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 and 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 Godavari.
‘I am sick of this!’ she muttered loudly.
She had got up at the crack of dawn, rushed through her chores of cleaning and cooking. Her mother-in-law as usual had kept up a steam of gossip and had not helped in the work. Then Illa had started to cook food. She was to pack lunch and join her husband in the field for the harvesting.
As she had packed food for their lunch, her anger and frustration had mounted in a rage.
“They’re coming next week. You start getting ready to receive them and take care of them royally. They will stay for two days. We must give them gifts”, Ratnakar had announced the previous night.
Ilaa had gaped at him. “Who is coming?”
“Oh, I told you two days ago, as usual you never paid attention. My distant uncle from Devgaon is coming to finalize the arrangements for the marriage of Janaki with his son”.
Illa had been stunned. She knew that their daughter had been promised in marriage, but a date had not been fixed then. Janaki was only eight years old.
“Why so fast? She’s only a child. Let us get her married when she is 14 at least”.
“Are you mad, woman? Everyone will curse us, and besides, I gave my word when she was three, you know about it.”
It was true Ilaa knew about the pact, but she was only 18 years old at that time, and too timid to protest. Now she knew better. She asked him to postpone the wedding until their daughter attained puberty. She even quoted an abhang of Sant Bahinabai about being born as a woman, how was she to attain the Truth. Ratnakar was adamant. He was afraid of losing face to his relatives.
As she had packed, she had thought of the enormous forces ranged against her and her child. Instead of going to the field, she had sent Janaki with the bundle to the field. Then she had come here, without quite knowing why.
It was a hard life, but no different from that of other rural women. She had to work all day long, taking care of house work, and her in-laws. She could eat only after the rest of the family had eaten. Even when she was sick, her mother-in-law hardly helped, and told her not to shirk work. Her father was teaching her at home, but her education stopped after marriage. Her husband had not studied beyond primary school. Her father-in-law thought it was unnecessary for girls to get educated; their place was at home. As a married woman she had no rights over her husband’s property. She knew that in case he died before their son was old enough, she would be at the mercy of her in-laws.
Illa was determined that at least her child should not be deprived of her child hood and should learn to read and write.
She watched the river flow on its long journey. She knew her in-laws would never agree and it would cause a scandal in the village. Maybe she should run away with her child and join an ashram, like Bahinabai had wanted to but never did.
Meanwhile, the two men in the field were getting frantic. They questioned Janaki but the child had no answer. They could not hope to finish the picking by themselves. They sent back Janaki, asking her to tell her grandmother and brother to search for Illa and send her to the field.
The boy found his mother after searching all other haunts. “Mother, they are looking for you,” he said and sat down beside her. It was a peaceful place for sitting and simply doing nothing.
He was ten years old, a sensitive and intelligent boy, different from the other boys of the village. He went regularly to school, Illa saw to that.
“You father plans to marry off your sister this year. But I want her to stay home and study. Will you teach her whatever you learn in the pathshala?”
The boy nodded. Illa was happy and patted his head. The boy was an ally, but small fry in the battle. His opinion did not count.
So they sat meditatively, dangling their feet over the embankment.
Presently Ratnakar found them. He was furious that Ram had not fetched his mother. Illa started persuading him to put off the wedding. Ratnakar brushed aside her pleas. Illa broke down and refused to come home.
“Foolish woman. I will have to drag you home and beat you to teach you a lesson”, he shouted.
“I will jump off into the river this minute! Don’t come near me!” She shouted back, stading at the edge of the embankment.
There was an impasse. Here they were joined by some women, who had somehow heard the terribly interesting news.
Ratnakar appealed to them to drill some sense into Illa. Asha lived in the neighboring house. She came up and asked kindly, “Illaben, you must give up your obstinacy. You know it is a custom from olden times. You cannot keep grown up daughter at home. It brings ill omen.”
