A Girl In Ancient India: Ilaa

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.

There was no one to listen to her on the silent riverbank except the crickets chirping in the wild grass. Ahead of her, there were lined rice and cotton fields, leading to high hills whose peaks disappeared into the clouds. Tiny houses were dotted here and there. At far distance, she could see small figures of men no bigger than her thumb, slaving away in the fields.

Godavari’s waters reflected the sunset’s raging fire, not unlike the one in Ilaa’s heart. She lay back against the tree, her head was throbbing.

At sixteen years, Ilaa was the oldest unmarried girl in the village. And she was also one of the few without a father. But her mother hadn’t been burnt on her husband’s pyre; she didn’t wear a white sari and leave her hair parting bare, simply because she wasn’t a widow.

For years no one had heard from her father. Her mother assured a troubled Ilaa that he wasn’t lost, that he was working away in Paithan. Perhaps he was unable to send a word across. Now they lived with Ilaa’s maternal uncle, who was a well respected farmer, having a wife and twin sons.

Promise of his existence thus saved Ilaa’s mother a life of endless repentance and pain. And herself, one of restriction. She sometimes chided herself for these thoughts; for being so unthinkably shameless.

But she knew it was true. Her father’s absence had permitted her a longer girlhood than anyone else.

It liberated Ilaa to roam the fields without being exceedingly bound to household chores; to read and write. Her mother had taught her, but never revealed how she knew to read in a village full of ignorant women. Girls weren’t usually seen fit to understand the holy scriptures.

Behind closed doors, she burnt the midnight oil reading them. Ilaa was mystified with the Puranas, the holy Vedas and legends of Lord Ganesha and Krishna. Though, there were some commandments she would not agree with, but she didn’t dare voice them.

When Ilaa had been younger and her hair grew no longer than her ears, she would sneak out unrecognized in the early morning mist and across the green hills, towards the ashram. Hidden behind bamboo barricades, she would watch the pupils practice. The boys assembled on the wide playground and handling wooden swords, they did various moves, unaware of the little creature hiding in the shadows, strenuously repeating them, wielding a stick.

Before the sun would fully rise in the sky, she would sprint back. Her mother would still find her fast asleep on her mat under the skylight, though slightly beaded with sweat. Something told Ilaa her mother knew it, but she preferred to exist in the ambiguity.

Ilaa was full of spirit, she wanted to use every opportunity life presented her with. She wanted to learn her mother’s singing, who always regaled her with Ganesh Satutis in her deep, clear voice.

Ilaa wanted to see a change in the people. The archaic and bogus marriage ceremonies customs, where every loafer in the street would come and feast, ignoring the tear stricken face of the thirteen year old bride behind the veil, always pained her.

Many in the village would cause aspersions on Ilaa’s ‘different’ ways of life, mocked her for her fatherless, unmarried status. For mother though, it was for Ilaa to decide her marriage. She never retaliated to people’s rebukes and listened patiently. Ilaa deeply respected her. Through her frail frame, she saw the unyielding strength her mother possessed.

But recently, things had changed. Her mother seemed more nervous, for the first time she had hinted of marriage to a bewildered Ilaa. Was she finally succumbing to social pressures?

Ilaa restlessly got up and paced near the gushing river. Tucked in a discreet corner was an old, inscribed stone slab almost fully concealed with thick moss. It was probably laid by a Noble. At this isolated spot, Ilaa had spent countless hours with her mother, discussing sundries of life.

She glanced in the water and an image of her face projected in the river. Ilaa had striking green eyes, a novelty in a land of dark irises. Her nose was slender and straight and dark ringlets framed her face. Just about the only features she’d inherited from her mother were her dusky hue and a firm jaw, which gave Ilaa an interesting appearance. Her face wasn’t softly feminine but neither a brute masculine, she was neutral.

It was a face, Ilaa painfully realized, which still looked childish for its sixteen years.

