Ilaa’s Battle

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.