Ilaa was not found in the fields. Very close to the city of Paithan, in the then seventeenth century India, 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 found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was found sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

‘I am sick of this!’ she grunted loudly.

Ilaa was lost in her thoughts. Those were about her sweet childhood days. She would pick up all necessary skills of performing arts such as singing and painting with remarkable expertise. Many people of her village appreciated her talents. She recalled, as a child, how she would sing melodiously at the gatherings of old-ladies on the porch of the village-temple. She soliloquized…

Wish in my childhood I could go to a gurukula as the son of the temple-priest of our village had gone to study the sacred Vedic-texts. The Acharya of our Village-Paathshala used to say that in the ancient Vedic period, women were also equally respected in our society and enjoyed equal rights as any man.

One evening, in her father’s house, the Acharya of village-Paathshala narrated a story written nine hundred years before, by the great Sanskrit scholar Bhavabhuti, in which he mentioned how the female characters of his stories traveled alone far from their homes in search of better education.

Ilaa recalled furthermore.

The priest’s son could hardly write sensibly well. And he would invariable halt at least five times to read a page of any book. Acharya would scold him often and at times would cane him too for not pronouncing correctly.

She reflected inwardly with pride.

My father liked my reading skills very much and he was equally ecstatic seeing me writing the Marathi alphabets on a slate. He would appreciate my neat handwriting and impeccable spellings often. But today though all my family members know about me but many of them are apathetic about my strong desire for learning and singing. I wonder. Why should I not get equal rights?

Singing folk-songs was too dear to her and she loved very much making drawings of birds, flowers, butterflies etc. But pens, brushes, handmade-papers, pieces of silk fabric and colours were luxury for them. There was a very rich family of Wakhares, the moneylender of Paithan. Wakhare household was about a mile north of her village, Sauviragram. They had good rapport with the then administrators of the Maratha rulers. A kind hearted aunty named Taru of that house would talk to Ilaa very affectionately. At times Ilaa would walk down the path, strewn with scrubby bushes. She preferred to walk through that to avoid the prying eyes of the worthless loafers. By the help of her acquaintances with the attendants of that household she would easily enter into the house of Wakhares maintaining evasive secrecy. Her aunt was the true motherly person for her. She was almost like a connoisseur of art. With very keen help and cooperation of one of her sons she was gradually enriched in the field of miniature paintings. She was very much excited to know from her son that several established artists have appreciated the earlier drawings of Ilaa, which she had shared with him. Some of them were not even ready to accept that the works were of some ordinary village woman.

Ilaa soliloquized.

Let’s visit Taru aunt’s house once. I would like to see more art-works of good painters. She promised me the other day that she would order for me the things required for drawing miniature paintings. She would sing devotional songs for me and in return I will make drawings for her and sing Abharingas of Sant Tukaram for her. I’m sure she’ll be happy.

Sitting by the banks of Godavari gazing at the drifting vessels she decided to go to her aunt’s house. The other day her aunt showed her some beautiful small paintings. She came to know from her aunt that those celestially beautiful art-works were made by the apprentices of the famous painter Ustad Mansur, one of the leading members of the then period of Mughal painters, famed for his animal and bird studies. All the natural characters and motifs in the form of people, animals, birds, umpteen kinds of plants having details of leaves and flowers were painted so well. She wished to make such beautiful drawings one day.

She started walking across the bushy path.

Wish I could get an opportunity to try my hands on such fine-textured hand-made papers or pieces of silk fabric, use fine brushes and bright colours to make beautiful small pictures dear to my heart. Seeing my earlier drawings aunt Taru promised me that she would order all these paraphernalia for me.

A few years had gone by. But she would vividly recollect the day of her marriage. Her own village House was quite nearby to the village of her in-laws. Her husband, Gagan, a well-built man with child-like simplicity, would toil in the fields all day. In her in-laws’ house she could get along with all members very well. The first surprising finding for her was the system of keeping the records of various accounts in her in-laws’ house. She found that on a wall of the granary one of her husband’s brothers would scratch lines and symbols to keep the past records of their agricultural produce and major events of barter without any deliberations of buy and sell. Traders being tricksy enough, divulged endless ways to easily convince the gullible members of the house of her in-laws, as a result, there were no considerable gains year after year in spite of their toiling.