The soft soil crumbled against her fingers as she dug into it, venting her anger onto the accepting earth. Suddenly her fingers touched upon something. She cleared away the mud and pulled out a small wooden box. But what startled Ilaa was the carved inscription on the lid. BELA. It was her mother’s name.

Inside the box was a bundle of neatly folded letters. She picked one up and started reading.

The box fell from her hands as Ilaa gasped in shock, her mind was reeling.

*

A voice floated from a house, built on the foot of a hill, it was a deep sorrowful tone. Bela crouched beside the earthen Chula and began kneading the soft dough.

‘Are sawsagar’ her voice echoed. ‘This is married life. Sting from burn on hands first and then you get the bread.’

She sprinkled flour on the rounded bread and flipped it onto the hot pan. Through the barred windows, she could see her brother’s wife coming with her two small boys, wading in though the watery rice fields. All of them had gone to work in the fields but her brother would return much later. His wife carried a huge cloth bundle with picked cotton inside.

Bela’s voice cracked. ‘Ah, this is married life. Don’t call it a burden of yoke. Silly, it is a garland of flowers around your neck.’ She was reciting a powerful poem by poetess, Bahinibai.

Bela fell silent and the air filled with the sound of the wind rustling through the orange trees outside. She lit the lamp in the kitchen; the light brightened the mud and brick walls, the crooked wooden pillars upholding the thatched roof.

Washing her hands, Bela wiped them off with the edge of her sari. Her mind drifted back to a time long ago and images flashed before her eyes.

*

Bela had been hardly seven years old when her parents died, her little brother was lost. Left alone in a village with no relatives, she would have perished had it not been for the lady in the nobles’ court. She had found Bela on the streets, a small dusty tear stricken girl.

Promising her free food and lodging, the lady whom Bela would come to call Aai, took her along in her cart. She would educate Bela. ‘We’re entertainers for the nobles.’ she’d said. It was then that Bela discovered her voice. The lady was enchanted.

When they reached, Bela was struck with the grand mansion. She had faint memories of golden chandeliers, nobles on their thrones and silver cups. When she had been singing in the court for nearly seven years, she began to notice a boy attended every day. Aai told her he was a noble’s son and should be carefully handled. He had a slender nose and deep green eyes. Bela was fourteen and he was twenty.

The girls whom she had arrived with were all gone now; she saw only a few here and there in the servants’ lodgings. It was the desolate empty look in their eyes that Bela feared most.

She was now old enough to understand for what ‘entertainment’ they’d been used and that the only reason Aai had spared her was her singing.

Her voice was her salvation. But she was fast approaching an age where it wouldn’t be enough. She was scared.

And so when he asked, Bela said yes. His name was Amir, after the famed poet.

His father renounced him for marrying a servant, a veshya. Amir was thrown out, with barely enough to survive. Years passed as Amir grew more morose, taking to gambling and drinking, bringing them out on the streets. He blamed Bela for his loss, soon the red welts over her arms from his beatings were nothing new. Amir wasn’t used to harsh life, he wanted a way out. Bela was nineteen when Ilaa was born, by then she was done. Her daughter wouldn’t suffer a father like Amir.

*

Suddenly a thunder cloud rumbled loudly, startling Bela. Tears were trickling down her face.

The sky was stormy outside, Bela realized with panic that Ilaa still wasn’t returned. Suddenly the door creaked open and she rushed out in anticipation.

Bela stood thunderstruck and gaped at the person in the doorway.

He looked over forty and his temples had grayed, a ruddy beard covered his wrinkled face. His green eyes had a drunken, dead look in them. It was a face she hadn’t seen in sixteen years. It was him.

‘Why are you here?’ Bela stammered, disbelievingly. ‘I always abided by your letters, I never asked you for money. You haven’t kept your word.’

‘You didn’t obey me. I was forced to come,’ he staggered inside, a strange smile on his face. ‘I had been asking you to marry Ilaa off for over a year now. She can’t end up like you, an entertainer in the court.’

