Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ilaa of Paithan! - Short Story

Friends! I am uploading the story which I had submitted for Write India Contest(Entry for August Month). Preface was given by Author Amish Tripathi. We had to spin the yarn around these rules.Fitting our creativity within stipulated markers was quite a tough task .Feel free to send your feedback.

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.

The story starts now.....
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 looked at her slightly protruding belly which was carrying her third child. Her mother’s disgruntled voice echoed in her ears.
“Your husband Sakharam’s third wife Bheema is due for delivery now. If she gives birth to a son, she will become powerful. His first wife Sonabai is in the control of the kitchen hearth, so ,power of the household automatically belongs to her. You are the second one. You neither have a son nor hearth. Better bear a son to  have a say in your household.”
Bearing a son brings power to a woman?  Her stomach churned in disgust. December wind was brisk. She pulled the pallu of her saree tight around her shoulders to make herself warm. She turned to see the cotton fields which were buzzing with activity. All her family members including her two small daughters were working in the fields. ‘My daughters are little angels! At least they should get a loving husband’    she muttered under her breath.
She scratched the ground with a small stick. She stumbled upon a flat black coin. She ran her fingers over the coin. It was engraved with vague symbols. ‘Should be of Shatavahana queen Naganika .Nowadays no one uses these coins.’  Her panji used to narrate many stories of Shatavahana kings, empowered status of their women, and the respect they commanded .There were many folk songs which described the qualities of   the kings who ruled the region many centuries ago. Womenfolk sang these songs while doing field work and other chores, passed the tradition to the next generation. Ilaa also remembered the folk songs sung by her panji.
 Ilaa tossed the coin.
Today’s women have  become  like this obsolete coin. I wish I were a powerful queen like them .Ilaa Raje! I would have passed many laws favoring women.
Ilaa Raje’s court will be famous for its justice like the famous Shivaji Raje who gave impartial justice. Last year when Shivaji Raje visited Paithan, entire region was decorated with flowers and big leaves. The mountains and  rivers  of the region reverberated with  powwadas  praising Shivaji Raje’s valour,  sense of justice and his stand for the weak and oppressed. Ilaa stared at the coin again.
Panji used to tell ‘If you offer a coin or flower to Godamayi with love and faith, she will fulfill all your wishes.’ she saw the playful wavelets rippling in the river.
Should I pray for a son? But... Why? Her mind revolted. Why should I pray for a son?
She closed her eyes.  Godamayi! Bless me with a healthy child. If a girl child is born, she should be blessed with a loving husband and not be trapped in a loveless polygamous marriage .If a son is born, He should grow up as a kind man who respects  women , loves his wife unconditionally.
She threw the coin into the river. One wavelet swallowed the coin greedily and vanished into the river.
She got up, tightened her nine yards saree and walked towards the cotton fields.18 years old Champa was feeding her child near a banyan tree taking a short break from cotton picking. Her sombre face reflected the sadness in her life. Her parents had got her married to an old widower of 65 years. He wanted a young girl to look after him. Can’t a widow of his age look after him? Why did he marry such a young girl?

