Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ilaa of Paithan — A woman’s devotion

Fakhruddin J Bandukwala
Write India Contest
10 July 2015

This story was submitted as part of the Write India contest in July 2015. The first para is a part of the challenge set by Amish Tripathi and the rest of the story is my contest submission. The story is set in the 18th century and the social norms and situations described here are to be viewed from that perspective.


Ilaa of Paithan
—A woman’s devotion—

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. Turning her eyes skywards she continued her conversation with her invisible god ‘Vithhala, Vithhala, what sins did I commit, for you to give me the body of a woman in this life? And if you did, then why did you put it together with a mind which rankles at every injustice and rages to speak itself even in front of the village elders and my in-laws and my husband who is my ‘living god’? Just give me the gift of acceptance and I will happily wash my husband’s feet and obey his every command and harness his plough to till his land and feed his children.’ 

Exhausted she sat down heavily against the neem tree ‘Oh! even saying these words makes me sick to the very core. His this and his that. What is mine then? Not even my devotion to you Vithhala! I have to take his permission to even pray to you and hope it does not arouse his jealousy when I call you My Beloved in my prayers.’ At least that thought of how possessive her husband Vithoba was about her, brought a mischievous smile to her face and lifted her mood enough to finally make her way towards the fields where the workers had already started filling their baskets with freshly plucked cotton. 

Ilaa had been married off at the age of two to Vithoba, though she came to her husband’s home only after reaching puberty. She had earned her in-laws affection by quickly delivering two boys to carry on the family name before she turned fifteen and made it bearable for her third child, Reema, to be brought into the world as a girl.  She, of course, carried the child along with her everywhere, tied securely on her back, not trusting anyone else to take care of her.

Her brahmin parents in the nearby village of Tanuseer had devoted their lives to the service of the Lord Vithhala. Her mother kept herself busy preparing for the daily prayer ceremonies to be conducted by her father who looked after the temple and conducted religious teachings for the boys of the village. While girls were not allowed, she was often able to overhear her father from a distance. The amorous and valorous stories of Vithhala, who never failed to answer his devotees call when in trouble, had endeared this blue bodied god to Ilaa and had drawn her to even read her father’s old books, kept in the temple library, on her own.  It amused her no end that her husband’s name - Vithoba was also another name of her beloved god - Vithhala. She had even made up her own song about it with which she would tease her husband when she went to her in-laws place. ‘Should I love my Vithhala, or should I adore Vithoba? Should I surrender to Vithhala, or reserve myself for Vithoba?’

The old books she read in her father’s temple library fascinated her and stirred many thoughts in her mind about the way people had departed from the old learnings. She had tried asking her father but was forbidden to question anything related to religion or politics. She was after all a girl and such talks were of no practical use to her. This only instigated her to dig deeper into the old books for answers and come up with such nuggets as -

‘Women are worthy of worship. That place in heaven or earth shall not prosper where women are slighted.’

‘As the sun god follows the dawn goddess, so shall men follow women who illuminate and enlighten.’

‘These mantras are given to you equally and without discrimination, O women’

The number of women rishis in the old days was indeed a surprise to her and she made a point of reading up the slokas authored by them.

The freedom to worship was most dear to her and most of her arguments with her father would center around why she could not perform or at least participate in his priestly duties at the temple. All these arguments, and any concessions she had wrought from her father, had of course come to naught as soon as she was sent off to her husband’s village.

Vithhala resided in the puja room of her in-laws place also. Her mother-in-law had the duties of preparation for the ushavandana and sandhyavandana prayers. Even her mother-in-law was not allowed into the puja room which was accessible only to her father-in-law, her husband and his brothers. Being thus deprived of any connection to Vithhala, Ilaa was consigned to the supervision of their servants, preparation of the meals and maintenance of the farm animals. Being the eldest daughter-in-law, she also had the honour of carrying the keys to the house. During harvest, of course, all family members had to be present on the fields ensuring the cotton was duly harvested, packed, transported and traded with the merchants from Paithan city.

The only glimpse of Vithhala she could hope to get was when she handed over the puja room keys to the head servant to get the puja room cleaned every day. She promptly changed the timing of this daily cleaning ritual to the afternoon siesta time, so she could stand undisturbed outside the puja room and  adore and sing silently to her Vithhala. How she missed her childhood when she had free access to Vithhala when she accompanied her father during his prayers, or her mother during the preparations and cleansing of the temple. What she missed the most was the company of the old books in the temple library.
Her other pleasure was taking her cow and calf for their daily walk to the fields. On the way was the shrine of Eknath and she immensely enjoyed spending some time there, listening to the travelling warkaris’ songs and their chanting ‘Panduranga, Vithhala, Panduranga.’ 

This was what landed her into trouble multiple times with her husband. He did not like it one bit that she used to continuously sing or hum the praises of Vithhala while going about her daily chores. Even when he sometimes requested for a song from her in the evening after a tiring day at work, the only songs that came to her mind were what she heard from the warkaris. That was even worse as her in-laws had had many heated discussions about the lowly saint from Dehu, who was interfering in the business of the Brahmins and was the reason behind a renewed emergence of the warkari influence. 

