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 Ila. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the cotton 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 Ila 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.
Ila wanted to break free from this life. She was desperate to do anything to get rid of this life. Tears gathered like a polished pearl in the corner of her eyes, ready to drop like dewdrops from the edge of leaves on a misty morning.
She thought of the handsome face of Vitthal.
Slowly, like a panorama the faces of her father, brothers and step-mom flashed in her mind. Tears started rolling down from her eyes, like the way a small hilly stream rolls down.
Just like the stream carries with it all the mud and rocks, yet looks clean, Ila’s tears were also loaded with all her pain, and sorrow that she suffered over the last few days.
Yesterday night’s incidence was particularly disturbing. For the first time her father hit her.
Tears stopped rolling, and she was staring at the great river Godavari, without batting her eyelids. Her eyes fixed, on the small waves that were falling back on the banks. She was looking deeply at the water. Her mind was going through a flashback sequence. Ila felt her life was useless and had no value. Better to get rid of this wretched life.
The great river Godavari is a source of sustenance for the people in this Mulukanadu. The river gives them water for crops, fishes to eat and also transportation. However today Ila wishes to get “mukti” or freedom from her wretched life through this great river Godavari. Ila decides to jump into the river and end her life and get rid of all her pains and sufferings.
Ila stood up and slowly started walking towards the water. Steady stream of tears were rolling down her cheeks. She was walking slowly and unsteadily. Her walk resembled the walk of a “possessed” woman. Or probably, the way Satis walk towards their funeral pyre. Satis walk towards their death in a dazed state almost similar to a trance like movement. Few satis however scream and bite and fight while they are taken towards their death. Not all of them are willing to embrace forced death.
But Ila wants to embrace death. She wants to embrace death, for the love of her life, Vitthal. If she cannot get him in this life, she will wait for him in her next birth.
Her parents and brothers are unaware of all this. They are busy in their fields. This is when they separate fluffy cotton from the seeds, using their hands. This is the time, when they don’t even get time to eat or sleep on time. Being busy in their work, they even forgot to notice Ila’s absence from the field.
She reached the water; and touched the water with her left toe. The water was icy cold. The coldness of the water sent shivers up her body. It awoke her of the trance she was in. Abruptly, she faced the reality of death.
Ila remembered the story her father used to narrate to her when she was a little girl. Ila, often asked her father why was she named Ila, which was a pretty unusual name. Whenever she asked this her father told her the story of the great king Ila, who was the founder of Paithan, after whom she was named.
Paithan or Prathishtanapur was founded by King Ila. Pratishtanapur was the capital of Mulukanadu. As per legends Pratishthana was built by King Ila. Once, Ila, who was then the king of Bahlika, a nearby kingdom, strayed into Shiva’s forest during his hunting trip. Shiva was meditating at that time and Ila’s hunting expedition disturbed his meditation. Shiva rose from his meditative state, to his Rudra state, and cursed Ila to turn into a woman.
Initially Ila begged to Shiva to take back the curse but Shiva didn’t budge. Then Ila started to pray to Shiva’s consort Parvati. She was pleased with his prayers, and she said that even though she is incapable of negating Shiva’s curse, she can at the most bring in some modulation. She thus, allowed Ila to stay as man and woman alternatively every month. He would not remember events of one stage in the other. While during his woman state Ila married Budha or the Mercury, who was one of the nine planets of the ‘Navagrahas’. Through Budha he had a son who was named Pururavas.
Budha loved Ila and he helped him to attain his former self by pleasing Shiva through a ‘Ashwamedha Yagna‘ (Horse sacrifice). After Ila was released of his curse he left Budha, Ila also left his own kingdom Bahlika and established a new city called Pratishthana, from where he ruled for long. After him his son from his female form, Pururavas became the king of Pratishthana.
Therefore even though Ila was initially a name for a male later on it was used to name even a female child.
This story always intrigued Ila. Thinking about this story after a long time brought back memories of her childhood. Suddenly the thought of suicide seemed bizarre. She wiped away the tears that were rolling down. She was not so weak to let tears roll down her cheeks. Previously Ila always considered crying a sign of weakness and in spite of all that she is going through she doesn’t want to feel like a weak, whining, weepy girl.
Illa felt she wasn’t doing justice to her namesake King Illa. She needs to be strong and fight for herself. She needs to be strong as she belonged to the land of Suprathistanapur which is a place loved by Shivaji Maharaj himself.
Few days before she had gone to Paithan along with Vitthal to get a glimpse of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who was on his way to Jalna. Shivaji Maharaj had stopped there as he considered Paithan as a Moksha Tirtha.
The entire Paithan was decorated like a new bride to welcome the great Maratha King. Vitthal and Ila stood in the crowd to get a glimpse of him. During his stay Chatrapatiji issued a charter appointing Kawale – a leading priest of Paithan – as a royal priest. Kawale was a good friend of Vitthal’s father. However Vitthal avoided meeting him, as that would have revealed his secret love.
