By Supriya Rakesh
By the River
Close to the city of Paithan, somewhere in the west of the Indian continent, flowed the great river Godavari. In a small village that lay along its banks, lived a girl named Ilaa.
It was the spring of 1818, as the British would come to document it.
Ilaa belonged to a family of simple cotton farmers. Harvest season was here; and it was time to pick cotton from the fields. Traders from Paithan would be here in just a few weeks; bringing goods for barter. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time. While Ilaa’s family toiled away in the fields, she was sitting by herself, on the banks of Godavari.
“This is terrible!”
Ilaa picked up a pebble and flung it into the hungry water-currents with some force.
She had been forbidden to come to the fields today. In the morning, she wasn’t allowed to enter the kitchen to talk to her mother, or even pass by the devghar where she offered flowers to the Devi every morning. Also, her legs hurt if she walked too fast or sat too slow.
Evading the prying eyes of her grand-mother, she had left her designated corner behind the house to sit by the river; her only friend in such times. She often confided her loneliness to the river, though the waters seldom replied. But at least the Godavari listened, without scolding; something that could not be said of the humans in Ilaa’s life.
This whole problem had started three months ago when Ilaa had, as her mother very discreetly put it, started ‘turning into a woman’.
Before that, Ilaa was just a person.
She spent most of her days tagging along with her four brothers: flying kites, chasing birds, kicking stones by the river, and swimming in shallow puddles when it rained. Being the youngest, and the only girl, she was her father’s favourite. This meant she got more presents and less punished for collective mischief.
She also had other indulgences, like her long hair and the warm, gentle feeling of Mai massaging hot oil on her scalp. She liked her two long plaits, bouncing behind her neck; and her long skirts — twirling and colourful — with golden patterns at their borders. And sometimes (but not always, as she was so sloppy) she could wear bangles and other odd jewelry. She loved the music made by the clanging of bangles when she ran.
Ilaa’s life had been great, until she started turning into a woman.
It all happened one fateful evening. Ilaa was running in the lane outside, chasing away a particularly annoying puppy that had made its way into their verandah. She did not realise how far she had come, or the growing damp stain at the back of her deep green skirt.
Suddenly, she felt a stiff hand on her shoulder.
“Come, come with me,” A maushi* from their neighbourhood stopped her with a surprising harsh voice.
She then walked Ilaa home in stern silence and asked to see her mother. Both women spoke for some time in a shamefully secretive huddle. Ilaa stood by the door, wondering what she had done.
Everything changed that day. Somehow, Ilaa could not help thinking it was all her fault.
She picked up another white pebble, then hesitated. Was she allowed to touch it? With all these new rules, she just wasn’t sure anymore.
The Story of a Curse
Now that Ilaa was somewhat of a woman, she spent more time with her mother indoors, doing woman-like things. It was boring, and she usually protested loudly till Mai either burst into angry tears or let her off free.
One of the things Ilaa did not mind was accompanying her mother to visit Ramabai, Tuesday afternoons, after their visit to the temple. Ramabai lived at the farther end of the village, and the way to her house was through an upward sloping lane. Ilaa liked running along it, pretending not to hear Mai’s warnings trailing after her.
Ilaa liked Ramabai.
She looked about the same age as her mother, but without those worry-lines that laced the faces of most grown-ups. There was something different about her — her eyes shone with a kind wisdom, characteristic of only the very wise kind of people.
Ramabai was a varkari (Mai had told her) — a full-time devotee, a woman of knowledge and poetry, a rarity in Ilaa’s world. She had travelled to distant lands, read ancient texts and could fluently narrate mythological tales.
Her favourite subject was the Vedic times, and the prestige that women had enjoyed back then.
“They were treated with respect, they were seen as equals!” she would lament, a trace of bitterness in her otherwise calm eyes, stemming perhaps, from the historian’s own histories.
Usually Ilaa did not make much sense of these stories; she liked Ramabai’s soothing voice, and the animated expressions on her face. But today, she listened with rapt attention, and a rising discomfort in her belly.
