Ilaa lived in Sauviragram that’s close to the city of Paithan. Situated on the banks of the Godavari, the village was part of the vast cotton belt that extended well into the hinterland. It was harvesting time, and the wholesalers from Paithan were due anytime to barter their gold with the locals’ kapas. Though the entire village was in the fields, Ilaa was not to be found anywhere there.
Sitting by the banks of the river, dangling her weary legs in the languid waters, she grunted loudly, ‘I am sick of this!’
‘Why not,’ she thought, ‘am I not a victim of the unmaking of the mores of yore that brought woman’s life to this pass?
Gazing at the Sun, setting by then, she felt it symbolized the loss of sheen, of woman’s high noon of life, pictured by her grandmother in bedtime tales.
‘If only things remained the same,’ she began to speculate about her would-have-been life, ‘I would have gone to a gurukula to become a satyavadini at fifteen, and who knows, I might have blossomed into a Maitreyi of the day, if not a modern day Ghosa. Moreover, I would have been entitled to choose a man I fancied in a swayamvara, oh, what an appetizing prospect it is. Won’t that prove our ancestors were wise enough to realize that woman’s liberation lay in her right over her body to entrust it to the man she coveted? But how ignoramus the progeny of the wise have become to ordain woman to remain illiterate and live in ignorance! How she’s given away in marriage, to a man of her father’s choosing, lo, when she hasn’t even matured! What else is woman nowadays if not man’s vassal? How sad that women of Sauviragram, or Paithan for that matter, can’t dare dream about things, which their ancestors took for granted. Maybe, same is the case with fair sex everywhere in the once fair land named after my namesake.’
As though to bring to the fore her dreams gone sour, the flow under her feet picked up stream.
Ilaa was born into a family of marginal farmers in Paithan. While mother earth, all along, had seemingly conjured up with the rain gods to make it bountiful in their paddy fields, as though not to deplete their meager landholding, mother nature too had ensured, over the generations, that their home had a single issue, male at that. But much before she was born, as her grandfather died prematurely, though being hale and healthy, her father, bitten by the quick-buck bug, threw caution to the winds and wagered on the cash crops. That was in spite of the protestations of his mother and pleadings by his wife. As though to prove the old adage right that greed brings in grief, coinciding with his decision to harvest cotton, the kapas market went into depression. While prudence suggested course correction, as his gambling instinct got the better of him, raising the stakes at the next outing, he took the neighbours’ land on lease for making a killing. What with the pests of Paithan too turning greedy, the failure of two successive crops, besides reducing him into a farmhand in his own land, made his mother a maid in a Brahman household. Though his wife wanted to follow suit, as his mother was averse to it, she was left at home to fend for herself the meagerness of their means.
It was in those hard times that Ilaa was born to the unenthusiastic welcome of all; though soon enough, enamoured of her charming demeanour, everyone began to hold her dear, her father included. But as gods are prone to forgive their favourites, sooner or later that is, Ilaa had a brother for company when she crossed five. While the fraternal frolics pleased her heart, it was her grandma’s tales, picked up from the Brahman woman she served, which stirred her mind, only to depress her soul eventually! The thought that if only her grandmother have had her fair share of her ancestral property, as per the Vedic norms, she would not have been constrained to toil as a maid, left Ilaa with a sickening feeling about the injustice of it all. In her grandmother’s unjust deprivation of property and in the undue denial of her own education, she began to see how women’s legitimate interests have come to be jeopardized by man’s spin to the ancient mores.
As Ilaa, at eight, was still smarting from the denial of schooling, her marriage to eleven-year old Ilaiah ensured that she was deprived even of her childhood liberties. As her fate would have it, Ilaiah’s father, the owner of a ten-acre farm in Sauviragram, in search of a bride for his heir, happened to hear about her allure, clouded though by the gloom of poverty. But, sensing that a beautiful bahu could accrue a like progeny to the clan, he chose to pursue the match regardless. While her father thought it was a godsend, having espied Ilaiah, and finding him ungainly, Ilaa felt that but for the matching names, it was no match at all. Nevertheless, led by her mother and grandmother on the course of female compromises, Ilaa ascended the altar of a child marriage though to remain with her parents until she matured at ten.
‘What would have been my life like had I obeyed my instinct and refused to budge.’ she tried to envision her life in a fresh light but as the clouds of despair, cast on her psyche, rendered that impossible, she gave up with a sigh. ‘If life were to fail fantasy, how is it better than death?’
But then, at an auspicious moment that noon, Ilaa was led out of Paithan to reach Sauviragram well before dusk, and as if to portend the life in the offing for her, the delayed carriage forced her to set foot in her sasural at Sun set. As though the diminishment of her new domicile, ensured by patriarchal expediency, was not tough enough for her to cope up with, nature, in the meantime, turned the Ilaiahs into an odd couple by endowing her to outgrow her husband by a couple of inches. But it was the subjugation of women in Sauviragram, far worse than that in Paithan that she could attribute to the rural urban divide, but was unable to reconcile, which disturbed her the most. It was thus, when she gained in age, and on the ground, she began ‘educating’ the village girls about the imperatives of equal rights for women, which triggered an exodus of complaints to her doorsteps that her father-in-law, a less conforming conservative as Ilaa saw, had to contend with.
Though Ilaa restrained herself on the social front from then on, lest she should occasion a schism in Sauviragram, in the domestic domain she was constrained to bear the burden of barrenness, notwithstanding thirteen years of cohabitation with her man. While the rest pestered her on that count, her father-in-law, though disappointed at the delay, was optimistic about an eventual fruition. Once when Ilaiah, as if in half jest, broached the topic of a co-wife for her, for him to procreate, she retorted by asking him to restore the ancient norm of niyoga for her, wherein a woman was allowed to spend time with her man’s brother or a relative for off-spring. And that put an end to the topic but not to his thirst for a fresh nuptial.
As if to break the uneasy impasse, when her father-in-law died of snake bite, Ilaa turned the Vedic heat on Ilaiah’s farmland by advocating her sister-in-law’s case for a share in it. And that ensured her conjugal relations with him had further soured. But aided by custom, even as Ilaiah retained the reins on the land, to the fair sex of Paithan and yonder, Ilaa’s self-less opposition to it made her the reigning queen of Sauviragram. While that completed the couple’s circle of discord, what with his becoming his own man after his father’s death, Ilaiah felt bold to steer his life on a bigamous course. As he found the bride, the purohit fixed the muhurat that was after the harvesting.
‘It’s not that I have to share his bed with another that hurts.’ Ilaa thought in bitterness. ‘As woman’s charms are prone to wane sooner than later, don’t I know it’s stupid to imagine that I could hold him till the very end. But isn’t it galling that branding me barren, he should sleep with another. What if he is incapable of impregnating woman? Who knows; so why shouldn’t niyoga be the first option for fruition? Oh, how man had managed to usurp woman’s rights to upset her life? Is it left for her to wail her ill-fate until the doom’s day? No way. Didn’t father-in-law say that reformation is a harbinger of change but revolution is the upheaval of old order? Yes I have to shake Sauviragram to wake it up to the old order so that it awakens Paithan, and through it the rest of Ilavarta. But how am I to achieve that?’
Ilaa racked her brains till they frayed at their ends.
‘Why not I set the crops afire and perish in the fields?’ she thought in the end. ‘That would singe dharti maata for sure but won’t she bear the ordeal for the sake of her hapless daughters.’
Springing up from the sands, Ilaa headed towards the fields with a spring in her step.
Acknowledgement - Story based on the lead (modified) provided by Amish Tripathi for July 2015 ‘Write India’ short story initiative of Times of India