Stories or rather fairytales usually begin with the phrase – Once upon a time. But, the truth of the matter is that this isn’t a fairytale and it certainly doesn’t begin with a vague reference to a moment in time. Why, you may ask me? Well, because this is my life and I can pinpoint the exact moment when it all changed.
The Times of India is an Indian newspaper that launched a nation-wide short story competition called The Write India Campaign in July 15′. Long story short: 11 celebrity authors are to act as ‘author(s) of the month’ (over a period of 11 months) and each month, the organisers would release a few lines written by said author which we, the contestants, would have to magically weave into an engrossing tale capped off to 2500 words. (Whew! long sentence!) I participated in Amish‘s contest and really worked my butt off to put out an entertaining read.
His rules set the story in 17th century Paithan (A town in coastal India) with a female lead called Illa. Whilst keeping the story away from any mythical or fantastical influence, we were expected to convey a social empowerment message (kind of like a PSA) for women.
I thought I’d done a fairly decent job and honestly felt I could’ve made the cut. However, the results have recently been declared and.. well, no.. I didn’t make it. Full Stop. (I’m so over my two minutes of emotionally-charged tantrums)
I named my story – Watershed, which means an event or a period marking a turning point in a situation. Little did I know, that along with my protagonist, it would also serve to be a watershed moment for yours truly. It was the day after I had submitted my story – feeling copiously at a loss with the post-submission-vacuum – when I started this blog with my first ever post!
Since, a lot of research, time and effort went into writing the story, I would like you, my dear dear readers, to enjoy the parable. It might not be the most mind-blowing thing you read today, but I’d rather you read it, than it being archived into some godforsaken drawer/file, never to see the light of day. So here goes –
Note: The italicised text at the beginning has been written by the celebrity author.
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.
Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes as she stared down at the countless cuts on her fingers and wrists. The tiny wounds inflicted by the bristles and thorn-like claws surrounding the fibrous cotton laid testimony to her predestined varna in society; But, the accompanying burn of the lesions was nothing compared to the burn within.
‘Hey Vithobha^! Is this my destiny?’ She raised her arms and implored from the depths of her soul. All that greeted her was the paradoxical silence of nature; an orchestration of whistling lush foliage, chirping of birds, and the sound of squirrels at play. Yet, it constituted silence for Ilaa, as she had not received an answer to her plea. A fish leaped out against the flow of the current only to disappear into the watery bowels. The gushing sound of the river drowned out her surroundings and dominated her senses.
‘Even the water of the great Godavari has a mighty purpose. It nurtures the lives of an entire civilization! Whereas, I merely exist with cotton woven into every fiber of my being! Is it my fault that the man I was promised to since childhood, failed to claim me as his bride? A life of abandonment! The malicious whispers! Are they the millstone I must bear around my neck? Oh, must it be forever so?!’ With a wail, she leaned over the bank and plunged her stinging hands into the cooling depths.
Immediately the river accommodated the intrusion and the currents rushed around her. It was strangely austere in its acceptance. Needing more, she leaned forward and it enveloped her shoulders. The pallu^ of her Nauvari^, the traditional 9-yard sari, greedily soaked up the water. She closed her eyes and further bowed her head, allowing the water to creep up her face.
Finally! Thought Ilaa. She felt her worries dissolve and be carried away by the river. It was cathartic. Ma Godhavari! Bless me with patience! Help me to accept my fate and gracefully live my….
A gushing sound filled her ears as she felt herself being yanked out of the water and was suddenly airborne. Disoriented, Ilaa looked down and found herself trapped between a pair of iron-corded arms. Hairy arms, at that!
‘Whaa..?’ She managed to gasp.
‘H..How dare you! Let go of me this instant!’ Spluttering with outrage, Ilaa squirmed in the man’s grip. Her foot managed to find purchase on a muscular thigh and lifting her arms, yanked at her attacker’s hair.
