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.
Her friends sat with their heads lowered. They, too, had shared Ilaa’s dream; but not her heartbreak and rage now that it had been crushed. As women born and raised in a patriarchal society, they had learned to expect just that. They were just sad to have disappointed their friend.
Ilaa looked at them and read their submission to defeat. She didn’t resent them for their lack of perseverance. She just knew she couldn’t give up like them. She directed her angry eyes towards the river. The tranquil sheet of water that spread in front of her belied the depths, which it hid underneath. Just like her resolve on this subject, she thought.
“Ah! There you are.” Lakshmi’s voice echoed from the back door of the house. She climbed down the stairs that led to the river. Ilaa sat there, on the last rung, her feet immersed in the water.
She looked perturbed and Lakshmi could guess just why. “Paarvati’s husband said ‘No’ too… I guess?”
Ilaa confirmed with a nod. After Neela’s and Vandana’s husbands, this was the third and final rejection. It was also a grave blow to Ilaa’s hopes to convince her own father for the project.
Frequent droughts in their region, made the crops suffer ever so often. Even in the years which saw adequate rains, the losses from the previous years cancelled out all the profits. Most of the families in this whole cotton producing belt, were, at best ‘hand-to-mouth’.
After months of deliberation and research, Ilaa had come up with a plan, to improve the village’s financial situation. It was common knowledge, that ever since Aurangzeb had taken over as the Viceroy of Deccan and established Aurangabad as his capital, Paithan’s local craft of weaving Paithani sarees had got a shot in the arm. He was a great patron of this 2000-year-old art. Therein lay the golden opportunity which Ilaa wanted to seize; of capitalizing on an expertise all women in Paithan held. Ilaa had been consumed with the idea of starting a karyashaala (workshop) for Paithani sarees. So far, within their district, this craft had mostly only been confined to mothers weaving sarees for their daughter’s trousseau. It was now time to take it to newer heights. Finding labor in Sauviragram would not be a problem. There was no dearth of space for the workshop either. Weaving machines and charkhas were in abundant supply too. Everything seemed providential, except for the first step; getting the men in their families to consent.
“I told you… it will not be easy.” Lakshmi’s warm eyes tried to soothe her.
“I don’t understand, Aai! This will give us all additional incomes to count on during droughts. How many families must be ruined before people open up their eyes? How many farmers should die? Paarvati’s husband almost had to mortgage his house last year, after the crops failed. Neela’s husband is knee deep in debt too. The fools still won’t agree?!” Ilaa beseeched. Their dissent made no sense to her. Their families weren’t as affluent and Ilaa’s; and therefore, unlike her, desperately needed this initiative.
Lakshmi had no answers. She supported her daughter, unreservedly. But she also knew her support carried no currency, in a society, where men dictated all the rules. Before doing anything, Ilaa would need their sanction. And they still carried their antiquated taboos like a badge worn with pride. To them, this was the same Pratishthanapura of thousands of years ago. They did not acknowledge the fact that with time, the definition of pratishtha had changed. That, what their wives and daughters were setting out to do would not tarnish their honour, rather embellish it.
“So… what’s next?”
“Ohhh!... I haven’t got the faintest idea.” Ilaa resignedly reclined on the stairs and looked up at the sky. It was nothing but a stretch of pale blue with a few white blotches of clouds. After a few moments, her languid eyes met a flock of red-crested pochards, migrating south-west to the Nath Sagar Lake. Her mother had told her that they came from lands, far beyond the Himalayas. It sparked a thought.
“It’s beautiful… isn’t it Aai?”
“What is?” Lakshmi’s eyes followed hers upwards and found the birds. “Hmmm…”
Ilaa’s eyes kept chasing the birds, as they got smaller and smaller, till they just fused indistinguishably into the blue. “I wasn’t really talking about the flock of birds.”
Lakshmi’s eyebrows furrowed into a question mark and darted back to her daughter.
“What’s beautiful… is their willingness to travel thousands of miles from home… in search of what they need.” The sparkle in her smile hinted of an ingenious plan.
