Close to the city of Paithan, lived a girl named Ilaa in the village, Sauviragram which lays along the banks of great Godavari. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do but not among the richest in their area.
It was the harvest season for the cotton to be picked. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving, carrying gold and goods for barter. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time!
Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn't working…. instead she was sitting by the river Godavari.
'I am sick of this!' She grunted loudly. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
'Why, why do these people behave this way… why am I not allowed to lead my life my own way?'
She knew that everyone was looking for her, especially her baba, Kanoji Tambe.
Every night father comes home drunk and starts shouting at aai, who works hard, day and night to take care of the family. They aren’t poor but as baba drinks every day, aai finds it difficult to meet ends. Ilaa tries helping her mother with the household chores and keeping up with her studies as well. She loves going to pathshalaa but now aaji and baba are forcing her to stop that.
'No shalaa from tomorrow, come to the field… we have to be ready within next few weeks for the traders.'
Ilaa cried her heart out to foight back, 'I try my best to help aai, I will work in the cotton field too and then if I get time I will sit with my pothi. Please baba, don't stop me to attend shalaa.’
Ilaa intervened, 'No need of studies… go and help your father earn money, so many mouths to feed! Help your mother and learn household chores too… ultimately you have to go to your in- laws' house.'
'Please aaji, I will do whatever you ask me to, please let me continue my studies...'
'Oye! This mulgi will not listen to us… just you wait, I will throw all your pothis to the oven- fire and end all.'
Ilaa was intelligent; she had completed five years of schooling with distinction.
She remembered her happy days in the shalaa. Her father had never visited school, neither could he read nor write. Ilaa’s mother was an educated woman from a village near Devagiri and she wanted her eldest child, Ilaa to attend school and get educated. Though Parvati was a timid lady, she went against her mother in law and husband.
Ilaa liked her teacher Pradnya taai at the shalaa, it was a love at first sight.
The teacher cuddled her.
'What is you name?' ‘Ilaa.’ ‘Oh my God! Khandoba Raya!(the Hindu deity worshipped in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka… he's also known as Skanda Deva, a form of Lord Shiva) Do you know who was Ila?’
Ilaa nodded her head in disapproval.
Pradnya taai narrated the story to her, though she was not old enough to understand much at that age but she remembered each and every word of the story.
’Once, while hunting… Ila, the king of Bahlika strayed into the forest of Lord Shiva and was cursed by Him to turn into a woman. After a lot of pleading, Lord Shiva was pleased but curse Couldn't be taken back so it was decided that the king would be changed into man and woman turn by turn in alternate months but wouldn’t remember anything about the change. As a woman, he married Budha, the planet and gave birth to a son, Pururava. Budha helped Ila to please Lord Shiva by performing Ashwamedha Yajna. The curse was over, Ila left Budha as well as Bahlika and established the city of Pratishthana.’
Ilaa loved listening to historical stories, especially about her own village and city, which bore such a rich heritage. Her aai had kept on telling stories at bed time.
Her school life had ended two years back when her father took her to the cotton field to work, she was only ten.
Ilaa shuddered back to life by the sudden touch on her shoulder and turned around to find Bhagyalaxmi, her friend… daughter of the village priest. ‘You know Ilu, Shivaji Maharaj will be visiting our village on his way to Jalna. He will take rest here. Baba has asked me to take your help to clean and decorate the village, especially the temple…’
Ilaa didn’t reply as she was crying. ‘What happened, why are you crying? Everybody is looking for you in the fields. I knew I would find you here. Your father will beat you if he finds you sitting here idling away time… there's a lot of work left.’
Ilaa mumbled, ‘Why can’t I be a Brahmavaadini, Laxmi… like Gargi or Ghosha? I would like to continue my studies. I don’t mind helping aai at home, but baba and aaji want me to work in the fields, they have also stopped little brother Hari from going to the shalaa. Baba says... "Studying is meant for the rich people only like your friends Laxmi and Leelavati… not for you!"
He spends so much on his drinks, he is not going to stop that ever...'
Laxmi was sad.
They started walking towards the village temple. Laxmi and Ilaa knocked each and every door for the children to come out to help them. It was a difficult task, they found only some tiny ones as others were busy picking cotton in the fields.
Kanoji Tambe, Ilaa’s father found her approaching with some decorative materials in her hands. He wanted to drag her to the field but the village priest guru Kawale was there, instructing them about the Chhatrapati’s visit and explaining to them what honour it would bring to the people living there.
Guruji Kawale could judge Tambe’s anger and requested... ‘Tambe! Bhau, please forgive your daughter today. She is such an intelligent girl with a good sense of aesthetics… she will be able to guide the children. The prestige of our village is now resting in her hands.’ Kanoji couldn’t say anything in reply, he only rolled his red eyes and went off.