“Have you not heard it, the story of your name-sake, King Ila? The one cursed to live like a woman?”
Of course, Ilaa had heard this story may a time.
She was after all, named after the great mythical king Ila. King Ila who had built the city of Pratiṣṭhāna, which they now called Paithan. Or just ‘the city’, in regular conversation. Perhaps someday, she too would build her own kingdom.
But today, as the story-teller’s voice turned from cheerful to somber, she listened with the foreboding knowledge of an unhappy twist in the tale. The great King on a hunting trip, trespassed into the sacred forests of Sharavana, and was cursed by Lord Shiva to turn into a woman.
“Oh, womanhood — it is a curse!” she had heard this plaint many a times, from her mother and several others. But today, Ilaa appreciated it with the fresh horror of new-found understandings. Yes, it had to be, she too had strayed onto an unfamiliar path. She too had been inflicted by the very same curse!
The story trudged towards its less-than-satisfactory ending.
King Ila (who had now become Ilā) prayed and prayed to Lord Shiva, but the curse could not be revoked, it could only be reduced. Just like her, the King now turned into a woman once every month.
Everybody spoke about Shivaji Raje all the time these days.
Ilaa’s family (like the rest of their village) outwardly bore their loyalties with their official rulers. But it was difficult not to feel proud of Shivaji Raje, the brave Maratha warrior-king. The first emperor who spoke their language. He who had fought wars with only an army of peasants. He who had given the very dangerous Aurangzeb many sleepless nights!
Ba loved talking about Shivaji Raje, especially when someone from ‘the city’ came around.
Ilaa would secretly dream of becoming a warrior (she too was a farmer, wasn’t she?) and joining this army. Sometimes she would say it out aloud.
“Girls cannot be warriors!” Her brothers would tease her.
“Well, they used to be in Vedic times!” She would retort.
After her frequent trips to the varkari; whenever cornered, ‘vedic times’ was her final, winning argument. Earlier, her parents would laugh indulgently, now they exchanged glances, laced with secret meanings and worry.
Today, again, Shivaji was the central protagonist of the story-discussion at dinner.
Ba’s old friend was visiting from Paithan (the children called him kaka) and had stayed for dinner. While Mai sat at the coal-fuelled stove spreading thick balls of dough on the iron pan; it was Ilaa’s job to serve the bhakar**, hot and delightful, to the men-folk, seated before their hungry plates.
Ilaa was hungry too — as her stomach, unaware of its belonging to a woman, reminded her from time to time, with low-range rumbles. But what annoyed her more was not being able to hear whole of the dinner conversation.
As usual, kaka was talking in his energetic voice, gesturing with his hands, dropping food particles all around the floor. She could only hear bits and pieces, as she took the longest time possible to serve the bhakar and lurked on the way back, till Mai had to shout for her to return.
“It will be such a privilege, that he will visit Paithan! We are all so eager, so eager, to catch even a glimpse of him, the great Shiva-raya!”
Ilaa’s ears perked up and her heart started thumping steadily. As she went about the rest of her chores mechanically, her hunger had vanished. And in its place, an idea took birth and grew in her stomach, and then slowly, consumed her completely.
Ilaa had found the Shiva who would rescue her from her curse!
It was getting increasingly difficult to lie still.
Ilaa began to feel nauseous, as the grinding movement of the horse-carriage threatened to lull her into sleep. The white fluff of cotton looked menacing in the dark, like a shape-changing monster, a rakshas closing in on her.
Sweat gathered on her brow, her neck, she tried to wipe it away with the ends of her skirt. Her throat was running dry, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold up.
Ilaa was running away to Paithan to meet Shivaji Raje***!
The plan had been very simple. It was that time of the year when traders made their way from Paithan to her village, with goods for barter. On return, they would be loaded with the bales of cotton, and she would sneak in between them, unseen. The following day, she would be in the city; and then the only thing left to be done would be to find Shivaji Raje.
