==== The dawn before Mahashivaratri ====
a story by pushkar prabhat.
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, raising her head towards the evening sky, looking for some divine affirmation to allay her few remaining doubts. The saffron horizon bled while the Sun gave up to the rule of change. No Sun, however strong and scorching has ever survived a night, maybe this was her affirmation. The routine night descended upon Sauviragram, but the following morning would be like nothing that it had ever witnessed before.
While offering prayers to Lord Shiva at the Shiva linga beneath the banyan tree, beside the Godavari river, her calm face concealed her nervousness. The new dawn had cracked.
All the women and children had already gathered around the banyan tree, waiting patiently for Ilaa to start the day with her speech. This had become a tradition of late. Ilaa was invariably respected among women. No man was there, the ghats beside that banyan tree were reserved for womenfolk.
“My dear sisters and children” she spoke and total silence followed, “the time has come. The pack of greedy merchants will arrive before the Mahashivaratri. They will fool us again, and loot our fruits of hard work.” Everyone shook their heads in approval.
“We have endured for too long and now they think they own us.” She continued “This time they also have a separate agenda, the most evil one. They come to claim our daughters, innocent little angels, as brides to toil away like slaves to their precious sons. We have to fight this, or else this won’t be the last time. We women suffer enough, but we will not choose even worse fate for our daughters. ” everyone cheered in approval.
“I have told you many stories of women, our great ancestors, which i had learned from Chitrakathai paintings. Great women like Anusuiya, Sati and Madalasa. We worship Parwati along with Shiva. We worship Durga and Kali. How can women of such holy lands be treated like household objects. Whenever the evil has risen, devi maata has slain the villains. The demons are now coming for our daughters; we mothers have to rise up to slay this evil. We have tried talking to our husbands, but they are helpless, for they fear for our protection. We must show them that we are strong. We must remind them of our importance.” Everyone was chanting “yes” “yes we must.”
The sun had climbed up. Its fresh rays were showering warmth on Ilaa’s face. Her nervousness had evaporated. She was feeling proud, securing support of all the women was no easy task.
She raised her hand and there was silence again. She spoke “Let us wash our hands, and take a solemn pledge by drinking neer of maa Godavari that we will not rest till we save our daughters. Have no doubts sisters, for they will come after us with firm hand. We are only as strong as the weakest one of us. They will distort our history, misinterpret religion, and make personal comments. But you have to always remember what we are fighting for, look at your daughters and remember that face every time you seem persuaded by their tricks. Come sisters, let us march to our fields with the chants of ‘Om Namah Shiwaya’.”
All the men were already working in the fields and they were growing suspicious of the women’s absence as the time passed. The approaching chants anxiously brought them out of their fields.
“What is all this?” Tukaram, the richest farmer and self appointed leader, asked angrily.
“We have a message for the whole Sauviragram.” Ilaa spoke in soft respectable voice. “We have decided that we will not work in the fields till….”
“Have you gone mad?” Tukaram interrupted “This is harvest season and we are so close to Mahashivaratri. You all know that a high priest from the Paithan temple is visiting. Could you not have chosen any worst time than this? Amidst preparations, trade and puja are we supposed to deal with this non sense too.”
“I don’t want to listen to anything anymore.” He almost shouted. “This is the only source of our roti. The season and puja will not wait for you. Go to you fields immediately and start picking those bales. Once we are done, we will have all the time to talk about your mehendi and jewellery.”
Ilaa tried to speak but Tukaram was in no mood to listen “And I warn all of you. If any farmer and his workers fail to harvest their crops in time; I will make sure that all of Sauviragram boycotts them for the rest of their lives.”
Ilaa was helpless. Her revolution had stopped even before starting. She looked with dejected eyes towards her husband, Rajaram. Their eyes spoke. She signalled all the women to return to the fields.
At night, that day, every one came to know about Ilaa and the women’s intentions. All men except Rajaram assembled in Tukaram’s house. There was a decision taken to force their wives into breaking all contacts with Ilaa and Rajaram. For the following two weeks there were no morning speeches made at the banyan tree.
“Tomorrow must work as we expect. I hope we didn’t miss anything.” Ilaa said while turning the chapatti on the chulha.
“Don’t worry Ilaa. We will succeed for our intentions are pure.” Rajaram sounded confident.
“The children worked very well. I have informed all women.”
“Have we gone right about this, thus far?” she spoke without waiting for a reply “The merchants and pandit are arriving tomorrow. I hope we have not waited for too long.”
There was no way of knowing. Ilaa and Rajaram exchanged hopeful stares.
The chariots and buggies rushed through the dusty paths of Sauviragram leaving a trail of dust storm behind them. Everyone was waiting to welcome them, at the Shiva mandir located in the centre of the village. The temple was decorated with flowers and rangoli. Though Mahashivaratri was three days away, today was no less than a festival for the people of Sauviragram.
Finally all vehicles came to a halt. The dust settled and then the Pandit Raghunandan and the merchants along with their sons descended from their chariots. Tukaram along with the village Pandit Jaishankar greeted them as some women applied tilaks on their forehead followed by an aarti. This was followed by a puja and then a bhoj for all the guests.
Once Raghunandan and merchants came out of the temple premises, the women led by Ilaa surrounded them. The guards moved in, suspecting a foul play.
Hiralal, the leader of the merchants questioned Tukaram “What is happening?”
Tukaram spoke with a nervous laughter “It must be nothing .” and then turning towards Ilaa he spoke trying to peacefully resolve the situation “What is this Ilaa beti? Let us go. The guests must be tired and they need to rest.”
“We mean no threat or harm. We want to make a polite appeal to the good hearted merchants and revered Pandit Raghunandanji.”