However Vitthal did go back, along with his father to meet Kawale after few days. Making Kawale the royal priest was prestigious for not only Kawale but the entire region. It meant that Shivaji was giving importance to the region.
This arrangement made by Shivaji for a local priest to perform the family rituals is understandable in view of the fact that Paithan was regarded as moksha-tirtha – a pilgrimage centre from where the soul could be liberated forever from a shackled existence.
How could Ila not break free from her shackled existence while she belongs to this moksha Tirtha? She has to break free. She turned back and went at the same place where she was sitting earlier.
She started to think and her father’s face appeared in her mind. She loved her father. She realised that her father must be working hard in his fields now, as harvest season of cotton means back breaking work for the farmers. Paithani cotton is famous all across the world. The hard labour that goes behind this cotton makes it world class. She felt sorry for her father who is working hard on the fields whereas she, instead of helping him, is bellowing in her own sorrow.
She remembered how when she was a child her father used to tell her stories of Paithani cotton while working on the field, during the harvest season. How Paithani textile were exported all over the world and how the Roman parliament once was rather forced to put a ban on imports of Paithani cotton to save the nation form extravagance. While thinking of that story a smile appeared on her face. She forgot yesterday night’s incidence when her father took the side of her step-mother.
Well, Ila’s step-mom is not the typical evil step-mom. She loves Ila as much as she loves her own sons. However, she doesn’t send her to pathshaala the way she sends her own sons. She feels that education is meant only for men and not girls. This is what gives rise to the regular fights between Ila and her step-mom. In fact Ila’s Mom is not the only one who doesn’t send her daughter to school. All other mothers even with biological daughters do not send them to school.
Gone are the Vedic age, when women were educated, took part in decisions and also when widows remarried.
Ila is also having an issue with her mother regarding Vitthal. Ila wants to marry Vitthal but Ila cannot marry him as he is from a different caste. Vitthal is the son of the rich farmer who doubles up as a moneylender.
Ila met him when she once went to the moneylender’s house with her father. She saw the handsome Vitthal standing in front of the weighing machine where cotton is weighed. Ila’s charm did not miss to impress Vitthal either. He was also staring at her with a thin smile through his bushy moustache. Ila had tried to avoid his eyes, but his blue eyes were too good to avoid. She knew that he was the man of her life.
They started meeting later. They started meeting during the village fair, during the time when traders from Paithan came to barter cotton, during village festivals, and of course when Ila along with her father or brother went to Vitthal’s father’s house.
However, when her parents came to know about their clandestine trysts they were scared and angry. They knew that this would cause disaster for Ila and them. And Ila was adamant to marry the love of her life.
Ila stands up and decides to go to the field. She was also feeling guilty that her father and brothers were doing all the hard work while she was sitting here, and wasting time. She starts walking towards the field.
The cotton of Paithani soil is the best and from it the famous Paithani silk is made which has impressed Peshwas and Maharajas and even the Sultans of Delhi through ages. The black soil of this region is magical.
Ila reaches the field and finds her entire family busy working. Quietly, she joins them. Most probably no one has noticed her absence. And even if they had, they had no time to make an issue of it.
After sometime her brother comes and stands next to her. He asked softly “where have you been?”
Ila didn’t answer.
Her brother asks again: “Did you go to meet that wretched Vitthal?”
Ila remains silent.
This time he raises his voice and says “do you know he is already married? He already has three wives from rich families. One of his wives is the niece of Kawale, the royal priest. He just wants you as a mistress and not wife.”
Ila noticed that her other brother and mother was standing behind. Her second brother added this time “The day you went to Paithan with Vitthal, he saw Kawale’s niece. Few days later he went to Paithan with his father and asked for her hands. They got married in Karthik.”
Ila’s eyes were about to explode. She didn’t want to believe any of the words her brothers said. She screamed: “This is not true! You all are lying to me! He loves me! And he wants to marry me.”
Tears gushed out and she fell on the black Deccan soil. Her mother rushed to her and put hands around her shoulder. Slowly in a consoling tone she said softly: “we are your family. We love and care for you. Why would we lie to you?”
Ila hugged her mom and started howling.
Few days later, it was the day when traders from Paithan came. Ila went with her family. Her eyes were swollen from the constant crying over the last few days.
She was sitting with their crop with her head down, when a very manly voice asked her: “What is your name?”
Ila looked up and saw a very handsome face. Ila muttered a gibberish reply. He was a fellow cotton farmer however she had never seen him before. This was going to be a new beginning in her life.
The Black Soil of Deccan was getting covered by the lush green carpet after the rains and Ila’s life was also stepping into new greenery.
P.S: This is my first attempt at writing a historical fiction. I would appreciate genuine feedback from my readers. Please feel free to leave your thoughts. P.C: Google Images