Thursday, July 30, 2015


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 reflection on the water and said, “I am not ill-fated. Why should I suffer? I will go far away, perhaps to an unknown city. Nobody will know me anymore. I will live by myself, away from this miserable place, away from these people. I will not give my life to Godavari,   I am not a coward.”
It was late in the afternoon; the Sun has already inclined towards the horizon. She had a rather frustrating day. In fact, of late all her days had become full of anguish and misery. It was nothing like the initial years of her marriage. Her husband Budharam, used to be a good man, who loved her and took care of her. Chandra, her father-in-law who is head of the village, was a well-to-do cotton farmer of the entire taluka. He and his three sons worked very hard on the acres of ancestral farmland and grew the best quality cotton. Their bales of cotton were the first to be picked up by the wholesalers and traders from Paithan. They were content with life.
Since childhood Ilaa was exceptional. Her family was among the best weavers of the Paithani traditional sarees. Her mother taught her to weave the fine silk and zari. Ilaa mastered the art so easily that she could weave Ashraffi, Asawali and Kamal motifs out of those thin, shear and shiny silk in a matter of days. Their silver and golden zari work and motifs were so renowned in the area that everyone who is looking for the fine and best Paithani Sarees were unquestionably directed to them. When Ilaa grew up, she mastered the art such that all creative and complex jobs were given to her. The customers praised Ilaa’s work. Every important man of the village and nearby towns were their loyal customers.
That was the time when she met Noor, the youngest son of the Amalguzar, the revenue officer under Mughal rule of Paithan. The Prince of Deccan had just completed the construction the Bibi-ka-maqbara, a beautiful white marble mausoleum in the memory of his mother. People from all around the places were visiting the breath-taking monument. The merchants and traders who had been to the north and visited the Taj-Mahal said the maqbara had a striking resemblance with the Taj-Mahal. The hospitality of the people important to royal family was the responsibility of the officials of the Mughal Durbar; the Prince of the empire didn’t want to lose any opportunity to enrich his diplomatic ties. The visiting guests were presented with many gifts, collected by royal officials, by the Prince. The Amalguzar of Paithan was also one such official and he had brought one of the best gifts for the Prince, the incredible hand woven sarees of Paithan.

He often sent Noor to find out the best weaver of Paithan and bring a few sarees. Noor went to the largest and best traders of Paithan to find out the best sarees, after all he too had to impress his father and the Prince. He was very ambitious and never wanted to slip a chance to get the accolades from the royal family. Almost all of traders and wholesalers offered him the gorgeous sarees with smooth, light silk, designed so well with golden and silver zari work as if a painting was lying in front of him. The number of traders he visited, he noticed striking similarities in the Ashraffi, Asawali and Kamal motifs of all the best picks. Surprised by the perfection, so smooth and shiny yet so lively dreams woven on a piece of cloth, he enquired about the weavers. All of them mentioned him the sheer brilliance of the Ilaa’s artwork, the creator of the beautiful sarees. “Oh that one is from my village sir, a young woman of mere sixteen years”, said one trader enthusiastically, “So magical her hands are! You should have seen the tapestry she weaved for the temple, these are nothing compared to that. Lord Shiva may bless her with all the happiness.” Noor could not resist his desires to visit this elegant artisan; probably he could buy a few tapestries.
That’s how, on that very day they met. The tall, handsome man in his thirties with lean physique and a smile never leaving his face, would be the perfect partner any young girl could have in her dreams. Ilaa with mahogany hair, long-lashed eyes and porcelain-like skin, had just entered adulthood. When their eyes met for the first time, she welcomed him with a smile and that was enough for Noor’s heart to sigh with a feeling of contentment. He was so mesmerised by the smile, if he could he would have stopped the time forever.
Ilaa’s mother gave him last tapestries they had. Looking onto the prospective royal customer and his bag full of coins stuck in his belt, she said, “Sir, these are the last two ready tapestries we have. If Your Highness seeks more, it will be ready in a few weeks. My daughter here will weave the most beautiful tapestries in Paithan.” Ilaa’s mother’s proud eyes noticed the bag of coins but what she missed was the looks and smiles on the faces of young couple. “Indeed, I will come for more!” Noor left promising himself to return to collect more than just tapestries. That was only the beginning; he never stopped visiting their home since then. He would always come to buy sarees or a tapestry, but his eyes searched for a glimpse of Ilaa. He would always bring some jewellery or gifts for Ilaa, hidden from her mother.  Ilaa would weave passionately for Noor, as if her life depended on it. All the motifs painted dreams of young love on the silk. Though they never declared their love for each other, they could see the love in each others’ eyes.
In those days, the visit of a Mughal nobleman to a house of a trader or merchant was not a new thing in Paithan, but such frequent visits to the house of a weaver raised everyone’s eyebrows. The villagers started to talk about many things. Ilaa, unaware of all this, was still dreaming about her life with Noor. She wanted to go to city with him, visit the markets of Aurangabad, the great Bibi-ka-maqbara. She wished to have a romantic boat ride in the Godavari.
Ilaa’s father was a pious man, respected by the villagers. Any dispute between the villagers or between the traders and the weavers was often sorted out by him. But rumours about the Mughal frequently visiting his home was troubling him a lot. A friend of his said, “Look Laxmanrao, you are a good man. But if you keep welcoming the Mughal to your home frequently, things will not be the same as before. They don’t have any honour, you know.” A fellow villager with a frowning face said, “These foreigners first took our country and now they are taking our daughters, as if they will be able to convert us to their religion. Ilaa is a good girl , ready for marriage, don’t ruin her life. Look for a suitable groom. Touch wood, if something happens to your daughter before marriage with that man, the society will not respect you anymore. ”
But before the Mughal could visit Ilaa and she could urge him to take her with him and show her the city markets, she was forcefully married to Budharam. One of the fellow traders of Ilaa’s father knew Budharam’s father Chandra well. The marriage was fixed in a hurry, knowing about well-to-do Chandra, the noble and just village head was enough for Ilaa’s parents to have the tranquility to marry her off. Ilaa cried silently since the day her marriage was fixed. She had no other option but to obey her parents. She hoped that her father would at least ask her, but he didn’t utter a single word. She prayed to the gods she knew to send Noor for the last time before she left, but all prayers were left unheard.
Her husband Budharam was a simple man, not knowing much of the world. They lived in their ancestral home. Chandra was a hard-working man. They had a farmland of around fifty acres where they primarily planted cotton. Throughout the four seasons, the family would be busy in their farm; men and women alike, each had to earn their own morsel. The old man was well disciplined. He would leave for the field early in the morning with his three sons. The women would join them in the field after they made the breakfast. They are so busy from morning to evening that they hardly get any time for themselves. Ilaa, not accustomed to such a life, would often get exhausted, but being the youngest woman in the family, she had to obey every order meticulously. Her father-in-law was not a strict man, but it was her mother-in-law, Tara, who ran the show. Tara always tried to find some faults in them. Ilaa was always cautious. She didn’t want to give Tara a chance. She was so concerned that she barely had any interest in herself anymore. Days had passed without her looking into the mirror, combing the mahogany hair leisurely, without applying mascara to her long eye-lashes. She even forgot when was the last time she had smiled. Her husband was not a romantic person, the only true bond they shared was the few intense moments of love-making. Except that he never praised her beauty nor he showed any care and affection. She wondered, had he even noticed her with such eyes ever? She wanted to be loved and taken care of like any other young woman did. Sometimes she wished only if Noor had come to her rescue.