“There is appropriate time for everything Ilaa.”
“This cannot wait any longer. We women have already waited for two weeks upon your request, pradhaanji.”
Tukaram had mistakenly assumed that Ilaa has been silenced and the women were free of her influence.
“This is our personal matter. Let the guests…..”
“This concerns them too.”
All this was already testing his patience but cutting him like that was enough to break his calm facade.
“Enough. Step aside now.” He shouted. At this point the silent spectators, the men, started scolding their wives to move away. Some even tried to pull them away by their arms.
“We will not move.” She said firmly.
Tukaram was about to hit Ilaa when he was stopped by Raghunandan, who then raised his hand signalling everyone to stop and then went on to speak to Ilaa “Beti. It is okay. Speak what you seek.”
Tukaram intervened “You don’t have to do this panditji. She is a stupid woman. She has forgotten her place.”
“Be calm Tukaram. I am here. There is no point in discussing morals, now that she has already broken some rules. The least the society could do is know the cause for such actions. Yes beti Ilaa speak.” Raghunandan spoke maintaining his reverence with a sweet voice and pleasant smile.
“Forgive me panditji, I mean no disrespect to anyone. We illiterate women had no choice left after having exhausted all other options.” Ilaa had audience now. This was her day. She continued “This matter is very close to us women’s hearts. The magnitude of urgency and importance of this matter was too high to have let go.”
“Come to the point. How long do we have to stand in this afternoon sun?” Hiralal shouted.
Almost ignoring him she continued “You know devi mata has blessed our village with daughters, who are considered to be lakshmi since the times of our vedic ancestors. How unfortunate is this that you have come along with the dacoits, who want to loot our lakshmi, carrying blessings for them.”
“You stupid woman, how dare you insult panditji?” Tukaram was again stopped by Raghunandan “I took no offence.” He continued facing Ilaa “I have listened to what you said and I am surprised that you had to take such extreme measures for such trivial issue. I see no problem here other than that of your perception. I think you have been falsely led to believe some lies or you have misunderstood something. Otherwise why would you call these good people dacoits? They are here to take your daughters in marriage and not snatch them away. Ilaa your worries are baseless. “
“Panditji, these merchants are no good people. They have been robbing us of our fare share since decades. They forcefully take away our cotton and pay according to what they believe to be fair price. They have never thought of our welfare and they never will. Why should our innocent daughters sacrifice for them?”
Hiralal was instantly stirred “A women must never speak in regards to business. You villagers have hollow fantasies that we have it all very easy in the city. None of you would survive there even for a day. And what sacrifice are you talking about? You daughters will live like princesses in the city. They won’t even have to work in the fields in this burning Sun like you.”
“Why shouldn’t a woman speak about business? We work equally alongside each man thorough out the whole process of cultivation. We burn as much amount of sweat and blood to grow each bale of cotton as any other man. Why must we never speak when it is time get paid for our sweat and blood? And don’t trade us false dreams of princesses. What you want is breeding machines and slaves.”
“Is this how you keep your women” Hiralal continued addressing the whole village “The men of Sauviragram seems to have lost all masculinity and have all become sissies.” He was directly looking at Rajaram.
Ilaa had to speak “What masculinity are you talking about? You can’t even defend yourself from a woman. You come here in groups behind the mask of marriage to get free wives for your sons. What pride is there in such masculinity that cannot even give birth to a daughter?”
“You sinful woman, how dare you use such vulgar language in front of holy temple and panditji. At least fear the gods.”
“Yes the gods. I have their blessings. I have learnt about gods and heard so many vedic recitals. No incarnation of god has ever married when he or she was a child in the first place. No holy book asks such a thing of us.”
Raghunandan was angered “Your dispute with the merchants is understandable but you must not speak about traditions. You must not make claims about god on just a few heard stories.”
“Okay panditji even if these people are not evil, tell us where has god said or written that children should be married?”
“Panditji doesn’t have to prove anything to you.” Tukaram spoke “You along with every woman here was married when you were a child and what makes you an expert on children anyways, you baanjh aurat.”
“Precisely that, nobody knows how much it means to have a child, more than me. And we woman know how difficult it is for us, to be married in such young age. If a tradition brings this much pain why should it be continued? Besides, no god asks us to do such a thing.”
Raghunandan ordered the guards to disperse the ring of women; he along with others marched forward.
Ilaa announced from behind “You can avoid my reasons but remember that none of us will eat or drink anything and no chulha, in any house, will breathe fire until our daughters’ safety is guaranteed and we are paid, fairly, for our cotton.”
For three days no food was cooked in any house. No woman budged. Some even survived harsh beatings from their husbands, apart from the hunger and thirst. Children were fed fruits and women sat outside shiva temple singing aartis and performing prayers.
Raghunandan and the merchants and sons were heard to have left at midnight. Some buggies were left behind with guards to carry the bales the following day. They needed cotton more than the brides. Sauviragram was the largest producer in the area. Besides they wanted no part of any tragic action that might follow, they were businessmen first. Tukaram was left with the gold to distribute among farmers. Mahashivaratri had arrived.
Sauviragram was rejoicing to have had received fair payment in a long time. The men though happy, didn’t know how to react to the newly discovered power of women except, to celebrate and offer players to the supreme god Shiva along their side. The daughters of Sauviragram will be safe for now.
There was complete devotion and content on her face while offering milk at the Shiva linga, Ilaa had won. The women had won.
Chants of Om Namah Shiwaya echoed through the Sauviragram.
Old story, unedited version……so if there are errors please inform……
Hope you enjoyed………please leave comments……
i will be back!