Ilaa lamented.

What’s the point of repenting if there are no records of the past transactions? The traders used to keep record in their books but they knew very well that there were no deliberations in our record-keeping-system. Thus, the traders found us easy prey to befool.

As Ilaa explained the exact reasons of the losses incurred in the past for their household to her mother-in-law, she turned furious and erupted in a rage of fit to her husband, Ilaa’s father-in-law. Then onwards, Ilaa was told to keep the records. Amidst the utter disbelief in the eyes of others of that family, she managed to procure a new-account-book, a sort of ledger and started keeping the book-of-accounts of their household using a quill and ink prepared from burnt rice. As a result, in the next successive years there were considerable gains for their family.

Ilaa, as per scriptures, another name of the mother-earth, was writhed for her un-quoth sufferings. She was lost in her thoughts. She would find no way to express her feelings. At times despite her complete unawareness she would become the target of a storm of criticism for she wasn’t blessed with a child yet.

Am I inauspicious? How am I responsible for the non-occurrences I had to face in my life? Hasn’t God kept anything that I could look forward to?

She was lost again in her timeless thoughts…

She soliloquized.

Oh almighty! Let me sing an Abharinga for you. Let me overcome my sorrows, Oh almighty! Strengthen my mind and purify my soul.

She knew that her family members would be looking for her to complete the works of picking cotton from the fields and making bales of cotton ready before the traders come to the marts of Paithan. During such instances some senior relatives would feel very strongly about her, and remark, what an impudent daughter-in-law indeed!

Keeping a jute bag tied on the back with threads, holding the branches of cotton-plants by one hand and lightly detaching the fluffy cotton from the split-open fruits by the other hand was too cumbersome and monotonous kind of work for her. In addition to that, while moving slowly and clumsily in between the rows of cotton plants loaded with sharp-tipped split-open fruits and repeatedly getting exposed to the persistent scratches all over the body was something she hated the most.

Her aunt shared with her more paintings and handed over the things she promised to her. As her aunt sang a few songs by that time she drew and painted some drawings. In those, there were motifs of diverse natural things such as animals of various kinds, flowers including some very ordinary things of their day to day life, as mundane as white cotton escaping from a split-open mature fruit.

Her aunt showed her a few Paithani sarees.

As her aunt was showing those silk bonanzas, frolicking thoughts flashed at the back of her mind. Ilaa indulged in reminiscence, “How many occasions are left for aunt to attend draped in such luxuries? Her daughters-in-law are very much lucky indeed! After all they are going to inherit these envious designer gears!”

The words were about to slip off her tongue. Thank god. She restrained. Corners of her mouth turned up owing to smiles, wicked dimples appeared on her chicks and disappeared soon. Jokes apart, she resolved, noticing the borders of one gorgeous saree she was very much excited and then soliloquized…

If I get an opportunity I can share my various distinctive drawing forms and shapes which would make the borders even more aesthetically marvelous. But how!…

What are you murmuring? Won’t you share with me? Aunt enquired.

Hiding her wicket thoughts, as she shared her plans with her aunt, she was taken aback because her aunt was about to apprise that several established artists have appreciated the earlier drawings of Ilaa. Some of them were not even ready to accept that those earlier drawings were the works of someone as ordinary-novice as Ilaa.

Before going to her aunt’s house Ilaa carelessly left one of her scarves, the modesty vests, by the banks of Godavari. It was quite a childish act. She felt very sorry for her impulsive behavior. Her family members were searching everywhere. And as they came across her scarf right on the bank of Godavari, they feared.

She apprised the same to her aunt…

I should rush to my house now. I forgot my scarf on the bank of the river. I’m sure, my family members might be frantically looking for me everywhere.

Ilaa being a compulsively emotional, some members of her family were a bit apprehensive for her sudden disappearance. They rushed to all those houses nearby where she had some acquaintances. Mayank, son of the youngest brother of her husband, Magan, absorbed in his childish thoughts, “Good Lord, no one will enforce me to read, write or memorize tables hereafter! Oh, What a Mukti!”

