Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragra
m, 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 threw pellets in the river, one stone after another; each landing with a thud as it created ripples in the water. Ilaa stared at her reflection in the water and began braiding her hair. She looked at her nascent features; her big brown eyes with a sea of desperation hidden behind them, her black hair which were a pain to braid every morning, her pale lips which were chapped due to the humidity which dominated the weather almost year round and her young lithe body which was gracing the boulder she was sitting on.
As she looked at her reflection and braided her hair, Ilaa wondered about the story her mother used to tell her every time she used to braid her hair; of King Ila who battled the curse of Shiva like a stalwart with the help of God Budha. He is said to have founded the city of Paithan. King Ila has been rewarded with excessive adulation but Ilaa just wanted respect.
Ilaa took a stroll near the banks of the river Godavari; Godavari with its pristine water, gushing currents of the river, with plants cropped up besides the stream could bamboozle even the most composed minds and Ilaa here, was only a child of nineteen. Ilaa did not realize when time had passed and the wan moonlight began to peak coyly behind the clouds. She had to return home by seven and if her astute judgement was precise, it was already eight.
Ilaa caught hold of her flowing skirt and ran-ran as she had never run before, past houses with dimmed lights and a flickering lamppost which almost ceased to light. She ran past the earth roads which dominated most of the space in this idyllic village. She reached home panting, with characteristic heavy breathing. However, she did not need to bang on the door because her father was already awaiting her return. She dreaded what was to inevitably follow.
‘I, I am sorry. I lost track of time, I was near the banks of Godavari. Please let me in.’ a bead of sweat rolled down Ilaa’s face as she uttered those words
Ilaa’s father looked at Ilaa from head to toe. He stared at Ilaa’s conspicuous breasts which were clinging to her suit due to the sweat; his overt gaze making Ilaa’s cheeks turn red.
‘Come in. This should never happen again. Go, cook your uncle and I some food. Do you have any idea how hungry we have been?’ he scathed her with the tone of his voice. She hurried towards the kitchen.
Ilaa passed her uncle in the short passage to the kitchen. He smiled at her with his frequent coquettish grin. She gave him a weak smile and folded her palms in reverence which he hastily dismissed.
She went inside the kitchen and started chopping up some vegetables. Ever since her mother’s demise, Ilaa has been the mother, daughter, maid, and even the slave of the family. She cleaned the dart board and looked for some flour to cook with which the containers did not have. There was no washing liquid to clean with, the mop which was used to clear away spider webs had ends which had withered off.
Ilaa was stirring the pot as a familiar tune titillated her senses. It was a melody which her mother used to hum frequently when she was a child. She knew the song all too well.
‘Aaa jaa re bandishon ko tod..chal chori aa jaa humare ore…’
Ilaa found herself dancing to the tune; she banged the tainted steel plate with her spoon as she was plating up dinner. Soon after she heard her father’s irate reply to the vagrants who had knocked on the door begging for alms as they had been doing so for the past twenty years. They would always come around at the time of some celebrated event; this time it was the circulated rumours of Shivaji possibly stopping at Paithan.
It was Ilaa’s instinct or rather habit that soon after she found herself pushing the window that was ajar before being asked for it. She was greeted by a low, husky voice with a maternal touch that she’d come to love.
‘Chori, give me some grains of rice. It is me…do you recognize?’
‘Yes. Yes, I do. I am afraid we do not have any rice left. I am sorry. I tried to keep some for you, but…’
‘He devoured it all, didn’t he? Chori…I am telling you again, begging you to come with me. Remember you said so when you were a child’
And with that she left. The sound of the banjaras’ dilapidated drum would continue to haunt Ilaa’s dreams that night as they had been doing since she was ten. It was the night when the leader of the group from Rajasthan held a clandestine meeting with her mother and begged her to come along with them. Her mother refused because she could not bereft Ilaa of a father’s presence. Ilaa had looked at the banjaras and at the desperation in her mother’s eyes and had promised the banjaras she would come with them if she was unhappy. And she was.