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.
She picked a pebble and flung it at the river, sending it skimming across the water. A parrot squawked loudly as it flew from the branches of a nearby tree and Ilaa was startled. She looked around her at the tall grass and the shady trees that grew on the banks of the quietly flowing Godavari. She could see a lone fisherman bringing his boat to the shore, probably with baskets full of fish. Ilaa wondered whether it was a really tough job to do…..hauling in the fish using a huge net. Did he really enjoy his work? She wished she was in his place in the boat, somewhere in the middle of the vast river, heading towards the sea, not knowing what destiny had in store for her.
‘I wish I could sail out in that boat and go across the river,’ she wished aloud. But Ilaa knew that it was impossible for her. She had never seen the women from her village board a boat and go anywhere. All that they did was tinker around in the kitchen or work in the cotton fields. She hated it all….right from the planting of the seeds to the plucking of the fluffy cotton balls. She hated being in the hot sun, that burned her soft skin, leaving it feeling like toughened leather at the end of the day. Her brother went to the local school run by the village priest
She wondered if anyone noticed her absence at the cotton fields. Probably, they were all busy tying and weighing the bales of cotton to be sold in the market. She decided to stay put. Today she was in no mood to work.
Ilaa lay down on the grass, spreading her arms as she looked up at the sky, feeling the gentle breeze blowing on her face and on her hair that she had left loose, hoping that no one would come upon her in this secluded place by the Godavari.
The next morning, Ilaa was woken up early by her mother Saraswati.
“Wake up Ilaa! Ilaa! Get up. Wake up before your father finds you sleeping without a care in the world.” Saraswati was always anxious about Ilaa. She could see that her daughter had no interest in any household chores, nor was she bothered to take care of herself. Unlike the other young women of her age, Ilaa showed no interest in matters of home or hearth. She was more inclined to the work of the men. She would be easily drawn to the discussions of trade and commerce, or politics that the men discussed, sitting in the courtyard in the evenings. She would listen to their conversations with rapt attention and sometimes would put forth her unwanted opinion.
Saraswati was also very worried as Ilaa was almost past the marriageable age. Most of her friends had already been married. She had better start looking for a suitable groom for her.
Ilaa woke up grudgingly. She had been dreaming a wondrous dream. She watched her brother packing his satchel and getting ready to go to the pathshala. She watched her mother fawn over him, ensuring that he ate well before heading off .
She envied her brother who clearly had no purpose in life except to laze around, demanding attention from everyone around him. But there was a lot that Ilaa wanted to do though she was not very certain, what. She felt that life was precious and she did not want to waste it. She was eager to learn about the world around her, about everything that she could sense in the universe. Her thirst for knowledge and freedom devoured her. The fire that burnt inside her consumed her mentally and emotionally.
She had heard about great women like Gargi, and Maitreyi, both of whom were said to be great scholars and poets. Ilaa wondered how the two had been able to do what they truly wanted for themselves, while she could feel the shackles of society around her, threatening to squeeze her very soul. It was with such thoughts that she walked towards the farm to get back to picking the soft cotton balls.
Madhusudan, the young man who was employed by Ilaa’s father as an overseer, walked over to where Ilaa was working. He was quite a good looking man and most of the young women who worked in the farm had their eyes on him. He had been working there for just over a year. Ilaa could sense his interest in her. The way he smiled at her, or showed concern when she would sit down tired, or offer her water to quench her thirst, was enough indication that he more than just liked her.
The moment she saw him approaching, Ilaa was filled with anger. How dare he speak to her parents, seeking her hand in marriage! Ilaa knew that her parents, and especially her mother was thrilled about this prospective groom for her but Ilaa had already made up her mind. She would not marry Madhusudan, or anyone else for that matter. She sincerely felt that she was not meant for marriage, atleast not yet. There were other things waiting for her…….but she was afraid, afraid of her own burning desires and the consequences of her impossible dreams.
