with me and increase our earnings. We could live a better life,’ Galeej thought and instantly left for his village. His wife’s joy knew no bounds when she saw her husband after many long years. She introduced Gabarghichor to his father and asked him to touch his feet. Galeej hugged him warmly.
After a couple of days, Galeej asked his wife to let Gabarghichor go with him to the city. The wife objected, ‘I suffered immense loneliness in your absence. I survived because of Gabarghichor. You should live with us and give up the idea of going back to the city.’
Gabarghichor agreed with his mother. ‘What is the harm if all of us live together in the village? But if you still insist to take me, take my mother along too. I won’t go alone with you.’
The ephemeral bonhomie between the couple fell like ninepins. The wife and husband broke into a vicious quarrel. While Galeej and his wife were fighting, Gadbadi, who lived in the neighbourhood, came to claim Gabarghichor.
‘You lived in the city for fifteen years. Gabarghichor was born and grew up in your absence. How can you claim my son? I have fathered Gabaghichor, which you can confirm with your wife,’ Gadbadi said to Galeej.
Galeej turned to his wife. The woman said, ‘Yes, I slept with Gadbadi once in a moment of loneliness. But that does not mean Gabarghichor is Gadbadi’s son. Gabarghichor was born from my womb. I am his mother, and hence, I am the sole custodian of my son.’
Unable to sort out their differences, Gadbadi, Galeej and the woman agreed to call a panch to settle the issue. The panch—an upper caste Brahmin commonly referred to as Baba—came to settle the row.
The panch first called Gadbadi, asking him angrily, ‘How can you claim to be Gabarghichor’s father? Are you married to the woman? Has anyone seen you tie the knot with her? Has anyone attended your wedding party? How can you prove that Gabarghichor is your son?’
Gadbadi pleaded, ‘Baba! Listen to me patiently. Suppose I get an empty wallet lying abandoned on the streets. I fill it with my money. Later, the actual owner of the wallet comes in and identifies his wallet. What should I do?’
After a pause, when the panch didn’t answer, Gadbadi replied to his own question, ‘I should take out my money and give the wallet back to the owner. Thus, you should allow my asset Gabarghichor to be with me and the woman can be with Galeej.’
The panch pondered over Gadbadi’s plea. He asked Galeej to put forth his point. Galeej argued, ‘Gadbadi is talking nonsense. Suppose I sow a seed of pumpkin in my courtyard and its stems and shoots spread out to the neighbour’s hut. If my plant bears a fruit on the neighbour’s hut, it does not belong to the neighbour. The fruit belongs to the owner of the plant.’
The panch now called the woman, asking her to explain her stand. She said, ‘Galeej and Gadbadi are talking rubbish. Gabarghichor was born from my womb. Imagine, I have a bucketful of milk. If someone adds a pinch of joran to help process the milk into curd, he can’t claim the entire curd. Gadbadi can’t claim Gabarghichor just because he lent me a few drops of his virya. Gabarghichor is mine.’
‘It is a tricky situation. What is the way out?’ the panch mused.
Gadbadi, Galeej and the woman again broke into a squabble. The other elders of the village joined them, asking them to wait patiently for the panch’s decision. ‘Once you have called a panch, you must cooperate with him in reaching a conclusion,’ a village elder said, asking the panch to settle the row.
The panch resumed the negotiation process. He asked Gabarghichor, ‘Who do you want to live with? What is your wish?’
Gabarghichor said, ‘If you allow me to have my wish, I will prefer to live with my mother. But I will agree to whatever you decide.’
Now, the panch called the woman to ask her why she had slept with another man. The woman argued, ‘Gadbadi would come to my door every morning and evening with a sad face. He repeatedly begged me… Like me, he, too, lived alone. He suggested we have pleasure to beat our boredom. Once, I yielded to his persuasion. Itna hi toh baat hai (That is all there is to it).’
Gadbadi and Galeej, guessing that the panch was inclined towards the woman, thought of bribing the panch.
Gadbadi cornered the panch and offered him `200 for letting Gabarghichor be with him. Galeej, then, cornered the panch and offered him `500 to get the decision in his favour.
Noticing that the two men were trying to bribe the panch, the woman came forward to plead, ‘Baba! I have no money to give. But if you let my son be with me, I will be obliged to you and serve you my entire life.’
But the panch took the bribe from both Gadbadi and Galeej, pronouncing his judgement, ‘Gabarghichor should be hacked into three equal pieces to be shared among Gadbadi, Galeej and the woman. Gabarghichor belongs to all three and no one can claim sole custody on him.’
Gadbadi and Galeej accepted the decision. Gabarghichor was made to sleep on the ground and a butcher was called to hack him into three equal pieces. The villagers gathered to see the act of ‘justice’.
As the butcher whipped out his knife, the woman intervened, pleading to the panch, ‘Baba! Listen to me before my son is slaughtered.’
The panch said, ‘What do you want to say now? The decision has been made.’
She said, ‘I am a mother. I can’t see the son I’ve raised with so much love and hardship getting slaughtered before my eyes. It is better you give him either to Gadbadi or Galeej. I withdraw my claim on him.’
The panch realized that the mother was the only one of the three who really loved and cared for him. He announced, ‘Gabarghichor will remain with his mother. Both Galeej and Gadbadi are sinners. They should be ostracized by society and driven out of the village.’
(Decisions taken with wit and wisdom always lead to justice.)