“Why should that be so”, Illa demanded. “Who said that it was always so”, she addressed the assembled folk, for some more had joined the proceedings. “In Mahabharath and Ramayan, all the women married when they were grown. Kunti, Draupadi and Sita chose their husbands in a swayamwar. Draupadi joined her brothers when they were taught Artha shastra by learned brahmins at home. Sita used to perform sandhyavandan.”
“How do you know all this?”a woman demanded
“I have listed to kirtans and spiritual discourses since I was a child. Searching in Lanka, Hanuman finds a pure river by an ashoka tree grove. He says Ma Sita will surely come here to do Sandhya prayer. “
Slowly, some women were converted to her side. She is right, they said. We have helplessly accepted our fate without protest, they murmured.
It was noon already. Ratnakar and his father grew desperate. They whispered to each other, and then Ratnakar declared that he was ready to postpone the marriage for few years.
It took some time to grasp this; she kept staring at the ground. Ratnakar repeated his promise. At that, she rose and started walking back silently. The crowd dispersed, and the harvesting resumed.
The traders came in their carts laden with goods like costly clothes, gold, spices and grains. The fields and house courtyards waited for them with their cotton bales. The traders and farmers knew each other for ages; they began the usual drama of inspection and haggling.
Illa had planned to buy grains and other items for their home. But to her dismay Ratnakar also bought two Paithani sarees, fine dhoti, turban and coat with gold zari work and jewelry. When she protested, he told her dismissively that it would be useful for the marriage later or they could wear them for Diwali. Illa was full of foreboding that night, but could not confront him that night. After the cotton had been sold, a festive atmosphere had descended on the village. The traders had camped for the night and the men-folk came to smoke hookah and to drink. Ratnakar had returned home drunk, singing a ribald folk song, and she had to help him to bed.
The next morning, Illa tried to get him to return the clothes and jewelry. Ratnakar announced in a will-brook-no-nonsense voice, “Listen, what you demanded is not possible to be done. They are coming next week, and these are for them. You had better prepare the house”.
“But you promised”, Ilaa said in anguish.
“You blackmailed me. Anyway, I will request them if wedding can be postponed by a year, I cannot ask for more”.
He declared that she was not to go out anywhere without him or his mother. He told his mother to keep an eye on her and left home.
Illa cried as she thought of what would happen to her daughter. She cried for the boy who used to take her to every nearby fair, buy trinkets and snacks for her at all the stalls until she begged him to stop. He was now a taciturn man, snapping orders at her, and spending his idle time laying dice or smoking with other men. She sat and prayed in front of the idols of Gods in the puja corner, until her mother-in-law told her to start cooking.
Ratnakar came home and complained of feeling feverish. She made him a potion of turmeric and other spices. By morning he had high fever, and could not leave house for work.
Ilaa had an inspiration. She told him in a serious tone that he was being punished by Lord Vithoba for breaking his solemn promise.
“You are making it up, he accused her.
“Think what you like. But I saw the idol of Vithoba next to your sleeping form in my dream. It is a sign for sure.”
He became doubtful but was not convinced.
The next day the fever seemed to have become worse, and he had body pain.
“I had my dream again. A voice told me that you should repent or you will not recover”. She had put on a hopeless tone.
He panicked at this and agreed to abide by his promise.
Ilaa sent for the village physician to come home. Ratnakar become better within two days.
“I will go my uncle’s house and fall at his feet. I will request him to postpone the marriage until she is grown”, he told the family.
Illa silently prayed to Vithoba to forgive her for making up a lie. After all, you too said that Ashwatthama was dead in the Kurukshetra war, she reminded Him.
“Friday is a good day to start learning. You buy a slate and chalks”, she told him.
He came back from the shop and laid down three slates in a grand show.
“Why are you wasting money? Janaki will not break her slate, I will tell her”.
Ratnakar blushed, turning his head away in the fetching way he had in the early years of their marriage, but had lost it.
“These are for us”, and he slipped away, like a boy who had blurted out a secret and could not face the reaction.