This morning, things came to a head when she started humming while serving breakfast to her husband. Her choice of song made it worse - ‘My day’s first offering is to Vithhala, My day is an offering to Vithhala.’ Her husband angrily threw the clay breakfast plate against the wall, shattering it to pieces. As he stormed out of the room, he violently pushed her aside, saying ‘Why don’t you offer what is left of the days and nights also to Vithhala.’
This was why, the mid-morning had found Ilaa at the river bank, grumbling to her unseen god instead of at the fields in the middle of the harvest season. As she now made her way to the fields she was still rebelliously singing songs of praise to Vithhala. 

On reaching the fields, as she tried to step in through the gates she was in for a rude shock. Vithoba and his brothers had gathered at the entrance with their lathis and confronted her. ‘Your insolence has reached a limit. Even after today morning’s lesson you do not have the good sense to stop your chantings. You miss the work in the fields to cavort by the riverside.’ Vithoba’s anger kept rising as he said this and he ended up raising his stick swishing it by her face. 
‘You fool! Can’t you see I have your daughter tied around my back? Hurt me all you want but spare her at least.’ Ila roared back like a tigress protecting her cub. ‘Why do you want to make this a public spectacle? We can discuss this in our room when we reach home.’ But it was a lost cause already. People had started gathering from the neighbouring fields and she saw now that even the temple priests and village elders had been roped in to drill some sense into her. 
‘Fine! If you want this done in public, I surely am capable of defending my honour. Let the learned elders of this village answer my questions and I shall turn away from Vithhala for all time to come.’

In the heat of the altercation, no one had noticed the elderly sadhu from out of town resting along with his nine year old son, under the banyan tree across the road. On hearing the heated exchange he rose angrily and addressed his son. 
‘Do you see now, why this place has fallen from its old days when it used to be called Pratisthana? No place in heaven or earth shall prosper where women are insulted.’ Ilaa was shocked to hear someone quoting the old books. 
The village elders also realised they had a wise man among them and approached him ‘Sir! You seem to be a learned rishi. Where do you come from? Please feel welcome into our humble village. We apologise for the disturbance we caused you and shall remove this woman immediately from your presence.’

‘There is no need for that.’ The sadhu said authoritatively ‘I am on my way back to Pune from Agra. I have travelled these lands and seen the way people in the north are being turned away from dharma. It is all the more to my consternation that I see you turning one of your own away from Vithhala.’ The sadhu sat down and beckoned the gathering to sit in a semi-circle around him. 
The village priest took up the case with the sadhu ‘Learned Sir! We are only following the teachings of our ancestors. Everyone has a place in society and their assigned duties. If people leave aside their duties where will we land up? After all there is a path to god that is laid down with the ceremonies of samskara which are not prescribed for the fourth varna and women.’ 
‘How can you say that?’ Ilaa chimed in at this ‘Agreed that I have not been investitured with the sacred thread which binds the male brahmin to his guru who introduces him to religious teachings, but I did have the sacred mangalsutra tied around my neck during the marriage which binds me to my husband and makes him my guru. So why should I not lay claim to the completion of the samskara which allows me to pursue the quest for Vithhala.’ 

The sadhu smiled appreciatively at Ilaa and realised the upbringing and learnings she must have had to offer this argument. Vithoba, however thought he got an opening with this ‘If I am your guru, why would you sing praises of another? The disciple should carry out every wish of his guru and I command you to restrict yourself to the kitchen which is nothing less than a sacred place for women. If you truly believe you are under my command, then this argument is already over.’
Ilaa was still gathering her wits, but unexpectedly, Kawale, the young priest who had conducted their marriage came to her rescue. ‘Vithoba, the rites I conducted between you were Brahma Kalyana - marriage among equals and not Anuloma Kalyana - marriage of a higher status man to a lower status woman, because her father is head priest at Tanuseer. She is your ardhangini - equal half and not one under your command.’

The sadhu was mightily impressed with this. ‘I see this village has not lost all it’s intelligence. Truly was this place known as the Kashi of the south and the traces of old wisdom still prevails even in the youth of this place. While growing as a trade and commerce hub, some of you have become so accustomed to the materialistic demands and duties that you forget to balance it with the spiritual nectar which nourishes our soul.’

‘I see that this woman has attained a balance between her duties and is quite capable of taking care of her family, her fields and also her god. There is no harm in her singing praises to her god as she is not laying claim to the puja or the chanting of certain mantras which are not suited for the woman’s body. She is merely devoted to her Vithhala and there is no point in keeping her deprived of this path of spirituality. Indeed each one finds his own path and she is an evolved soul who should be respected.’
‘Let me enlighten you with the words of Lord Krishna who says in the Bhagvad Geeta - You can achieve perfect worship through performing your duties.’ The sadhu continued, ‘Thus there is no distinction for those who are assigned other duties not to perform worship. And if this woman chooses to sing praises of Vithhala while going about her chores, why, it only brings better results in her work as she accepts the Lord as her Sakshi - witness in her every act.’ 
‘You, my son’, the Sadhu addressed Vithoba, ‘are indeed fortunate to have this woman as your wife. She is in fact filling the void in your spirituality as you have turned to land ownership and trade while being a brahman. While performing her wifely duties and chores she is in fact also cleansing your soul with her devotion to Vithhala.’


Ilaa and Vithoba both prostrated themselves at the sadhu’s feet at these words. ‘I thank you for showing me the path to serving my husband with my devotion to Vithhala.’ Ila said gratefully. ‘This is the one freedom I desired and your words guide me to perform my duties as per the demands and capability of my body, while still holding Vithhala in my heart.’
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