The Shores of Freedom
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.
The trees lining the shore swayed elegantly in the breeze, their fruit laden branches moving musically. They were not startled at the obviously irritated Ilaa, an unforgivable indulgence for a woman. They had seen her thus agitated, many times, before. They may have tried to soothe her with the pretty flowers and fruity treats.
The worms of unrest began wriggling within her about a year ago. Until then, she had hardly any time to reflect on her life. From childhood, she had been taught all the essential skills of a wife. She had no doubt that the only goal in her life was to toil for the comfort of her husband, his parents and her own children. Life was flowing on, like the Godavari, one day after the other. The waters of Godavari danced and sparkled, while her days grew dimmer.
When those mysterious turbulences hit her, she ran to the banks of Godavari. A space where she could vent. Today, she was anxious about her friend Malini. She was the closest thing to a friend that Ilaa had in the village. She was brought there just about the same time as Ilaa. Initially, Ilaa had resented her, for everyone compared the two of them. Malini was more beautiful and obviously efficient in regular daughter-in-law duties.
Ilaa was made very aware of her defects, every day, by her highly discontent mother-in-law. Her husband also openly admonished her clumsiness, but she was under the delusion that he did love her, for the nights were hardly restful. The reality broke itself into her about two children later, when she realised that she was just another thing of comfort to him. Her happiness or pain mattered none to him. She had functions to perform. She needed no rest, no friends and certainly, no fun. She had no right to feel insulted or humiliated. She had no self-respect to defend, in his eyes.
Malini and Ilaa had become friends slowly, never able to confide in each other initially. During the dry season, when the wells in the village dried up, they made trips to the river, washed clothes and carried water back for the household use. They realized that they enjoyed carrying pitchers of water from the thinning river much more than working in the comfort of their houses. The path was hard, the pitchers heavy, but they were free. They talked about everything, from heroic tales of Shivaji Maharaj to the little hurtful incidents back home.
Malini had no children. Her husband Gopal seemed unaffected but his parents were not. They pestered him day and night to take another wife. Three years dragged on, Malini became the unwanted burden, where once she was glorified. Meanwhile, Ilaa had two children in quick succession. Her first born was a son, who immediately gave her an elevated, advantageous position in the entire village. She had started feeling a bit pompous and self-important when the next one arrived, a daughter. That reminded her with a pinch, where women stood, in the grand scheme. Her daughter wasn't applauded. The sweets were not sent out. The dhols and music were not heard at all.
On this particular day, Ilaa was getting ready for the cotton fields when she heard Malini's mother-in-law bemoaning the childless garden of their ancestral home. She was perplexed that Gopal refused to marry again. So she planned to send Malini away, back to her mother's home. Ilaa could not contain the fury rising inside. She marched to the courtyard where the ladies were plotting the eviction of her friend.
“How can you even think of this? What will she do in her father's home?” Ilaa demanded.
Malini's mother-in-law looked at Ilaa with disapproval and cut a sharp glance of discontent to Ilaa's own mother-in-law who was already alarmed at Ilaa's bold manner.
"Go back inside, Ilaa. This is nothing that concerns you," she hissed.
Ilaa stared coldly at her, clearly seeing that the consequences of this rebellion would be very unpleasant. But she could not quietly pretend that all was well with the world.
"It does concern me. I will not allow Malini to be treated unfairly. How can you blame only her for not producing children? Don't you know that a woman cannot do that by herself?"
Malini's mother-in-law was scandalized. Her eyes grew large, almost as if she was trying to emit fire rays out of them to vaporise Ilaa on the spot.
“How dare you talk to me like this?” she thundered.
A murderous look settled on the face of Ilaa's mother-in-law.
“Ilaa! Apologize right now!” she demanded.
Ilaa wasn't particularly in a frame of mind, today, to be coerced into offering up even fake apologies. She looked calmly at the very disturbed women in front of her. Suddenly, she took off. She ran all the way to the shores of Godavari. She sat there throwing stones into the deep waters, as though her own troubles were being expelled thus.
"Why do others decide what we should do? When we get married, who we marry, what work we do? I am sick of this!"
The stone she flung touched the water at a surprisingly far distance. She stood up, delighted. She heard a clapping and turned around.
There stood Malini, smiling.
"Strong arm!" Malini said.
“Why are you not in the fields?” Ilaa asked
"I heard Mohan's wife went crazy," she replied.
"The news of the rotten daughter-in-law spreads fast."
"You have added the thrill to their day. Must have gotten bored discussing me."
Ilaa said with sadness, "They are sending you back to your parents home."
"I know. You can't get involved in this. It's my fate," Malini looked away into the deep waters.
"Don't say fate. You have to do something. You do not have anything back in your parents home. They may not even take you in," Ilaa was almost shouting.
Ilaa knew of some women in the village who had been abandoned by their husbands. Their own parents treated them with contempt. Some laboured in the cotton fields for very fewer benefits. Their abject poverty and apparent social isolation had always grieved Ilaa. She couldn't let that happen to her best friend.
"I know what you should do. You need a child. Do you like that Murali in the market? Who sells bangles? Why don't you seduce him?" Ilaa suggested.
Malini looked appalled. “I will never betray Gopal.”
"He doesn't touch you, Malini, and he is not going to stop his mother from throwing you out. He is not worth it. Don't you see that?" Ilaa was shouting.
