In pursuit of Identity

'I am sick of this!' she grunted loudly. Sitting on the bank of River Godavari in the city of Paithan, Ilaa felt strangled by her father as he pressured her into getting married. She threw a small rock in the flow of the river and watched the ripple. This was her escape from reality. Watching the river glisten and flow like a free spirit, overcoming all obstacles. However, not even the pleasant breeze or submerging her feet in the water could keep her mind off her fathers words. 

That morning, while cooking chapatisIlaa overheard her father Vaivasvata Manu, talking to her elder brother Govind. After this harvest, it would be the best time to get Ilaa married.” Her brother agreed and said, Merchants are always looking for good brides for their sons.” 

Those words filled her heart with outrage. Last year, she sacrificed her education and started working on the fields so that she could avoid marriage. However, Ilaa knew she was bound for wedlock in the coming months, during the harvest festivities. She felt like a liability, then a daughter. Feelings of lonesomeness dispirited her ever joyous nature. Even her need for motherly compassion was left unanswered as during childbirth her mother passed away. Her only solace was the River Godavari which ran near her fields. 

Sun started curving around the hills when Ilaa realised that she had overstayed at the banks. Soon her father and brother would be returning home with a big appetite. Tying the end of sari around her waist, she paced towards her home. At a distance, she saw there were plantation workers and village men standing outside her house. Heaps of whispers and saddened faces made Ilaa quiver where she stood. She held her breath as she trod indoors. 

Loud wailing from inside, made Ilaa heart thump heavily inside her chest. The thick air made it hard to breathe, and each step filled her head with an ominous thought. She fell to the floor as she glanced inside. Vaivasvata Manu clutched his son Govind close to his chest, as his cries echoed the room, Why didnt you take me?

After the loss of Govind, Ilaa's father lost the will to live. He became a recluse, cold and barely ate. There were moments when he would break down and start cursing God and wept till he falls asleep. 

A week later, Ilaa observed there was no one working on the fields. The cotton plantation stood half harvested. With no one to supervise, and pay the daily wage, all the workers left, looking for other work. Panic-stricken Ilaa hurried back to her father and expressed her concern about the crop. Her father stared at her face blankly as if the words did not reach his ears.

Thinking that her Fathers favourite dish would stir up a conversation, Ilaa brought a plate of crisp okra and chapatti and placed it beside him.
Father, please get up, and eat something,” she said softly. However, his body did not give any reaction. Since Govinds death, she had witnessed her father become an old frail man. 
Frustrated Ilaa thundered, For god sake, I am still alive, please get up for your daughter.

Her father turned his head and stared at her with his dead black eyes. He tried to smile, but only tears poured out. In a cracked voice he said, You'll go to your house soon, then, who will take care of these old bones?” Those words infuriated as well devastated Ilaa. 

Alone in her room, she wanted her mother to be alive, so she would have someone to talk to. Moreover, she wanted her father to respect her and ignore his prejudice towards women. Words said during that night kept circling in her head, and each time she thought about them, she became more determined.

Next day, she went to the village to look for workers. However, she found only rejection. None was willing to work for a woman. For few, it was a matter of respect, others ignored or avoided words of a woman. Baffled by the rejection, Ilaa went to Guru Dada, the holy man of Paithan, and also the man who taught her.
Dada, you are a learned man, tell me why do men belittle women like this?” She asked, looking for answers.
It is not their fault. They are ignorant of what they dont know.” He replied calmly. 
Were women always treated like this? Like they are just objects or trophies that needed to look good at homes?
God gave birth to men and women as equal. It is here on earth where we gave birth to this inequality.” He pulled out a book called ManusmritiRead this,” he said and youll find your answers. 

That night after preparing food for her father that remained untouched, Ilaa started reading passages from the Manusmriti. As she continued reading, expression of displeasure never left her face. She felt outraged and shocked at the monstrosities written. According to the Veda, women had no rights and were only born to serve men as if they were slaves.

After she closed the book, she no longer felt helpless. She had discovered her resolve. Next day, with the first sign of light she woke up with an undaunted confidence. If I am not going to get any help, I will do it all by myself,” She said to herself. Placed a bag over her shoulders, and walked towards the field.

All day, she worked hard, and only took brakes to eat or drink. Sweat beads trickled down her forehead to the ground. Few scratches on her arms and legs. However, nothing stopped her. Finally exhausted by the evening, she weighed the bags. Her smiling face turned to a frown as the sacks only weighed 150 kg. At this rate, she would not even cover a quarter of the plantation. 

She took a hit on her unyielding confidence, however, that only motivated her. As for the next three days, she went out even earlier before the sun came up. She sprinted instead of walking. Her hands worked like machines. Not even bothering to eat, she concentrated on picking cotton. Finally on the third days, she averaged 300 kg a day. A huge improvement, but little to her cause. In not less than two weeks, the traders would come and she would still be left with a half-harvested land. 

