Saturday, 19 September 2015

Fate and Wit

Note: I wrote this story for TOI- WriteIndia (author Amish)


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.

She sobbed while recalling the event that happened at her house a prahar back and Yogiraj’s verdict on her life, "It is Ilaa’s turn to get married as per the Prathama Pratha this year."

She was a woman in her early 20s. Born as the second girl child to her parents in the year 1643, Ilaa was an intelligent lass, adept in vivid fields of knowledge and good at household chores too. She justified her name well. Ilaa means earth- like the Earth which supports life and hence, is unique amongst all planets in the solar system; she was unique amongst others in her village with exemplary knowledge and wit.

The villagers had been making preparations to welcome the traders who were anticipated to buy their crops. It was no lesser than a festival to them, in the form of repayment of the toil they had done throughout the year.
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In the courtyard of her house, as a regular chore, Ilaa had cleaned the floor and laid down a beautiful rangoli at the porch, which was thought to bring good luck. While she was spreading the mat awaiting the young girls of Sauviragram to attend her class on preaching of summary of Bhagwad Geeta, which was the subject for today, her mother Sakvarbai, called her and said cheerfully- "Ilaa, my daughter, you keep running from here and there in the house. Why don't you spare some time for your old mother?"  With a tear drop glittering at the corner her right eye, the lady continued, "God knows when luck strikes my daughter and we tie the nuptial knot for her. Then you'll fly away like a bird, my child!"

Hesitatingly Ilaa replied, "Oh mother, I'm going nowhere. I won't leave my parents so early. I want to bag more affection from both of you." With great confidence, and a sigh, she continued, "Moreover, you know how desperate and fond of I'm of teaching the young girls of the village! I had been doing this since years. What will happen to them if I discontinue the classes?"

Caressing Ilaa's hair, Sakvarbai said, "Ilaa, I understand this, but it is the harvest season, and you must assist your father in picking up the cotton from our fields. Traders from Paithan shall be here soon." Her eyes widening, she elucidated, "And yes, someday you have to marry, otherwise the villagers will keep names that we could not get our daughter married. As per our tradition, daughters cannot be married in the same village."

Responding sadly over this, Ilaa said, "But mother, I don't want to leave Sauviragram. You know what happened to Hridisha Tai, and I don't…." Before Ilaa could end the sentence, she got a glimpse of her father entering the house, and she became quiet as if nothing just happened.

Ilaa's sister Hridisha was married 10 years back to a trader's son Sopandev in nearby city of Shivgaon, as per the Prathama Pratha. She was just 16 then. His was a well-to-do family. They traded in grains and were the first to arrive Sauviragram that year. Sopandev, a well-educated man and a trader's son, was not interested in business. He was in a job with the East India Company at Calcutta. The wedding was a grand ceremony that happened with a lot of gaiety. They left for Shivgaon a day after the wedding. The family hadn’t seen their daughter since then. Sopandev had already married a year ago to the girl of his choice in Calcutta - the daughter of a senior official. He married Hridisha under family pressure. Knowing the fact that their son was married to another girl, his family did so to keep their societal fame alive. They also conceived that there was some black magic hovering over their son, which shall go away only after he got married. After a series of fights with Hridisha for the next few months, Sopandev dropped her to his parents’ home and vowed never to return back. A few days later, Hridisha, unable to bear the agony, committed suicide.

Ilaa’s father, Shyamrao, an old aged, skinny man, wearing the paithani topi and a white kurta payjama entered the courtyard where the mother-daughter duo halted their conversation. He was an introvert, quiet man much affected by what had happened to his beloved daughter Hridisha, he had cut himself off from any indulgence. Ilaa went to fetch a glass of water for him. Shyamrao, in a subtle voice, instructed his wife, "Make preparations to welcome our village priest Yogiraj Eknath. By the grace of Maa Godavari, he himself wants to visit our house and to meet our daughter. He would be coming here by the third prahar of the day. I have to return to the fields now." While exiting from their dwelling, he turned to say, "Tell Ilaa to be ready to join me at the fields after Yogiraj leaves from our house."

Sakvarbai, a homemaker was herself a reticent woman. She followed her husband's instructions to make preparations for the evening.

"Therefore, fight for your right as your duty, O Arjuna", Ilaa narrated from Krishna's speech to Arjun, as a part of the preaching of the Bhagwat Geeta to her young students.

"Ilaa Tai, who gives us our rights? ", one of the girls, Kashi enquired innocently.

Ilaa took a deep breath and replied with a grin, “Right is not something that someone gives to us; it is something which no one can take away from us.”

She finished the lecture before the end of the second prahar to assist her mother with the preparations.

It was the end of third prahar when Yogiraj arrived at Shyamrao’s house with three of his disciples. He was an old man with large white beard and long tresses. He wore a white dhoti-kurta. With rudraksha beads in one hand and eyes closed, he had been reciting something while being seated on the coir mattress. The family of Shyamrao sat on the floor, with courteously folded hands in namaskaar mudra, and Yogiraj’s disciples standing beside him. He asked Ilaa to come near him. The girl shyly glanced at her father to seek permission, who nodded with a yes. She stood up carefully grabbing her green Paithani saree’s pallu and went in front of Yogiraj. Ilaa, respected Yogiraj but in her heart, she was against the way whole village blindly followed him. Apparently, being a girl, she had no say on this. What happened now couldn’t stop her tears from flowing and she ran away to the river bank.