‘Ilaa Tai! Why don’t you sit and chat with me for some time?’Even before Ilaa settled, Champa  started  fretting about her Mhatara husband. Ilaa visualized herself to be Queen Ilaa Raje sitting in darbar. Her husband Sakharam was one of the courtiers in her imaginary court.
Sakharam bowed to Ilaa. ‘Ilaa Raje! Champa has come with a complaint. Her parents forced Champa to marry an old man. She hates her Mhatara husband. She wants justice Raje! Royal court awaits your orders.’
Ilaa Raje issued an edict with a commanding voice.
“I issue an order to my kingdom that a widower should marry  only a widow of his age and not a virgin, If any one flouts this order, he should serve and nurse an old woman 20 to 40 years elder to him as a punishment till his life time.’
Ilaa started laughing uncontrollably at the picture framed in her mind. Visualizing her husband Sakharam bowing to Ilaa Raje tickled her funny bone.  Her hysterical laughter puzzled Champa. Ilaa didn’t want to explain her imaginary world of Ilaa Raje to Champa. She consoled Champa with a soothing voice.
’Champa! I wish I had powers to punish your Mhatara!’ Ilaa sighed!
Champa continued. ‘Mhatara has ruined my life Tai! He told this world that he needed someone to look after him in his old age. But truth is...Tai! He married me for his physical needs.’ She abhorrently spat on the ground. Her cheeks became wet with tears. Ilaa wiped Champa’s tears.
‘Champa! Do you think that my life is anything better? My husband married three wives in the pretext of having a son. I strongly feel that he is on a marriage spree searching for new brides by giving such ostensible reasons.’
Champa hesitated for a second. ‘Ilaa Tai! Please don’t mistake me. There are rumours floating in our village that your husband Sakharam Saab is on a bride hunting process. In case Bheema doesn’t give birth to a son, he may go forward with his marriage plans.’ Ilaa stared at the distant blue sky and the roaming fluffy cotton clouds .Creating mental space for one more woman in the house would be difficult.
‘Champa! Do you remember the kirtankar’s song in which he narrated about ancient women?’
‘When?I don’t remember!’
‘Two months back…He was telling that ancient women had right to choose their husband and it was called as Swayamvar. Can we ever dream of such thing in our lives?’
‘If that was the case, I would have rejected the Mhatara!’ Champa laughed.
‘Even I would have rejected Sakharam!’ Ilaa also joined Champa.
‘Champa! Look at this banyan tree! We observe fast and pray around this tree that we should get the same husband for seven lives. Do our husbands deserve such prayers?’ Ilaa smirked.
‘Tai! Husbands never fast for their wives. Do they?’
‘They will pray for seven wives in one life.’ Both of them guffawed to their heart’s content.
‘Champa! My panji used to say that in olden days, women were able to read and write. They believed in the saying “Where women are worshipped, there the gods dwell.”
Nowadays they worship Goddesses Bhavanimata, Laksmimata, but treat their women as slaves!