The girls went to the village shalaa. They found Pradnya taai teaching a class.
Ilaa was sad again, attending school was so much fun. The teacher came out, stroked their heads lovingly. She understood the turmoil going on inside Ilaa.
Laxmi came closer, ‘Taai, we need your help. Please come with your battalion to prepare our village for Shivaji Maharaja’s visit.’ ‘There are not many left with me, all have been driven to the cotton fields… but it is the need of the hour because cotton farming is our main livelihood.'
Ilaa recalled those golden days when she used to take evening strolls with taai and listen to historical stories… how much she loved history.
‘I want to be like you, taai,’ there was excitement in Ilaa’s voice.
‘Your parents must be so liberal to allow you to select your own life and become a teacher. Look at my aaji and baba… they are against my studies. Father never wanted to study nor did aaji. My mother went to school for some years, though azoba also washed his hands off her and sent aai to her own home, her in laws’ place. How is it taai, father’s home is not a girl’s own home?’
She found Pradnya taai dejected, she had stopped listening to Ilaa. ‘...Even my father did not allow me to choose my own life Ilaa, my marriage was fixed at an early age of twelve. I don’t know, from where the courage crept in me and forced me to leave my home and my dear ones, in search of a different life,’ she then told Ilaa about the Brahmavaadinis and Satyavaadinis of the ancient Vedic Age.
‘Women held very high positions in that period. Girl child was not treated as curse. They were educated with equal care, like any male child. It was up to them to select what they wanted to be…’
Ilaa interrupted, ‘What was the difference taai? Tell me about …. what did you say… some …vaadinis!’
Taai hugged Ilaa, caressed her hair and said, ‘Yes Brahmavaadinis… and so I am now. They were not forced into marriage, actually no one was. Satyavaadinis got married but before that, they were properly educated as it was believed that they should study to have a successful married life, to be the perfect partners to their qualified husbands and to be able to educate their children… you educate a woman to educate a whole family.’
Taai continued, ‘Girls were sent to Gurukulas like boys…’ ‘Why did you say that you are leading a life of a Brahmavaadini?’ Taai smiled, ‘They were free to decide to remain a spinster… become whatever they wanted... philosopher, doctor, saint, priest, teacher… there were no restrictions. Gargi was a philosopher in the court of king Janaka. She defeated maharishi Yajnavalakya with her clever questions. But Ilaa, we are lucky enough to take birth in Maharashtra. This part of our country was always very advanced. Women in this part are always treated equally… you and I are but some of the unfortunate ones to be born in such uneducated families. Condition of women in other parts of our country is much worse. Don’t be sad, I will talk to your father regarding your studies, but you would have to fight alone for your rights… remember rights are not given, they have to be acquired. It is up to you, whether you allow others to disrespect and ignore you or not. Ignite your inner flames which will engulf you to protect your own self.’
Everyone in Sauviragram was shivering with Shivaji fever. He was about to address the villagers. Ilaa was staring wide eyed at Shivaji Maharaj while he spoke about the rich heritage of their city, Paithan.
‘My Paithani brothers and sisters, I am proud to be amongst you. The word Paithani is derived from the "Maharashtri- prakrit" word Pratishthana which was the capital of the Satavahana dynasty. It was the capital of the Janapada, Asmaka and gained the epithet 'Supratishthana' for being a highly advanced civilization. As it was on the banks of the Godavari and so had trade links with the rest of India and Europe too. You are the best cotton growers of the country. The quality textile made from this cotton has no parallel in the contemporary world. Paithani silk is so rich that it was banned by the Roman Parliament to save the nation from extravagance.
Different religions like Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism coexist peacefully in this city. I hereby issue a charter to appoint your village priest Guruji Kawale, the royal priest in view of the fact that Paithan is regarded as the Moksha- Teertha… a pilgrimage centre from where the soul could be liberated forever from a shackled existence.'
The village patil, Rambhau was not happy with the announcement and left the sabha early.
The month of Falguna announced the arrival of ruturaaj vasanta at Paithan. Ilaa, clad in her mother’s one and only emerald green paithani saree started for the Natha- Shashti fair with her friends. The fair is arranged on the occasion of the Jalasamadhi taken by Saint Eknath in the Godavari. His Samadhi is visited by thousands of devotees from all over Maharashtra every year.
Suddenly, Ilaa froze as she found Mohan under the big peepal tree, near the Shiva Temple… he must have been following her. She didn’t dislike Mohan, but her father had warned her to keep a clear distance…
‘Come with me Ilaa, I was waiting for this occasion eagerly… finally I can enjoy your company.' 'Why are you here Mohan? My father doesn’t like me to talk to you... and do you remember, when Shivaji Maharaj had honoured our village priest... how angry your father became... on that pious day. I don’t want to have anything to do with envious people like you… and you! You have even left your studies, go away.’ Mohan was sad, ‘I want to marry you Ilaa… I love you.’
