Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!
But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.
‘I am sick of this!’ she grunted loudly.
Ilaa loosened the scarf that covered her beautiful black tresses and enjoyed the waft of cool air on her face. She saw her reflection in the clear Godavari waters. Working in the sun had made her complexion a very pleasant copper and her jade black hair complemented the look. She knew she was not fair skinned like Latika who never had to be in the fields, thanks to her landlord father; nor did she have curves like Archana who danced like poetry and every festival men swooned over her…. yet there was something about her, she knew it….
“No one can deny you have the most enchanting doe shaped eyes…!!”; Ilaa failed to hear the footsteps as Archana’s reflection came through. Both girls started giggling, in a manner fit only for loose girls; as her mother might comment.
Archana settled on a rock besides her friend, no other woman spoke to her as she was a devdasi. But Ilaa was different… Ilaa knew so many things about history, numbers, Vedas and equality of genders. She loved it when Ilaa talked nonstop and enlightened her. She mused; I wish I could be learned like her….
“So what happened today?” Archana asked concerned by her friends’ remark a short while back.
“Was I that loud!!?” Ilaa retorted while she tied back her scarf, taking care to cover the last strand of her hair.
“You were so loud the village zamindaar heard!” Archana said, imitating Ilaa’s mom. This just left the girls with more chuckles.
As they sat down enjoying raw tamarind from the tree on the banks, Ilaa spoke. “It is so humid….!! Yet I am covering myself from head to toe. I don’t understand why aai is so adamant about this. Look at you! You can braid your hair, let them loose, wear flowers … look exquisite, and here I am with this old saree tied to my head.”
“Such restrictions exist for you because your mother knows you are beautiful and wants the village wolves to back off till you are married. Trust me once you have the mangalsutra around your neck you can wear your hair as you like. Besides, the cover does little to hide your beauty.”
Ilaa looked at Archana and marveled…. how simply she has made the situation seem better for me. Her words are so comforting. All the hardships she has gone through have made her so wise. How can she not be unhappy? No woman would want to be a devdasi! The torture she must be going through daily, serving all and sundry in the name of being married to God…Ironical!! Why doesn’t she show anger or worse remorse? I wish I could be free spirited like her…
“It’s not just the weather, I heard kaka and his friends discussing, how they would get lucky with the free marijuana and liquor when the traders get here next week. It’s sickening to see men vying for such vices in exchange of unfair barter! Women have to manage the household on whatever men decide for the crop. Our contribution in the fields is equal if not more! I must speak to Milind; being a bookkeeper appointed by the state, he must know the fair rates!”
“You like Milind…..” Archana teased.
“I don’t” Ilaa protested rather feebly. How can someone not like him! He had come from Aurangabad to work here. He was the most literate one in the village and very helpful. Though Ilaa never interacted with him in person, she felt he was not like other men…he looked progressive…handsome…!
“Whenever we meet; the conversation involves Milind. And during the village fair, I have observed the way he looks at you.”
“He never said anything to me…. What if he likes men and not women?” Ilaa said with forced seriousness, this made both of them double up again. Any discussion of men being with men and women with women was a taboo! Ilaa knew from her books in Paithan, this was not only acceptable in the past, but was also used as adornment in some ancient temples! Here in Sauviragram people had long forgotten freedom of any kind. They just lived their lives mechanically, programmed to follow dogmatic rituals and women got the worst share. If only they realized that gender was never a hurdle back in the Vedic days!
“I think I must return, Baba will know I am missing.”
“And Milind too! He does not take breaks far from his office for nothing!” Archana reminded. They chuckled and went their ways.
Ilaa walked back to discover Iraa being shouted at by her father. She immediately picked up her pace and stood between them. “What is it baba? Why have you brought her back to the fields? I told you I will do her share of chores.”
“Ilaa, this is harvest time …. I know how you keep talking about studying and self-defense but I cannot afford a pair of hands off the fields. Women must be proficient in managing good household and providing all the help we men need and not waste too much time on books.”
“I will fill in for her….”
Not wanting to waste more time, her father did not protest. Ilaa wanted her younger sister to be shielded from the rigmaroles of a typical village girl. At least that was a start to do something for village women, she believed….
As Ilaa got back to picking the delicate flowers, her thoughts went back to the time when she was sent to her grandmother’s place at Paithan, as her father was in debt. At 14 she detested the idea of leaving her family, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She was exposed to the magical world of books and learning. Being a quick learner she picked up so much information in a short span of time. Her grandmother taught her so many things and told her stories of the Vedic times when women participated in all activities equally. Women were in true sense Ardhanginis.
Thanks to Eknathji and his teachings, Paithan gave women equal rights.
Her Grandmother also explained how due to invaders and their treatment of native women, men had become more protective of women, unfortunately reducing their status eventually. This had spread like an illness so much so that in some communities women had to use veils!
It was nearing sun set. Men were filling their pipes for a smoke before heading home and women were picking dried sticks for the evening meal’s fire.
“We ensure the fire is burning, cook tasty meals, give birth, raise children and even slog in the fields; but have no say in fixing the harvest price. Wow!!” thought Ilaa. She collected some twigs and on her way back could not resist looking at herself one last time in the river.
She reached the banks and bent down to look at herself. As she motioned to take off her scarf; a snake came out of nowhere, making her lose her balance and she fell into the Godavari waters…
Of all the things she learnt, swimming she could never master. And now, as end was inevitable; I could not do so many things in life she thought as she lost consciousness….
Ilaa…open your eyes….. She could hear someone from a distance. She coughed up water and saw Milind leaning on her.
Ilaa immediately bolted upright making unsuccessful attempts to cover herself with her drenched cotton saree. “Me, I…” she stammered.