The western horizon turned red owing to the sunset. She found bemused Gagan absentmindedly looking at the vastness of flowing Godavari. He was in a state of complete supplication. The setting was quite befitting for Ilaa to suddenly reappear as a nebulous image out there to surprise him.

“Meet me, the ghost of your wife, Ilaa”, saying this she filled the backdrop of departing sunset ambience with her signature giggle exposing her gleaming pearly teeth. The laughter resounded too impertinent for that solemn natural setting. He kept looking at her with a bewildered gaze. She snapped. “What are you looking at? Did you expect me to come out of the unfathomable waters of Godavari?” The suavity of Gagan’s face glowed for a split second and in the next moment a sense of relief swept over him. While Ilaa was elated for there were no reasons for her to feel any misgivings. She too heaved a sigh of relief.

After a few minutes of speechlessness, both of them finally rose to leave that spot. They returned home.

In the household of her in-laws she would never compromise with the children’s learning. It was she who ushered in the regular practice of reading writing etc. for the children. She would invariably look after their reading, writing and basic numerical aptitudes such as memorizing tables for she believed that without education a child would remain misfit for the society. And she would not allow any parent to interfere. Her gestures made it very clear that she would not accept any form of negligence. Brothers and cousins of her husband would mockingly comment, “Gagan, How do you live with such a glum wife?”

Ilaa came to know that Magan’s wife, Prithaa, was born and brought up in a family of bunkars, the weavers of that area. One day both Ilaa and Prithaa met the family whom aunt Taru had suggested them to meet. Through the members of that family and off course by the consent of the seniors of Ilaa’s family, a new venture was commenced within the perpetual farmers’ household. It was definitely a significant change in the household which was obviously a step towards achieving women’s equal rights. Aunt’s son helped them to establish the loom etc. for he was to be benefitted soon being the trader of the products of the loom, the Paithani sarees.

The most crucial part for Ilaa was to convince her mother-in-law.

How will we be benefitted from this looms and accessories?

Mother, we parted with grains to get it installed in our household but we will gain gold from the wholesalers and traders from Paithan as we exchange the sarees we’re going to produce.

How can we make the sarees? This was definitely unbelievable for her. As an illiterate septuagenarian woman who had seen nothing except farming in her lifetime, this was the strangest thing to hope for.

Yes of course, Mother, our Prithaa has come from a bunkar’s family; she will help any woman of the household who likes to learn this. And together we can.

Taking the advantage of midnight’s calmness the task of weaving the first saree was accomplished by the collective efforts of two daughters-in-law. And then, it was shown to their mother-in-law. The old lady squatted on the floor and keeping the maiden product on her lap, she noticed the motif called cotton bud or Rui phul for she could easily recognize the same. She touched the fabric lightly and moved her wizened and frail fingers over those motifs on a part of the border.

Looking at her trembling fingers Ilaa strangely sensed the touchy feeling exactly as she would experience in her childhood by the tender touch of her own mother, her ma.

~ Tender Touch of Ma ~

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Chandrayee Bhattacharyya
বাড়ি বাঁকুড়া জেলার মন্দির-নগরী বিষ্ণুপুর শহরে, জন্ম সেখানেই। বাবার চাকরিসূত্রে গুজরাতে আসা। আর তার জন্যই স্কুল কলেজের পড়াশুনা গুজরাতের কাঠিয়াবাড় প্রান্ত থেকে। বর্তমানে ফার্মাকোলজি নিয়ে পোস্ট গ্রাজুয়েশন করে বরোডা সিটির একটি এম এন সি তে কর্মরত। মাতৃভাষা বাংলার সাথে শিশু অবস্থা থেকে কখনই যোগাযোগ বিচ্ছিন্ন হয়নি। নিজের পড়াশুনোর মাধ্যমে ইংরেজি, হিন্দি এবং গুজরাতি শেখার সাথে সাথেই বাংলা বইও পড়তে ভালো লেগেছে বরাবরই।

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