“Are you sure about this?” Janaardan asked.
“Yes, Aajobaa.” She beamed at her grandfather.
He looked at Lakshmi. The calmness on his daughter’s face made it clear that she was on board with his granddaughter’s plan.
Janaardan was a member of Wasudewa Sanstha, an institution created by Sant Eknath, a sixteenth century saint from Paithan. Just like other Wasudewas, Janaardan would travel to various towns, go door to door, and sing bharuds (prayer songs) in an effort to spread social and religious messages. Ilaa had requested him to take her along, to Aurangabad, under the ruse of going to Paithan to spend a few days at the Eknath Maharaj Temple. That part was relatively, easy because Ilaa’s father, a deeply religious man, would never say no to such an expedition. It was the part about what Ilaa intended to do, once in Aurangabad, which frazzled Janaardan.
“But why would the Governor agree to help you?” he inquired.
“Because my darling Aajobaa… He has nothing to lose if it doesn’t work… and a lot to gain if it does.” Ilaa had a way of being confident, with an effulgence, which soon rubbed on to the people around her.
Janaardan had always been a doting grandfather, especially after she was widowed at the young age of twelve. Besides, she intended to use this project for the economic upliftment of poor families and especially of the widows of the farmers who committed suicide. He figured he owed it to his grandchild and this noble mission to aid her efforts.
He smiled, conceding. “You are a real tough one, aren’t you?”
The two women exhaled in relief and smiled at each other. They had a whole lot of preparations and weaving ahead of them.
Sarfaraz Khan, the Governor of Aurangabad, had made a gaffe a year ago; when Chattrapati Shivaji passed through the city and the Governor failed to pay him due homage. That dereliction of duty, did not sit well with Aurangzeb, who considered Shivaji as a powerful ally at the moment. Since then, Sarfaraz Khan had been pining for an opportunity, to do something worthy of getting him back in the Viceroy’s good books. So, one fine day, when he heard that a woman from a tiny village near Paithan, wants to see him regarding an art form, which Aurangzeb had come to be fascinated with lately; an imposing sense of serendipity made him agree to see her, at once.
He heard what Ilaa had to offer, patiently. Though he didn’t display it, but he was deeply impressed by her clarity of thought and the amount of astute planning she had put into this project. She asked for his support to set up her karyashaala. But he still wasn’t sure what was in it for him. He was almost about to dismiss her when she pulled out a saree from her bag, and started to unfold it. He looked away distractedly, because he had seen many of these before. But just then, Ilaa unfurled the trump card. The moment she spread the pallav of the saree on the table, his eyes widened. This one was quite different from any he had ever seen before. This vibrant pallav had a unique floral motif, which resembled the amalgamation of Islamic and Persian designs often found in Mughal paintings and architecture.
“Behold, O! Noble Governor… the Aurangzebi Paithani.” Ilaa presented her masterpiece.
A glint of excitement floated in the Governor’s eyes. It was the very promise of hope, which Ilaa had pursued, from Sauviragram to Aurangabad.
The crowd squatting in front of the village Panchaayat didn’t mean to be disrespectful by chattering. But they couldn’t reign in their emotions anymore; surprise and a bit of anger amongst the males, curiosity and enthusiasm amongst the women.
Ilaa stood facing the Sarpanch, calmly making her plea.
“Respected Sarpanchji, last year alone eleven farmers in Sauviragram committed suicide because their crops failed and the loans mounted. They left behind widows, orphans… Many others lost their homes and assets to the losses. What I offer, is a solution to that problem, forever.” Ilaa’s voice was soft, yet persuasive.
The Sarpanch was livid. How could he consent to what she was proposing? People of Pratishthanapura would never compromise their honor, even in the face of poverty and death. “Our women do not work or run a business. Period.” He employed the clichéd argument to stonewall Ilaa’s enterprise.
“They do. They always have.”
“Excuse me?” he bellowed.
“Just because they don’t get paid for it, doesn’t mean they don’t work Sarpanchji. Look around you…” She said pointing at the huddle of women. “They all work in the fields with their husbands. It’s just that they never get paid a single aana for it. I am giving them an opportunity to turn their hard work and talent into money.”