She heard a muffled curse from behind and found herself abruptly free from the enforced intimacy. Turning to face her assailant, she was stunned to see a full-blown Maratha^ warrior rubbing his scalp and looking at her warily.
Before he could utter a word, Ilaa scornfully asked, ‘Is this what mighty Maratha warriors do between wars? Wander about the countryside and harass unsuspecting women?!’
‘I didn’t know that saving a woman’s life meant harassment in Sauviragram!’ Came the nonplussed answer. ‘But listening to you now, I probably should have just passed you by and saved an unsuspecting bloke, from a lifetime of shrewish companionship!’
The tall mountain of a man took in her drenched face, the water dripping from her hands and pallu. The kohl underlining her eyes ran down her cheeks in twin rivulets of black. Her skin was like wet gold, undoubtedly kissed by the sun during her daily labor. She looked like Goddess Lakshmi^ after one of her fabled gold-dust baths. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he asked, ‘What is a young maiden like you doing all alone, so far from the fields?’ His gaze pointedly fixed at the barely-filled cotton basket.
Disconcerted with his scrutiny, Ilaa swiped at the lingering water droplets on her face and indignantly countered, ‘What an ill-mannered brute you are! Looks like you have more muscles than sense. I was merely taking a dip in the river and not trying to drown myself! I shall go and do as I please!’
Wet as a drenched cat, yet, fiery as a tigress. Thought the Maratha, with a reluctant flicker of admiration.
Ilaa knew that she couldn’t return home without finishing her share of the cotton picking. She would need to hurry and fill the basket before the evening’s count. But even the demands of work failed to douse the curiosity invoked by the warrior. She knew she shouldn’t be speaking to him, let alone allowing him to escort her back home.
Enthralled by the specimen of manhood in front of her, she grudgingly acknowledged the unleashed power of his physique. His body was faultlessly toned with every muscle displayed as if he were a showcase of anatomical perfection. He wore a simple cream-colored dhoti^ paired with a cotton vest that managed to accentuate the corded strength of his body. A saffron angavastram^ was carelessly tied around his hips. Twin straps of leather crisscrossed his chest holding up a shield to his back. He carried two long dandpattas^, sheathed in scabbards on either side of his waist. Her gaze fell upon his arms – arms that not so long ago had held her captive in their embrace. Battle scars marred the expanse of mocha colored skin. The recent ones red and angry while the older silvery-white. A handlebar mustache – the pride of Maratha warriors – and a sandalwood tilak^ finished the look.
Unable to resist she asked, ‘What do they call you?’
‘Do you promise to start walking if I tell you?’ came the pert reply.
‘Tell me and find out’, Ilaa cheekily countered.
A sudden grin split the warrior’s face and seemed to transform his gruff exterior. His long mustache almost touched his cheeks and she discovered a curious dip in the center of his chin.
‘Well played!’ he let out a bark of laughter. ‘I am Rudra Nayak; an admiral in Chatrapati Shivaji’s^ army.’
Stunned by the identity of her ‘rescuer’, Ilaa simply gaped at him while he continued with a smile. ‘Will I be bestowed with the singular honor of knowing your name?’
‘Ilaa’ the word stumbled out. Quickly gathering her wits about her, she added, ‘We have heard much about the legendary Chatrapatiji and of you as well, Mai Nayak^!’
Embarrassed by her words, Rudra replied, ‘Water Leader! So, word has spread of the title conferred to me by our benevolent Maharaj. Though, I would prefer to be called Rudra. I am just a simple man carrying out his dharma^. I do not seek adulation for it.’
‘Rudra..’ Ilaa whispered in awe. ‘The mightiest of the mighty! An ordinary man chosen to fulfill an extraordinary destiny’. She finished longingly.
Picking up on her wistfulness Rudra remarked, ‘Every person has a visceral spark of the extraordinary. It is within our power to fan this spark into a blazing inferno.’