As the hours passed and breathing eluded her more and more, she was no longer sure of her idea.
Ilaa had never been anywhere alone — her movement always bound defined by the house, fields and the river. And now, with this new curse of womanhood, her space was shrinking further. That is why this had to be done now — the heroic escape. After that, who knew?
The plan culminated into her destined meeting with Shivaji. And nothing beyond. Maybe once he lifted her curse, she would request Shivaji permission to join his army of peasant-warriors. If he hesitated, she could talk about the Vedic times…
Within hours of his return journey, the trader found an unconscious girl at the back of his carriage, in the midst of his cotton. The search for the girl’s origins began and Ilaa was brought back home by next morning.
Still reeling under the motion-sickness of the claustrophobic carriage, it all felt like a terrifying dream. Ilaa’s prayers remained unspoken, unanswered.
Today was the day Ilaa would go to her new home.
She was ready– flowers in hair, bangles in wrist. She wore a paithani saree that Ba had brought her; peacock embroidery in silver, a rare luxury for a farmer like him. Mai hadn’t stopped crying since last night; her eyes had turned all red and she let out intermittent sobs as she went about her chores.
The last time she had cried like this was the night Ilaa had disappeared. By morning, the family had given up all hope. So, when their child was brought back home in a semi-conscious state, sheer relief had taken over any instinct to chide. They never even asked her why she ran away, hoping that she would have no recollection of the event.
“Something had possessed her!” Ba shuddered.
“Yes, the devi**** had entered her for sure,” Mai agreed.
“Ilaa must now go to her home, soon,” Ba declared.
“Yes, we cannot delay this any further, word may get out.” Mai sighed.
Ilaa’s husband and her new parents came to visit shortly after.
She had been instructed to sit quietly; head bowed. That came easily to her these days – she didn’t talk much anyway or laugh too loud. She rarely joined her brothers when they played outside; her bones felt overcome with fatigue and everything seemed effortful. At first, her parents thought Ilaa was ill, not yet fully recovered from ‘that night’. Then they got used to it, perhaps she was mature now.
She had been told what to expect from married life. Not everything made sense. But one thing was clear – from this day onwards, she would be a woman every day of her life.
Maybe it wasn’t that bad, she thought. It was a relief to be back, to have Mai care for her. Now, her bounded space had started to feel comfortable. She could breathe. Eat, even if later than her brothers. Home was safe.
Gradually, Ilaa recovered and her strength came back, but the desire to fight her curse did not.
It wasn’t that bad. After all, even King Ila (who built the great kingdom of Paithan) had lived with the curse. Got married to Budh*****, had children, played her part as a woman.
They would be here soon.
That day, through deceptively downcast eyes, she had managed a glance of her husband. He looked like a grown-up, older than her oldest brother. He was also taller, with kind, wise eyes.
“He is a good human being; he will be good to Ilaa,” she heard her parents reassure each other.
Tonight, she would be in her new home. It was not far from here, she was told; in the next village, on the other side of Godavari. They had cotton fields there too.
Maybe, sometimes, just sometimes, she could run through the fields, maybe kick some stones by the river. Perhaps her good husband would be all right with that, her not being a woman sometimes.
Or perhaps he would be her Budh, fighting alongside her, to lift this curse.
Supriya Rakesh is a social researcher and writer from Mumbai. Her work engages with the notion of ‘storied selves’ in multiple ways- narrative research, community theatre, and writing fiction. Her stories are often set in urban India, exploring the lives and choices of young adults in a society-in-transition. Her work has been published in Dastaan World magazine, Culture Cult magazine, and anthologies titled ‘Dreamscapes’,’The Other’ and ‘Rapture’. She is also the Editor of ‘ang(st)’, a feminist zine (www.angstftzine.com) She loves the Mumbai rains, strong cups of cappuccino and stories of unrequited love. She is an old soul who prefers Facebook to Instagram (@supriyarakeshauthor).
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