‘I wasn’t among them.’ Bela’s said defiantly. ‘You know it very well.’

Bela suddenly noticed her sister in law standing rooted near the pillar, shocked to discover a ruffian in the house. She had come in unnoticed. Without her husband here, they were defenseless. Amir disregarded her as long as she kept mute.

‘You can’t ignore me forever,’ his eyes gleamed dangerously. ‘Go against me and I expose you. You may call yourself a singer but they will always take my word over yours. You know it. They will reduce you to begging in Sauvigram. And then, what will become of your daughter?’

Bela strained to gain a hold on herself, she was shivering.

Suddenly her eyes fell by the door and she gasped. Ilaa stepped out of the shadows and Bela looked at the wooden box in her hands with despair. Amir spun around.

‘She looks like me, but more masculine with that face.’ he wheezed peevishly. ‘No matter, some shopkeeper’s son will still accept her.’

He ranted on irritably and then his tone turned furious. Ilaa stood shell shocked.

‘It was always you, Bela. I was once a noble. Look where I have fallen.’ He clutched the dirty rags which clothed him, his eyes suddenly flaring.

He leapt forth and grabbed her by her hair, dragging her out of the door. The door’s return swing violently thrust Ilaa back. Ilaa was finding it hard to breathe. Amir stepped out as Ilaa hurriedly followed, the air filled with his passionate cursing.

Villagers gathered around as a tearful Bela tore away from his grasp.

Amir looked pleased with the crowd of farmers, traders, shopkeepers and a few women, who were watching them, astonished.

Ilaa stood frozen, her heart was pounding. What would happen now? Whom would people believe? Would all the hard work and toil of her mother get washed away by one word from her father, a cheat? Just because Bela was a woman? Ilaa couldn’t breathe.

‘Listen all,’ Amir rasped. ‘This disgraceful girl is still unmarried,’ he thrust a grimy finger towards Ilaa. ‘She will end up like her shameless mother.’ The crowd gazed at Bela in surprise. ‘She was in my court once, a…’

Ilaa stepped forward. Blood was pounding in her ears.

She glanced at the unsuspecting crowd and a quiver ran through her heart. She wouldn’t be forgiven. Ilaa clenched her fists and struck her father with all the force she had.

Blood poured out from his nose as Amir fell on the pavement, startled. The crowd gasped. He raised his arms to retaliate but Ilaa would not permit that. She badgered him with relentless blows. Dust rose in the air as he recoiled, suddenly he wasn’t moving anymore. Ilaa could detect from his heaving chest that he wasn’t dead, only unconscious.

The entire gathering stood silent, shell shocked. Ilaa knew surprise would soon fade into anger. But she kept her calm and implored everyone to listen to her side before coming to the conclusions.

She narrated the story she had herself known only a few hours ago. People retreated further in astonishment.

‘Was it my mother’s fault that the husband she took refuge in turned out to be a villain?’ Ilaa reasoned fervently. ‘Was it her fault that he wasted all their money to put them out on the streets?’

‘Why is my mother looked down upon for not marrying me?’ her voice shook slightly. ‘She was only protecting my childhood.’

The crowd looked more subdued now, keenly listening. Bela was now quietly sobbing in the corner.

The few women there looked moved underneath their veils; Ilaa could feel a struggle breaking its bonds. A faint light dawned in their eyes.

Far away, she could see the sultan’s soldiers coming their side. Probably they had sensed something. Ilaa tensed up further, she would surely get arrested

‘Please understand me, I am a daughter of society.’ she continued.

‘Will you believe in me?’

The gathering was silent as it swayed with its conscience. Suddenly a girl of five years broke away from her mother’s arms, running out to hold Ilaa’s hands.

Her dark eyes twinkled.

‘I believe in you.’

She had opened a gateway for the hesitating adults.

At far distance, the Sultan’s soldiers took a sudden right turn and galloped away.

The skies were opening up now. Pearly raindrops flew down from the clouds.