‘If only it were that simple!’ Ilaa said with a touch of resentment. ‘You are a Nayak – a leader of men. It is within your grasp to change the course of history. I am a mere farm-girl whose life is a vicious cycle of endless seasons of cotton. What greatness can I aspire to achieve? The days are long gone when we women had a voice in society. The golden days are but a distant memory for most.’ She finished with a lamentable sigh.
Defeated she turned to pick up her basket when she heard Rudra walk up behind her.
‘Ilaa’. He stated with purpose. ‘Not everyone has forgotten. You remember. I remember, the great Chatrapatiji remembers. With him I have learnt that if you wish things to be different, you need to stop being a bystander to your destiny. Instead, you must seize it with both hands and forge fearlessly ahead. To what end, you think these wars and violence are for?’
He motioned a hand across the riverbank and the accompanying greenery. ‘It is to reclaim our land from those that have sought to conquer it – however temporarily. It is to oust the countless invaders looting much more than mere riches. The methodical desecration of our Vedic culture is what we fight against. We need to preserve and nourish this ancient knowledge. It is our sacred duty to safeguard the essence of our Dharma.’
Ilaa was stunned into silence by Rudra’s passionate outburst. For a moment he too, seemed taken aback by his uncharacteristic show of emotion.
Contritely he said, ‘Forgive me! I didn’t mean to get carried away.’
Ilaa shook her head. ‘No! No, please. The path you have chosen is noble; your cause, even more so. We are truly blessed to have such protectors!’
Rudra opened his mouth to say something when they heard a shout from beyond the cotton fields.
‘Ilaa! Ilaaa! Where are you?!’
‘My sister! I have to get back!’ Ilaa exclaimed with alarm. She hoisted the basket under her arm and hastily took a step towards the fields. Suddenly, she turned and addressed Rudra.
‘Oh Mai Nayak! You lead men into great battles and glory. Our village is a testament to the Sau Virs who laid down their lives for this ancient land of Ilavarta^. I pray for the day when one Vir stands and fights for the women of this great land as well.’ A sheen of tears glistened in her eyes as she finished her heartfelt plea.
Rudra took a step towards her. ‘Ilaa, you need to know that there are people fighting for you; fighting for women to take their rightful place in society once again.’
She could see the sincerity writ large on his face. ‘I will fight for you.’ Her eyes widened at his whispered words and her palm involuntarily crept to her throat.
Rudra balled his right fist and thumped it over his heart. ‘I shall be your Vir, Ilaa. This is a Maratha’s promise to you.’
A myriad of emotions flashed across her face upon hearing his pledge.
She breathed, ‘Rudra…’
‘Ilaaaa!!!’ The shout pierced the air and intruded upon the moment.
Both, Ilaa and Rudra seemed shaken by their abrupt return to reality. He stared unblinkingly into her eyes and there was an indefinable emotion reflected in the black depths. It was almost tangible – the feeling of ‘rightness’ emanating from being with him.
With a quivering smile she said, ‘I.. I have to go. Thank you! You have given me the most precious gift of all.. Hope.’
She bowed her head to him and started walking towards the fields.
‘Come spring, I shall be at Sant Eknath’s^ shrine for the Paithan Yatra^. Chatrapatiji wishes to take blessings for the upcoming expeditions from Bhavani Ma^ at Tuljapur and then Paithan. I know it is asking a lot, but please come.’
Ilaa froze. What he proposed was impossible! Surely he knew that. An unmarried girl travel to the busy trading port of Paithan?!
She swallowed her answer and willed herself to keep looking ahead. Step by hesitant step, she walked away from the most intriguing man she had ever met. Ilaa felt his stare like a physical presence until the snowy cotton engulfed her.
Her first step on Paithan soil; the DakshinaKashi^ as many called it, was a step closer to claiming her destiny.