“Oh! That is different. They work with their husbands. Not for someone… outside their family.”
“They still won’t.”
“Please! We are not that naïve, Ilaa. They would work for you, won’t they?” His arched eyebrow and condescending tone, were aimed at deriding Ilaa for disguising her plan to make a windfall from this project, as noble intentions.
“No. They will work for themselves. What I am offering is a new form of enterprise where all of them will be the owners and hence get a share in profits, based on the quantum of their labor. It will be called a ‘Co-operative’.”
The Sarpanch was baffled. He had never heard of a set-up like this.
“The ‘Co-operative’ will offer membership to all widows and women from the poor families, who are interested. They desperately need new livelihood… They need this opportunity.”
“But… how will you manage to sell it? Our women cannot approach tradesmen in the cities to sell…”
“We won’t have to. The Governor has promised to pick up all our production, as long as we only make Aurangzebi Paithani.”
The murmur swelled. Now it had the notes of optimism to it. Lakshmi stepped forward and stood next to her daughter.
“Times have been tough, Sarpanch Ji. But we finally have a solution. This not only gives us women something worthwhile to do with our time, and make money in the process… It also puts Sauviragram on the map, as far as Viceroy Aurangzeb is concerned. Rumors have it that he is next in line to Shah Jahan’s throne. Imagine the merits of Sauviragram being one of his favourite villages; the one that helped him build a legacy? Tax rebates for our farmers, infrastructure development… perhaps a post for you in the district administration? You will after all, be the face of this village.” This demeanour was a little sycophantic for Lakshmi’s taste, but she had known the Sarpanch long enough to know it would work.
It did. Sarpanch’s face softened. “Do you think Aurangzeb would like that?”
“He already does.” Ilaa’s outstretched hand held out a letter, from Aurangzeb which she had carried back from her meeting with the Governor. Therein, signed by the Viceroy himself, was an order for a hundred sarees.
Aurangzeb was smitten, by the splendor of Ilaa’s perfect weave, which Sarfaraz showed him. Never before had the historical craft of Paithani been associated with any particular dynasty, although it had been patronized by many. Not until, Ilaa had designed the first ever Aurangzebi motif. Aurangzeb couldn’t miss this golden opportunity.
Ilaa closed her argument, in her trademark poised tone, which always dispelled all further doubts. “No one can pass over a chance to create a legacy, Sarpanchji, not even future emperors... And neither should you.”
The Sarpanch caught her hint. Women in the crowd burst into a volcanic applause. That is the thing about a change that has been a long time coming. The day it finally decides to erupt, the so called gate keepers of the society have no option but to conform. That is what the Sarpanch and the rest of the Panchayat also did, that evening.
Ilaa sat hunched over the accounts of Naari Shakti Udyog. She didn’t yet know, that what she had created, would go down in the annals of history as the first ever Women’s only Co-operative Organization of India. She didn’t do all this for the laurels anyway. She did it for the gay singing and laughter, mixed with the humdrum of the charkhas, which echoed from the workshop floor outside. Fifty women worked there, against the clock to finish the latest order; this one for Aurangzeb’s sister Jahanara and her courtiers. Jahanara had always been more supportive of her their elder brother Dara Shikoh’s candidature for the throne. This gift was the latest one in Aurangzeb’s attempts to woo her.
Lakshmi brought in Ilaa’s lunch. Ilaa smiled gratefully, rolled a chappati, and took a bite, never once taking her eyes off the books.
Lakshmi just stood there beaming with pride. She had never really liked the name Ilaa. A fable dictated that King Ila, the founder of Pratishthanapura, was cursed by Lord Shiva once. The curse made him turn into a woman every alternate month. For a long time, he had to live this maddening life of duality.
Looking at her daughter now, for the first time, Lakshmi concluded that the name suited her daughter perfectly. Because Ilaa most certainly was, a summation of the best qualities of the masculine and the feminine: industrious, enterprising, free-spirited and strong-willed.