‘I don’t want to get married, I want to be a teacher like Pradnya taai, she is a Brahmavaadini, and if at all I marry, there will be a swayamvara, I will choose my own husband, who would be equally educated, not someone like you… illeterate.’
Ilaa found Leelavati, the landlord’s daughter approaching her. She loved Ilaa so much that she had left her bullock- cart to walk down to the melaa with her. They found some women walking with them, their heads covered with the pallu of their kashtaa… nauwaari(nine yard saree the Maharashtrian women wear)
‘I have never seen women covering their heads in our village,’ Ilaa exclaimed.
‘Yes, it is the affect of the northern janapadas and the Mughal invasion, Pradnya taai was telling us. Our Marathwadaa was so advanced that even the women here performed Ashwamedha Yajna as they performed in the ancient vedic period… even some of our male rulers added their mothers’ names to theirs like Gautamiputra Satakarni, Kaushaakiputra… women were so greatly respected here…' Leela added.
The cotton season was over. The villagers were happy with their gains. Kanoji Tambe met a cotton trader from Mungi village, Krushnadeva who started visiting their house.
Ila didn’t like the man with a pair of greedy- licking eyes at all.
Tambe had thought about fixing marriage of his daughter, Ila with him in exchange of some extra gold.
Parvati was angry and snapped, ‘Kaay kartaye tumhi, vedey jhaala aahat kaa?’ ('What are you up to, have you gone mad?') He's of your age.
Tambe got angry and went out.
Ilaa felt so ashamed of her father, she fled that night... not knowing where she was going. She could only hear taai’s voice, ’You have to find the strength in your own self, no one can come to your help.’
She visited the Jain temple and prayed to the black sand idol of Bhagwaan Munisubhranath… it was said that a prayer there never went unanswered.
It was dark outside, she was afraid and thought of spending the night there.
Ilaa became cautious about someone else's presence over there… she couldn’t see properly but a shadow approached her. She crouched herself towards the wall and got ready to face.
The shadowy figure appeared to be Mohan… she was able to recognise him in the dim light of the dying deeya.
'What are you doing here?' Ilaa raised her voice.
'I can ask you the same question too…'
'I have not given you the right to ask questions…' Ila was angry.
'I was feeling hot, as I came out… saw you! And I started following.'
'You Shouldn’t have…'
'Ilaa, please consider me your friend, I will try to be helpful.' Mohan pleaded.
'I have left my home… baba has fixed my marriage with a man of his age… do you have any idea… where is Devgiri?'
'No, I don't… but we can always inquire. What do you want to do? Do you think it would be so easy outside… do you have any idea of the outer world? I will be with you, I want to study too. There's none in my house to support me…' he came near Ilaa and wiped away the tear drops rolling down her cheeks.
Ten years later...
The school children were excited. A lady inspector was to visit their school. They were all ready in their best attires and enthusiasm.
Teacher Ilaa had prepared them well for the occasion. Acharya Mohan had taken care of the boys’ school, which was to be inspected too.
The inspection went off very well. The inspectress was mesmerised with the knowledge and co- curricular expertize of the students.
While returning home, the students got surprised to find their teacher and the lady inspector both crying, hugging each other.
Mohan, Ilaa and Pradnya were chatting over a well arranged dinner, cooked by Ilaa.
‘So, you have chosen to be a Satyavaadini ultimately, Ilaa!’ ‘No taai, I have always wanted to be a Brahmavaadini like you, like Apala, Ghosha…' ‘I have never had a Yajnavalakya like Mohan in my life, Ilaa. He loves you and prepared himself to be a perfect match… you have also gone through a lot of difficulties to attain whatever you wanted. Now be the Maitreyi, and marry your Yajnavalakya.’
Ilaa blushed and thought she should not deprive Mohan of the happiness he deserves, he had stood by her like a true friend. If he was not there with her when she had left home... God knows what would have happened.
Ila took shelter in her mama, her maternal uncle's place though maami was not happy at all. She could convince her maami to take over all the household scores and study only after that. It was a tough time for both of them to carry on their studies after such hard work.
Mohan smiled, ‘I want to be an Agastya who would perform the husband’s duties perfectly, Lopamudra.’
‘I will be a perfect wife, the Maitreyi for you Yajnavalakya,
"Yenat Namritaasyam kimaham tena kuryaam?"
I won’t ever ask for your properties, but your wisdom.'
‘I want the sacred marriage to take place in Sauviragram, I want to be the priest on that auspicious occasion,’ Pradnya taai chuckled.