However hard she tried, the memory of a pair of dark probing eyes continued to haunt her. Rudra’s words about dharma had taken root and the past months had been a mental, emotional and spiritual evolution for Ilaa.
She clearly remembered the screams of protest from her mother and sister when they learnt that she aspired to do more with her life than pick cotton. The screams became threats and the threats simmered into silent anger. Even her brother’s stoic silence reverberated with disapproval.
Oddly, it was in her father that Ilaa found an unexpected ally. He understood that a fundamental change had taken place within his daughter. Though, the how and why of it still remained a mystery. Nonetheless, she was the apple of his eye and he couldn’t deny her anything.
So, Ilaa found herself on a caravan with him, under the guise of a business trip to Paithan. She knew she had to reach Sant Eknath’s shrine and offer herself as a Bharud^, spreading the true faith of the Vedas through ballads and bhajans^. She wanted to gain access to the ancient texts and be the one to remove the shackles placed upon women under the guise of a misinterpreted faith.
I shall strive to unveil the true faith to all. This was Ilaa’s most ardent wish. To see the glory of the old ways reinstated; where women mirrored men in all walks of life.
She crossed the threshold of the shrine and bowed her head in obeisance. Her eyes closed and for the first time, a strange calm settled over her. It was the bone-deep realization of finally balancing one’s dharma and karma^.
Yes! She had it in her to make a difference. That visceral spark was indeed a raging inferno today. Oh Rudra! What I would give to see you but once..
A cool breeze drifted across the temple yard and she felt a piercing regard on her person. It raised the hair on the back of her neck. In a flash, Ilaa opened her eyes and looked up.
Tall and majestic, in his cream dhoti and angavastram, stood Rudra. His traditional saffron pheta^ wound regally around his head, indicating valor.
He continued to study her with a deep intensity and Ilaa met his gaze unwaveringly. Finally, a blinding smile broke over his face and she answered in kind. He cheekily gestured with his palm to join him.
Ilaa knew what it meant. She took a deep breath and walked calmly towards her destiny.
^ Glossary of terms:
- Sauviragram: A fictional village. ‘Sau=100’, ‘Vir=brave warrior’ and ‘Gram=village’; Hence, the village of a 100 warriors.
- Vithobha: A manifestation or avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, also known as Lord Krishna.
- Pallu: The long trailing part of the saree that can be draped around and across the shoulders.
- Nauvari: The traditional 9-yard sari from the state of Maharastra, India.
- Maratha: The warriors from the Maratha empire/Confederacy. An Indian imperial power that existed from 1674 to 1818.
- Lakshmi: The Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity.
- Dhoti: A traditional men’s garment, worn in the Indian subcontinent.
- Angavastram: A piece of cloth/stole which is draped over the shoulders and torso. Traditionally worn by men from the Hindu community.
- Dandpattas: An Indian sword with a gauntlet integrated as a hand guard.
- Tilak: A coloured spot/mark worn by Hindus, esp on the forehead, often indicating membership of a religious sect, caste, etc, or (in the case of a woman) marital status
- Chatrapati Shivaji: An Indian warrior king who established the Maratha empire.
- Mai Nayak: Translates to water leader.
- Dharma: The path of righteousness and living one’s life according to the codes of conduct as described by the Hindu scriptures.
- Ilavarta: An undivided India of antiquity.
- Eknath: A prominent Marathi sant, scholar, and religious poet of Varkari sect.
- Paithan yatra: A yearly pilgrimage to Saint Eknath’s shrine in Paithan.
- Bhavani Ma: An avatar of Goddess Shakti; the tutelary deity of Shivaji, in whose veneration, he dedicated his sword, Bhavani Talwar.
- DakshinaKashi: Another name for Paithan which reflects its religious roots.
- Bharud: A form of folk art where religious texts are recited to the general public in the form of songs and poems.
- Bhajans: Devotional songs.
- Karma: Action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect).
- Pheta: A traditional turban.