Feeling helpless, and exhausted, she went back home. Wanting to cry, but her eyes refused to create moisture. She clasped onto the sheet on which she slept and pressed her face into it as she screamed on top of her voice. No woman could escape this curse, she thought to herself. She felt betrayed by Gods, and in her fury, she took a knife and chopped off her luscious long braid. Still unsatisfied, she wiped off the collyrium on her eyes and fell on the floor. Finally, those tears started to flow, and soon the anguish in her heart died down as the exhausted Ilaa fell asleep. 

Next morning, she did not rise before the sun. Lying in her bed, effects of exhaustion still gripped her body. Till noon, she remained on the floor like a lifeless body. Often staring at her braid, which, once used to caress her neck. 

She tried to forget about her defeat. Yet her hands kept going back to adjust her braid, only to find vacant air, remembrance of her failure. Depressed, she went to the bank of the Godavari, the only place that could bring any sense of calm to the waves of hurt in her head. Feeling placid looking at the water, she placed her feet into the flowing river which took all the pain from her aching muscles. You are truly magical,” she said to the river as she went forward to wash her face. After scrubbing her face with the cold river water, Ilaa saw her reflection. The river reflected an image of a young boy with smeared collyrium and awkwardly chopped hair. 

Animated Ilaa jumped out of the water with her hands high, and quickly dashed towards her house. Once inside, she locked her room, and took off her sari, then removed her bangles and earrings. With the same knife which slashed her braid, she used it to slice her sari in half. Then, wrapped the half of the sari around her chest as hard as she could, making her seem flat chested. She quietly went to her late brothers room and tried on his clothes. The final touch was the turban.

Now, it was a matter of knowing whether she could pass as a boy. Once again, she went back to the banks of Godavari and took a shy peek before she headed towards the village. The reflection she saw filled her with confidence. Nevertheless, she needed some other persons assurance. She wandered into the village with her head down, reluctant to make eye contact with anyone. 

If Guru Dada is not able to recognise me, then no one will, Ilaa thought to herself, walking steadily towards her assurance living inside the temple. One last time, she adjusted her turban and walked inside where Guru Dada sat.
Namaste Dada,” Ilaa said trying to sound like a boy.
How may I help you son?” Guru Dada replied. Ilaa realised her teacher who taught her for years had not recognised her. 
I am Govind and Ilaa's cousin, Sudyumna from Aurangabad. My uncle asked me to come and look after the harvest since he is still in mourning. I was wondering where I could find some help for the fields.” She said, this time sure about herself.
Guru Dadas face lit up as he heard Ilaas name and without delay called a man who had come to pay his respects to God at the temple. This is our late Govinds cousin Sudyumna from Aurangabad, and he needs some people to work on the fields, help him.” Guru Dada blurted out quickly, not able to contain his excitement. Ilaa stood there amazed at Guru Dadas eagerness to help. 

Soon enough, the fields were filled with men and women picking cotton and filling them in sacks. Ilaa supervised the work. Each morning, she would cook food, quickly changed her outfit and ran onto the field. Everyone enjoyed her company and she even conversed with the women, which surprised them at first, but one by one, all warmed up to her joyful nature.

Within two weeks, sacksful of cotton laid outside her house ready to be sold.  
During this time along with many traders, the great king Chhatrapati Shivaji made a visit to the city of Paithan. The king surveyed the markets in a desire to understand the value of Paithan as a center of religious and an economic hub. After a long day, the tired king took a stroll around the river of the Godavari where he saw a beautiful boy selling cotton. Impressed with the presentation and the way he spoke, the king bought all of the cotton even though the boy drove a hard bargain. 

The boy was none other than Ilaa herself who ended up earning more than her father. She paid the men in gold and gave something extra to the women in the form of ornaments, and food. 

Delighted she went to the bank of Godavari and buried a piece of gold under the earth. Tears started rolling down her cheeks as she dug the mud with her hands. She became overwhelmed with gratitude. Though she knew it was a river, yet, it felt to her like an embrace of a mother. 

Today, she didnt enter the house quietly, instead kept knocking on the door. Few minutes later, her father hobbled towards the incessant knocking. With his hunched shoulders and weary eyes, he looked up and saw a young man. 
What do you want?” her father asked in a coarse voice.

Ilaa did not say anything. Teary eyed and smile plastered on her face, she removed her turban and stood there patiently. Soon enough, her father hugged her tightly and she felt her father tears on her neck. He started touching her face to check if this wasn't a dream. Ilaa smiled, then they both smiled. She pulled the bag of food and another bag full of gold and placed it on the floor.
Ilaa finally said, You will always have a son who will take care of you.” 

                          The End


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