“You are beautiful!” he said not taking his eyes off her once.
Ilaa could feel the color draining from her face. How he found me here? He looked so enticing, small water droplets dripping on his chiseled face, pausing just a little at his dimples……
“I was just looking for some firewood and slipped.” Saying aloud she started to leave; but he caught her by the elbow just in time. Ilaa’s flesh burned and the fact that she was dripping from head to toe did not help in bringing the temperature down.
She turned to face him and muttered. “Milind, I..”
“Ilaa tai..…” Iraa’s concerned voices came from a distance. ”I must leave.” She urged, trying ever so meekly to let go of his grip.
“I will, if you meet me here tomorrow morning before everyone is in the fields, promise me.” He said hopefully.
She nodded shyly and he let her go. A tad disappointed that he had agreed so easily, she ran in her sister’s direction not looking back once, lest she would change her course.
Back home she changed and pondered about what all could have happened if Iraa was a little late….Her thoughts were disturbed by her father calling for her.
She got busy with assisting baba in counting the bales, helping Iraa with mathematics and Aai with dinner. As she lay down, sleep evaded her. Ilaa thought how again this year they would not get a fair share for the cotton crop. While men would just leave it to Gods or take the cowardly way out and finish off their lives; women will be left to make ends meet and fend for the family. Archana’s mother was forced to marry her daughter to God due to this! Her aai had lost all her jewelry to the money lenders. Young girls were either married off too early or had to work at the Zamindaar’s place to earn an extra dime.
Early next morning Ilaa was busy with the household chores when she saw her saree in the aangan on the clothesline, leaving all tasks aside, she rushed to the river and saw Milind waiting for her.
Ilaa caught up to him and he motioned her to sit down. No sooner had she settled, Milind said “Ilaa, I heard you and Archana talk yesterday.”
“You..What?” She blurted, so what did we talk about yesterday she quickly started thinking….
“Yes” he continued “I feel the way you do, and think something should be done about this…”
Good Lord! Is he following her and hence could save her?!!Did he hear the part where they talked about him! But that isn’t bad as he feels the same way. I hope I said yes when Archana asked I liked him …He looked at me so endearingly yesterday…surely he should know how I feel…Oh God this is so difficult….Nothing much can be done about what happened yesterday…she sighed and braced herself for the inevitable..
“I too think we are getting cheated in the barter system by the Paithan traders. This time around we need to take some action.”
“Barter…what?” Ilaa exclaimed…this is not what she wanted to talk about! Not now that is…not after yesterday….
“You think women should get a say in important decisions; and prices are unfairly settled for cotton by bribing the village men…right?”
“Yes” she was suddenly interested.
“I know from friends in Paithan that cotton from Sauviragram is top class and we are not getting a fair share from the traders…” he continued.
“I have been telling all my friends and womenfolk the same thing. It is important that they participate in vital decisions. They need to be told that we are the backbone of a family and in Vedic times we were even termed as ardhangini. Equal to a man…” she said.
“Why don’t we surprise men this time at the bazaar? You can go about convincing womenfolk to ask for an equal share, while I in the meantime explain to men what their crop deserved and that we have been underpaid.”
“Sounds like a plan!!…Women just need a catalyst, something for which they feel strongly and can be mobilized for…. men commit suicides when the funds don’t last the season, then women are left to fend for the family…I think they must act to come out of this situation”
The conversation did not go as she expected yet surprisingly she found this gave her more thrill. Finally she had someone who thought like her.
The next week passed quickly. She helped on the farm, and snuck out to tell women how they need to run the household on shoe-string budget because of unfair prices they got. They needed to step out and speak up instead of slowly losing their heirlooms to the Mahajans and dignity to the rich. She told them they deserved equality as per the ancient traditions and how due to circumstances they had been reduced to second grade citizens.
Initially women laughed it off. But when she told them the advantages of it and gave examples of farmer suicides and girls being made devdasis; some started coming over to her side. Their plan had to be discreet so that the men wouldn’t discourage the idea.
Though they met a few times later in the week the conversation between her and Milind was restricted to the plan.
On the bazaar day, traders waited on a high platform while their henchmen waited in sidelines, with bribes that could come handy.
“Since the demand in cotton is dwindling we are forced to offer less to you all…” the lead trader began…
“But we know that cotton especially that from Sauviragram is in much demand! East India Company is actually importing so many cotton products to England. How can prices then drop?” interjected Milind.
Immediately men started supporting Milind and there was a small commotion. The traders started looking the henchmen to get into action, to divert attention.
Ilaa stood behind a huge tree unseen by anyone. She led the handful of women who were convinced, that this was the right time to act for sake of themselves and their children. No sooner than she saw some henchmen taking out liquor bottles she stormed in front of the dais with her army.
Everyone was startled as women started speaking in favor of correct prices and refused to part with their crop unless the traders relented. The henchmen were too confused to act and the mob was too overcome in the heat of the moment to notice any bribes. After a brief tussle, the traders had to agree with the villagers and the day ended on a happy note.
Though they were shocked to see women coming out and fight, the Sauviragram men were enthralled with the deal they got. Some actually praised Ilaa and the women. Ilaa felt elated sensing this was an indication of better times.
Noting everyone was busy celebrating, Milind pulled her aside behind the tree.
“So what’s next??” Ilaa asked. “Let’s convince them to teach girls and abolish devdasi system and….“
“Shhh..”He pressed his finger to her lips…
“We shall make that happen soon but for now I want to say…I love you” he tightened his grip around her in an embrace. Sweetly surprised Ilaa rested her head on his shoulder…
This was just a battle the war still remains…she will win with her Ardhang by her side, if that is a word … well it shall be some day!!