After first couple of years of her marriage things began to change rapidly. Her father-in-law died due to sudden illness. Without the head of the family, the sons had to do very hard labour to maintain their farm. Naïve and inexperienced, they couldn’t make profit as their father did. Everyone in the family had to face the hard time. Ilaa, apart from the common problems, was fighting another battle. She hadn’t conceived yet. Initially, the couple thought that was normal, but day-by-day the stress was more. They even visited the local Vaidya, he gave them some ayurvedic medicines, but there was no fruitful result yet. People started asking questions. Muscular and well-built Budhram had escaped the frowning eyebrows, but Ilaa couldn’t. The porcelain-skinned, glowing faced Ilaa had already lost her charm working hard in the farm under the scorching Sun. Now she looked like any other peasant under malnutrition. Everyone started doubting her ability to bear a child. Tara grabbed every opportunity to taunt her, insult her. Ilaa prayed to every God she knew, every God that her mother had introduced to her. Her husband also offended her those days; a feel of guilt that he made marrying her was transformed into hatred.
Ilaa was patiently surviving through her frustration, not knowing what to do and how to react. She was not even sure whether she was incapable to conceive or her husband was impotent. She didn’t know what to think anymore, only kept obeying all the orders, keeping her ears shut. She had become a machine. She would pass her days in the field, burning her skin under the Sun and the nights had become ruthless. Her husband would come late, smelling like a shop of the country liquor himself, drunk enough to go to bed. She tried to wake him up few times to have dinner, he wouldn’t respond. Even if he did, he would abuse her. When he was high with alcohol, he would even hit her. She wept silently; praying to the gods who she thought didn’t help her anymore. She remembered the stories when women were respected. Even the Ilaa from vedic ages, who is considered  as the chief progenitor of the Lunar Dynasty was respected. But this Ilaa only had her name, not her fate.

Last night Budharam didn’t return home. She kept waiting the whole night, bad thoughts kept emerging in her mind. She couldn’t sleep for a single moment. The morning Sun shone bright in sky, she didn’t have much time to wait for him. The bales of cotton are not ready yet, they all had to go to the field. She had a quarter bigha of cotton to pluck for the day. Working like a machine in the field, she kept thinking about her husband, where has he gone, was he drunk enough to be not able to return home or did he not mean to return to her anymore? She thought of her long lost happy days. She thought of her home, her handloom, her sarees and tapestry. She hadn’t touched silk for years now.

She was feeling drowsy and thirsty. The Sun was also as harsh as her life was. Ilaa decided to take a break and move towards the neem tree under which they had the pot of water. She took the cup and poured over her face. When she wiped her face, she saw her husband coming, a young woman shyly walking behind him. She recognized her, the liquor seller’s daughter. Ilaa realized that moment that she was not his wife anymore. She was silently converted to a labor.

Not knowing what to do, she kept walking towards the river. Perhaps she didn't want to live anymore. She sat on the banks of the river, watching her reflection in the calm Godavari for hours. She saw herself after years, remembered her youth. How she used to work merrily on her loom, how she waited for Noor, how she looked at the mirror the day he came. She looked at her sorry hands, the expert weaver hands. She didn't want to die. ‘'I will live for myself, I will weave more dreams. I will never stop creating more beautiful motifs. Perhaps one day he will come again to buy something."

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