Champa! I will take your leave.’ Ilaa got up and walked towards the field. She sneaked into the field and mixed with the womenfolk who were picking cotton. She tied a long odhni around her back, crisscrossed it across the shoulders, knotted in the front and started picking the cotton with both hands and collected in the odhni. When the odhni started overflowing, she emptied them in a terracota Ganj and returned back to the field to pick the cotton again.
As the winter breeze got cooler, she walked towards her house. She opened the wooden gate and went to the back yard, started cleaning the cattle shed, collected the cow dung in a corner, filled the water pots meant for the bovines and  milked the cows. She kindled the dying embers in the big earthen kiln fixed to the ground in the back yard on which huge brass pot was kept. She filled the pot with water. Hot water had to be ready for washing hands and legs. It was cold out there. She entered the kitchen which was warm, sat near Sonabai who was kneading Jowar flour for making Bhakris.
Prepare thecha! ‘Sonabai ordered.
Ilaa held the lantern and collected onions, red chillies, garlic required for thecha. It was dark in the corner of the kitchen. Dark corners are the best places for snakes to hide. She was careful while collecting the materials and sat near Sonabai. Sonabai’s face glowed beautifully in the reflection of cooking fire of the kitchen. She had tremendous stamina and endurance with a strong body. Both in fields and household work she was swift and equaled a male worker. Her tanned oval face was attractive with black curls falling on her forehead which was bright with horizontal red vermillion mark.
‘Where were you most of the time today? You joined us during the fag end of the day.’ Her voice was stern.
Ilaa silently peeled the garlic pods.
‘You know that traders will be visiting within a week. Men folk are busy discussing about fixing the price for bales, so you thought that your absence will not be noticed by anyone.’ she whispered in a strict voice.’ you cannot cite pregnancy as a reason, because when I was carrying my first child, I was working in the fields till the last moment.’
Ilaa sighed.’ I was tensed .What if I don’t give birth to a son?’ She started cutting onions.
‘If Bheema gives birth to a son, problem will be solved.’
‘Really?’  Ilaa’s eyes widened. She secretly watched Sonabai’s expressions. A tinge of jealousy could  be  seen from her eyes.
‘I don’t think so. It should be a mixed feeling, happy that an heir is born to this family and little sad that Bheema will grab the attention of Sasubai and Malak.’ Ilaa replied.
‘Don’t be silly.’ quipped Sonabai.’Has Malak ever shower his love on us?’
‘Till our first child was born.’Ilaa chuckled. ‘He lost interest after that.’
‘SonaTai! Are you aware of the rumour circulating in our village? Malak is hunting for a new bride. In case Bheema delivers a girl, He will go ahead with his marriage plans.’
Ilaa was surprised to see a drop of tear rolling on Sonabai’s cheeks.Did I assume that Sonabai is a mentally tough woman?  Sonabai continued her ranting.  ‘Malak can never understand the emotions of a woman. He thinks that marriage is an easy way to get a mating partner. He has forgotten that there is an element of love in marriage.’ Exasperated Sonabai pushed the firewood inside the kiln with the iron tong.
Ilaa got up silently and went to the flat rectangular metate, placed the spices on it and rolled the pestle to crush them.
 Men also crush our feelings similarly. We call them Malak because they are our masters.Masters do not have feelings for their slaves.
Ilaa Raje was sitting on her throne. A distraught woman entered her Darbar. Courtier bowed to Ilaa.
‘Ilaa Raje! This woman’s husband has 10 wives. She is demanding justice for the emotional turbulence she is undergoing. She wants her husband to be punished for causing mental agony.’
Ilaa Raje saw the wailing woman. She started with an imposing tone which silenced the court.
‘Dear lady! Please calm down! I understand your plight. Seeing the agony of my subject, I issue an order which abolishes polygamy in my kingdom. From now on husbands will address their wives as Malkin.’
‘What about justice Raje! My life is ruined now.’ lamented the woman.
Ilaa Raje cleared her throat.’ As a punishment for polygamy, the husband should observe fast every month for his wives. From sunrise to sunset, he should not have even a drop of water and should pray for his wives’ longevity. If he has ten wives, then he should observe fast for ten days a month, each day dedicated to one wife.’ Hail Ilaa Raje!’ thundered the court.
Ilaa laughed hysterically at her queer and amusing judgment.
‘Ilaa! Have you gone mad? Why are you laughing like this? Give me the thecha.’ Annoyed Sonabai shook her shoulders. Ilaa gathered her composure, got up and entered the kitchen.
After the dinner, Ilaa wiped the kitchen floor with cow dung mixed with little water. She closed the door of the kitchen, went to her room and lied down near her daughters.
It was past midnight. Bheema’s sharp cry woke up Ilaa from her sleep.
‘Send a message to the Sueen.’Ilaa’s Sasubai shouted.
As the contractions became stronger and longer, Bheema’s painful cries were unbearable.
All the ladies were in Bheema’s room and had started preliminary preparations for the delivery. Ilaa’s husband Sakharam brought the midwife and sat on the katta in the verandah. Midwife entered Bheema’s room. Bheema’s high pitched shrill tore the night sky, it was followed by the soft crying voice of a new born baby. Ilaa’s Sasubai shouted with excitement.’ It is a boy. Heir to our house is born. My prayers are answered.’
Ilaa watched Sonabai’s face.It was expressionless. Now the power equations of this house will change. Tinge of jealousy seeped in the heart of Ilaa. Midwife cleaned the baby and wrapped it with a soft cotton cloth. She turned to Ilaa. ’Bring the lantern!’.Ilaa followed her. Midwife stood in front of Sakharam. Ilaa raised the lantern to see the face of her husband. He should be beaming with pride now. Ilaa was surprised to see the expression in his face. He was neither happy nor sad. He doesn’t have to deal with any power equations. Why is he expressionless?  Midwife greeted him happily.
‘God bless this family Dada! After a string of girl children, a boy is born in this family. ’ Sakharam tried to smile.
With the crackling thought crossing her mind, Ilaa understood his predicament. Ilaa started laughing uncontrollably. ’Oh my God! Malak is upset because this boy has put an end to his marriage spree and bride hunt.’
Her Sasubai who was distributing jaggery to the family members was surprised to see cheerful Ilaa. ‘A son is born to Bheema. But Ilaa is not jealous.’,She thought. ‘Ilaa has a golden heart. She is bubbling with joy after this boy is born.’ Sasubai told Sakharam.
Dear Sasubai! I am bubbling with happiness not because a male child is born. In the pretext of having a male child, your son will not be able to marry again and again!   Ilaa was still laughing to her heart’s content.

Panji- Great Grandmother
Panjoba- Great Grandfather
Mhatara- Old Man
Powwada – Marathi ballad
Odhni – Long scarf
Thecha- Chutney
Sueen- Midwife
Sasubai- Mother-in-law
Ganj – Vertical vessel
Bhakri – Round flat unleavened  bread
Malak- Master or owner, used to address husband in third person.

Story Title :- Cotton Candies