Gargi and Maitreyi had been highly respected, but the women of her times were compelled to live in restricted spaces…..there was no freedom to choose what they wanted to do in life, no opportunities for getting any education and no social support. A woman’s life began in her father’s home and wound up in the home of her husband. And yet they talked of the great heritage of her country, where women flourished alongside men, and took part in governance and social events. Even worshipping the lord was considered incomplete without the wife. She often took up these topics with her mother looking for answers, only to be snubbed.
‘Why can’t I go to study along with the boys?’ she would ask.
‘Beautiful girls don’t need education. They just have to take care of themselves, ‘Saraswati would reply.
Ilaa found no answer to the question on why marriage was the only solution to a woman’s future, why women were expected to do only what pleased their husbands, why she had to look beautiful and graceful to get a good life partner.
These and similar questions haunted her, day and night.
A month had gone by since that afternoon when Ilaa spent time on the banks of the Godavari. She had rejected the marriage proposal made by Madhusudan, but her parents had forced her to accept it. He was in love with her, they told her. What more could a woman want in life? They argued. What would she do when her beauty would fade away…none would bother to look at her and with her fiery and rebellious nature no other man would come near her. But he loved her and wanted her. So Madhusudan it was…her groom to be.
Then began a series of rituals. The applying of henna to her hair, sandal wood paste to her skin and hot oil massages. She had to look gorgeous on her wedding day and especially on her wedding night.
Saraswati took special care of Ilaa’s hair which was very long and was the most attractive element of her personality. She bought expensive scented oils and personally applied it to the hair. She also purchased jewelled hair pins and a lovely maangtika to adorn her daughter’s exquisite hair.
‘A bride must take care of her hair, after all men love long black hair,’ she chuckled. She knew that Madhusudan admired Ilaa’a hair. She could understand that look in his eyes whenever he would find Ilaa with her hair open after a wash.
Ilaa gave in to all that the women in her family asked her to do. She was practically numb, unable to think of what to do. All that she knew was that she had to find a way out, out of this impending marriage that loomed large over her future. She had tried her best, cried, starved herself, pleaded with her parents that knowledge was what she hankered for and education was what she needed. Marriage could wait. However, Saraswati and her husband had already made up their mind that marrying Madhusudan was the best for her.
Time was running fast and she was racing against time, looking for a miracle that could save her. On the day of the wedding, Ilaa woke up rather early. For once, she did not need her mother to awaken her. She opened the window of her bedroom and allowed the fresh breeze to rush in, as if it was in haste to bid her goodbye. Ilaa, stepped out of the silent house. She swiftly made her way through the long silent courtyard and walked through the empty streets. Soon she was outside the town, walking through the cotton fields, breathing in the scent of dry cotton pods. She walked quickly now until she reached the river bank. The Godavari flowed past her, its water swirling, carrying with it all kinds of things. She gingerly walked down the bank and walked into the water, slowly, step by step, on and on.
The water inched up her legs, her thighs, her navel. It was cold and she shivered. Soon the water was up to her chest. Ilaa felt tears burn her eyes. Was this the only solution to her problem…she wondered. And then she slipped, falling back into the river, the water all over her. In that moment, as the cold currents of the Godavari pulled her into its depths , Ilaa found her answers.
She struggled to come to the surface, the water rushing in through her nose and her mouth, stinging her senses. Drowning was painful, she realised, and now she wanted to live. She was determined to live.
With all the force in her body she struggled to come out of the clutches of the cruel waters but it was of no use. She was exhausted and relaxed her limbs and let go of herself. Like a miracle she felt herself float to the surface and the gentle waves lashed her on to the bank.
Drenched thoroughly, Ilaa walked back to her house through the empty village streets.
The sun was just above the horizon and dawn was breaking over the valley when Saraswati came to wake her daughter. She was feeling sad that finally Ilaa was getting married. She just prayed that her feisty daughter would be able to accept her new life and stop being a rebel.
‘Ilaa…..’ Saraswati called out and then stopped in her tracks.
Ilaa stood before the mirror, her long lustrous hair lying in a heap behind her on the cold floor.
‘Ai…. can I go to the pathshala?’ she asked.