Smita Khandelwal is an educationist and a working mother of two based in Dubai. Armed with a Bachelor’s in English(Hons) from Delhi University and Master’s in Education from the University of Houston, she runs enrichment and gifted and talented programmes for elementary grades. She has a passion for reading, writing and travel.
Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram,which lay on 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 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 nowhere 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.
In rebellion Ilaa flung her veil off (a stifling purdah system forced on the women), and let the gentle breeze fan her face.
Year after year, Ilaa had followed the same routine, their life centered around the cotton farming…Their bread and butter. Together they worked hard, planting, tending, reaping and selling the cotton. Their annual supplies mattered on how much cotton they could sell, therefore each gram mattered, for in the market the wholesaler elicited the last ounce of sweat from them.
This was her life. Every morning as she walked by the calm, serene, river she could hear holy incantations of the local priest in a nearby temple. In the distance the soft jingle of bangles as women made their way to the field enchanted her. The heavy cotton plants seemed ready to deliver as they softly moaned in the wind. These were images to soothe, yet she was restless?
Why couldn’t she accept things the way they were? Why did her grandmother’s tales of happier times make her crave for a freer life of respect and equality.
They were not poor, they lived comfortably. But all she could see were women struggling between managing home, working in the fields, taking care of children and often dealing with an irate husband. She longed to create a safer environment for them, where they could enjoy work and home without the drudgery. If only she could educate them on their rights, they would stand a decent chance at a life of respect. A bright student (a rarity in their times) Ilaa understood the importance of education, she realised that without the ability to read and write women will always face the wrong end of the stick.
Once again she looked out towards the river, that flows so freely, choosing its path, meandering as it chose, swishing, swaying, sashaying down like a beautiful woman flaunting its beauty with pride and not shame. Ilaa dreamt of such a beautiful life. Like the river, she wanted to choose her own path, make her own destiny. Where she would experience new wonders and understand the true meaning of happiness. Silently she vowed that she will make a choice, she will be the difference.
Reluctantly, Ilaa returned to her hardcore life only surviving on the memory of her dream, that one day she might get the chance. Ilaa’s hardwill drove her on as she tirelessly worked every day looking out for the opportunity to achieve her dream, to make sure that she would be viewed as a her own person and not as someone’s daughter, sister or mother.
Little did she know that an opportunity will arise in the most unlikely corner, triggering events that will sail beyond her control, all she could do is wade to the shore. The time was approaching when farmers set off with their yield to the local market to barter for necessary goods. This was also the time when the Zamindar sent his henchmen to extract his pound of flesh. Traditionally all farmers in the village paid a fixed amount mostly in the form of produce, as a land tax to the Zamindar, in return they owned their land and were left in peace to till and reap. It was a comfortable if not affluent life. Most Zamindars took care of their kin, though some liked to live like rajahs of their kingdom, were narcissists and wanted to juice the most out of their farmers for themselves. Unfortunately for Ilaa’s village their Zamindar was one such man. Each year all the farmers dreaded the new edict in store for them. For many years, Ilaa’s father had been fighting the Zamindar against this extortion with no luck.
With his flailing health, Ilaa knew the time will come when their village will have no spokesperson left. Ilaa knew she had to do something about it before her beloved father was no more. But will the village elderly let a young girl represent them, let her fight their battles? It was too much to ask for, but she had to at least try otherwise all hope was lost for her and her people. Suddenly an ingenious plan formed in her mind that brought a satisfied grin on her face. Cautiously she approached her father and mentioned the idea. As expected he was furious, but also understood the urgency of the matter. After a lot of heated debate, Ilaa’s father finally gave in and reluctantly agreed to the plan and so her courageous rebellion began.
The first step, and the most daunting one was to convince the village elders that she a mere girl, was capable of leading them in this quest to free themselves of the zamindar’s tax. The next step would be to give the zamindar a plausible reason that will appease him and buy them time.