During the fourth prahar, Ilaa was sitting quiet at the banks of river Godavari, silently observing the redness of the sky as the sun was setting down. This was her favorite place, where she often sheltered herself in the search of calmness in the lap of the Mother Nature. The redness of the sky matched the color of her tearful eyes.

Farming was the only way to earn livelihood in Sauviragram. It was a faith of the villagers that every year, one girl from our village is to get married to the first trader who comes to barter their cotton. It was a notion that Maa Godavari would bless the village with prosperity if this ritual was followed. This was called the Prathama Pratha. The decision of choosing a girl was taken every year by Yogiraj Eknath- the demigod for the villagers, using his said spiritual powers. No one objected to what he instructed.

Hridisha was also a victim of this tradition years back. Her husband being married already was considered her ill-fate and her death was termed as her destiny. Call it a superstition or blind faith, none of the villagers, including the deceased’s parents had questioned the Prathama Pratha even after this incidence. Only on Yogiraj's orders, they had stopped trading with Shivgaon to reciprocate what had happened to the girl.

It was Ilaa's turn now. There were two reasons why she did not intend to make this happen- one, her desire to keep teaching the girls of the village; second, the fear of the unknown- the one that led to her sister’s death. She decided something and wiped her tears off.

That night Ilaa was sitting quietly on the mat of their living room, when Sakvarbai returned coughing after cooking the chapattis on their stove. Shyamrao and Sakvarbai were dismayed since the evening. They were afraid to send their only alive child in the hands of an unknown person only on the basis of who arrives first in the village to trade. A deathly silence prevailed in the house, only until Ilaa broke the ice by saying in a powerful voice to her parents for the first time- "Aai, baba, what have you decided? Do you also believe that your daughter is a good that must be bartered to bring blessings to the village, which are to be the fruit of their hard work, instead? Do you want to sacrifice me just like you did with Hridisha Tai? Till when do you want this custom to prevail? How many more Hridishas do we gamble against superstition? Not only her, but the fate of other girls is no different so far. I had been teaching the girls of this village for free to make them self dependent. And look, what is about to happen to me now!"

Shyamrao felt ashamed and said, "I understand, my daughter. I don’t want to sacrifice you at the hands of fate like your sister. But this is the custom, and I cannot go against the villagers and Yogiraj. If we refused and the trade doesn’t go well, they would shame us and expel us out of the village. What do I do?"

Yogiraj ashram's grand entry gates were made of wood and sculpted in fine design. It was funded with donation by 15% of yearly earnings from each of the farmer of the village. Cattles were sheltered on a side of the veranda. The atmosphere was serene. The building that housed Yogiraj and his disciples was a large villa colored pale yellow. Opposite to the building was a garden. A few disciples of the saint were sitting in meditation posture on the grass floor and Yogiraj was seated on a raised platform facing them. Shyamrao arrived to the Yogiraj’s ashram with Sakvarbai and a few of their neighbors. They looked puzzled. They sought permission from the saint to elaborate a dream that Shyamrao said he had last night. Yogiraj nodded.

"Last night Maa Godavari appeared in my dream. She said 'Vatsa! it is my order that from now on, no girl of the village will get married by Prathama Pratha. Those who go against my will, shall be punished. All the girls, with consent from their families will have the right to make choices for their spouses.' I asked, ‘Will it not bring bad luck to the trade of the village?' She replied, 'You must do your karma and not expect the results. You will get the fruit of your karma. The boundary of one’s jurisdiction ends with the completion of one's duty. Do your duty to the best of your ability.'- Shyamrao narrated.

Yogiraj was surprised and wasn’t ready to believe this. He debated out of fear of loss of faith in him, “This has been our ritual since generations. We cannot change it abruptly because of a dream.” The stooping elder, Vasantdev came ahead and said politely, "Yogiraj ji, with due respect I request that although it was a dream, but it is the time that we must consider changing ourselves. We respect Maa Godavari and already perform havan every year at the temple to please her. I appeal to you on behalf of the villagers to ban the Prathama Pratha." The villagers gathered in the ashram shook their heads in agreement. For the first time, the women of the village also stood in favor of bringing a revolution to the age old customs. It was as if the hidden regard in their mind was spoken by Vasantdev. Consequently, Yogiraj announced a ban on the Prathama Pratha. (A few days later, when the traders arrived, all the farmers got fair payment of the cotton they sold to the traders.)

With a stream of tears of joy, Sakvarbai who was standing in a corner of the crowd, in her heart admired her daughter’s wit and what she advocated the last night at their home- Let us explain them in a way that they understand. Bhagwad Geeta indicates that it is ethical to tell a lie if it can bring immense good.




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