"He is a very nice man. He is very kind", Malini was on the verge of tears.
“Is he a man? What man doesn't touch his wife and sleeps with another man?”
Malini started sobbing.”I told you to never repeat that.”
But Ilaa could not be stopped. “If he cannot produce children with you, then you find someone who can. Look at Kunti Devi. How do you think Arjun was born when Pandu could not touch Kunti?”
Malini stared at Ilaa in disbelief. “The Gods granted the children to Kunti Devi.”
“Then why did she have to abandon Karna? It's not a sin, Malini. You have examples to follow in the Vedas. Everyone did it.”
“I am not sleeping with any other man. I cannot do it!” Malini shook her head vigorously.
“Do you think Gopal would mind? After you saw him with your own eyes, with another man?”
"Ilaa, you know that I can't do that. I don't want to sleep with someone in secret and have a child of shame. Now stop talking about Gopal," Malini sobbed uncontrollably.
Ilaa realized then that Malini was the perfect victim of the moral laws laid down by the society they lived in. She couldn't deceive. Even when she was hurtling towards a miserable life of loneliness and poverty.
"Promise me that you will come here tonight after everyone goes to sleep," Ilaa said calmly.
“Why?” Malini wiped her tears.
“I am not letting you sink in quicksand. Just come and we will find a way to save you,” Ilaa replied.
Malini nodded her head and walked away.
After dinner, Ilaa was quietly folding clothes when Mohan started yelling.
“Who do you think you are? You think you are very beautiful? You know everything about the world? You are very clever? How dare you talk to my mother like that?”
Ilaa wasn't paying much attention to his antics. He may have thrown a box or bowl at her, but she dodged it with ease. Skills that she developed over the years. Mohan wound down after some more debasing of her and her parents.
The darkest, deepest hour of the night descended. The village was safely tucked in. Malini had dared to reach the rendezvous point. She had done it few times before when she and Ilaa had helped a poor couple in love, elope. Tonight she didn't find Ilaa, instead there waited, the startling figure of a man.
Malini wanted to turn back and run, but the man called out to her, "Malini, come with me."
She turned stone cold and tried to locate a suitable rock to throw at this thin, strangely familiar man.
"I am here to help you. Come with me to Paithan. I know you can weave beautiful clothes. We can start a small shop there. Also, I need a wife to look after my children," he continued.
He pointed towards a bullock cart, laden with some bundles of what appeared to be clothes and some household utensils. She also spotted two little sleeping children inside.
Malini was speechless. She just could not believe that Ilaa had fixed a match for her in such a short time. She glanced back and forth, from the cart to the man, from the man to the cart.
Where was Ilaa? She scanned the area near the water, near the trees, near the bushes.
The man spoke up “Ilaa is not coming. I am taking you with me.” He took steps towards her.
Malini reached down for a rock. The man started laughing. He took off his turban and moustache and there appeared Ilaa's face!
The rock dropped from her hand while Malini's jaw almost touched her feet.
"No time to waste, we must travel as far as possible before sunrise and the masters of our fate miss our services," Ilaa said, taking Malini's hand.
“But...how? What?” Malini stammered as she walked along with Ilaa toward the bullock cart. Ilaa's children were sleeping comfortably inside.
"I don't want to live here anymore. We are going to try and find a life where we have respect and happiness. The world requires a husband and children for a woman to be respectable, so now you have it. I can do a man's work any day. Paithan will be a good start. A lot of traders, even those foreigners. We can weave clothes and sell them. This is our only chance Malini, if we do not take it, a lifetime of tears is all we get. "
Malini found herself nodding, a nervous excitement mingled with joy rising up within.
“What if they catch us?”
"Do you think they will come as far as Paithan to look for us? You stay indoors the first few days, we will change your look and dressing so that you won't be easily recognised. They won't see through my disguise anyway. May have to cut my hair that is going to be very sad."
“How do you think of all these?” Malini wondered in admiration.
"The Vedas, dear, there is another Ila who lived as a man for a month and a woman for the next. My grandmother taught me the Vedas. That is why they don't let us learn anything, now. So that we stop thinking. They want to push us around like their cattle."
Malini giggled and the two scampered to the bullock cart.
“What if I refused to come, Ilaa? What would you have done?”
“Look at my two children sleeping so soundly. I have given them some herbs. I would have tricked you into having the same thing and dragged you into the cart. Sometimes you don't know what is good for you,” Ilaa replied forcefully.
Malini pretended to be angry and struck on her arm.
That's when they saw another figure by the bullock cart. Gopal!
Malini and Ilaa stopped moving and looked at each other. Had everything had fallen to pieces, even before it began?
Then Gopal spoke up.
"I always follow you, Malini, whenever you get up at night and wander around. Only for your protection. You have protected me, even when I was causing all the problems you face. You deserve a happy life. You should go now, with Ilaa. I will make sure no one finds you there, in Paithan. Here, take these rings. Should fetch a good price."
He handed over his rings to Malini and smiled, then walked away.
“You are truly the best man I know, Gopal. A complete man in every sense,” Ilaa called out from behind. Gopal stopped and turned towards them.
“Very few would think so, Ilaa but I am happy that you do. I will miss the both of you.”
Malini and Ilaa jumped into the cart and embarked on their adventurous quest of freedom. The shores of Godavari bid them a joyful adieu and sighed, waiting for the next woman of spirit who would pursue liberation and hoping to witness it.