Finally, she realised the last step would require all her courage and wits as she will go about wooing the zamindar’s son…. If she managed that she could demand her village’s freedom in exchange for her love.
At the earliest opportunity, she met the elders and outlined her plans. Although it cut the men apart to depend on a woman they listened to her. Since she had her father’s blessings, they agreed to give her one chance to succeed..after all as she aptly pointed out what did they have to lose. Things would only remain the same, whereas here was a chance at bettering them. Like Ilaa’s father, the village understood the importance and urgency of this mission. And so things were set into motion. They agreed to speak to the Zamindar and on humanitarian grounds plead for more time to pay up allowing Ilaa some breathing room to set up her next idea.
The zamindar’s son Gangadhar was considered a gentle man, preferring to indulge in art and poems rather than warfare. Ilaa knew she must use this to her advantage therefore she decided to increase her knowledge in poems and maybe even write a simple poem herself. This was her first step in wooing Gangadhar and she had to get this completely right otherwise her entire plan was in jeopardy.
It was well known that he performed the morning ritual by the river Godavari. A strong, robust, clean shaven man, fair of skin and fair of deeds, Gangadhar chanted with a clear honest baritone. The river held a special place in Ilaa’s heart as well, she considered this a good omenfor her mission. Bravely, she made her way to the river the next morning, as soon as she saw him, she mustered up her courage and approached him. Having never spoken to a stranger before, considered to be immoral for noble women, this itself was the first step towards her liberation.
“Kind sir! Please do not think this inappropriate”, she gently pleaded. “but I do know you are a connoisseur of fine arts. I am a woman of noble birth, and only seek your approval on a special piece that I have written in my somewhat ignorant style.” Shyly, she presented him her poem.
Standing back she waited for a response.
Gangadhar, was extremely taken aback especially since he could not see her face from behind her veil. But her cultured, gentle voice and elegant hands made him take notice of her shy demeanor. Curiousty getting the better of him he took her work and read it. Ilaa’s clarity of thought, her clear expression, beautiful handwriting and vulnerability surprised him and without meaning to he had spoken.
“Oh! Gentle lady! “ he exulted, “what beauty you create in your writing”.
So began Ilaa’s and Gangadhar’s unorthodox courtship. Each morning they met by the river, (even though Gangadhar still hadn’t seen her) under its serene ebb they exchanged many ideas and discussed many issues. Ilaa enjoyed these meetings on many levels, for the first time she felt appreciated as a person, whose thoughts and ideas mattered. Held weight. Invariably they talked about the zamindari of their time. Ilaa knew she was in love with Gangadhar and might lose this tenuous bond if she kept moving on with her mission. Yet, there was really no other choice.
Plunging ahead, she uttered, “Please forgive me, if I speak out of turn. It is most unfortunate that I have to bring this up but even at the risk of losing your respect, I must utter that which plagues my village.” So saying she explained the misery of the villagers, at the hands of his father. Her inability to see the farmers suffer generation to generation, making sure she especially mentioned the plight of the women who toiled hard both at home and in the fields without respite or respect. She outlined her dream of running a school for the village children, besides teaching crafts like spinning and weaving the Paithani cotton into beautiful sarees to the women. Gangadhar listened patiently, he admired her for her vision, her desire and commitment towards her people. He understood that such a woman would always remain loyal towards those she loved. She would face the enemy bravely at the risk of losing her own life. He realised that he had found his life partner.
With passion, he touched her pretty bangles and quietly asked for her hand in marriage. Eloquently, he promised that together they will work on Ilaa’s dream. He knew his father wasn’t the kindest of men, but agreed with Ilaa that it must be to each his own, freedom to work and earn regardless of class must be encouraged and practiced. So saying he clasped her hand, they looked out at the Godavari, flowing elegantly. Just like the river, Ilaa had chosen her path and found her own destiny.Bursting with joy, Illa looks at Gangadhar and unveils herself.