Friday, September 25, 2015

Story no 1 : Ilaa's Story

The Times of India initiated a Write India Campaign a few months ago. Eleven popular authors  would participate. Each month, a given author would indicate a certain passage, and the idea was those interested in participating would  include this passage and develop a short story and submit it.  There would be 10 stories highlighted each month, and one winner declared, who would win a Kindle.
Amish Tripathy of the Shiva Triology fame, was the first author. The passage he specified is indicated below in red.  There were some facts mentioned (as far as I can recall) about depiction of women as progressive in 17th century Paithan, and one was expected to research this. 

The first month results are out, and while it is very clear  that one is not amongst the talented top 10, and possibly, somewhere beyond  3 digits in rank, it has been a fun thing to participate in.  

The second and third months submissions for Chetan Bhagat and Ashwin Sanghi respectively, based on their specified passages ,  have been done. 

My Amish Tripathy specified submission appears below. 

Ilaa's Story 

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.

The wind changed across the  river, and she had to hold her long tresses down with her slender fingers, to stop them from covering her face.  She turned and began tracing designs in the sands where she sat.  She was a natural artist, and loved drawing designs on walls and floors with rice flour, but had run out of space in her house.  She was often confused about what she wanted to do.  She certainly did not want to be a cotton picker all her life.  She composed songs, Powadas,   in praise of Shivaji Maharaj , and wrote them in secret.   But she loved and respected her father, who thought she should be helping the family in this yearly process.   And so she would go to the fields from time to time. 

Her brothers had a person come by, thrice a week to help them learn the three R’s.  She would stand behind the door, and listen, till one day her father noticed and allowed her to join her brothers.

This was something unusual.  Baba  Paithankar,  knew she was special.   Years ago, after he and his wife Bhama had despaired of having children,   he found this little baby girl in his fields.  Thankful for this “prasadam” from the almighty, he took her home, and he and his wife raised her.  As if miraculously, they then had children of their own, both sons.  But she, Ilaa, remained the eldest.    Baba named her after King Ila, the founder  of the city, who  , as story had it, strayed into Lord Shiva’s forest one day and was “cursed”  with becoming a woman. Mediation by sages and intense prayers  converted this, to a month as  woman and a month as man,  completely  messing  up his/her  psyche.

She picked herself up, brushed the sand of her skirt and ran home.  The idea was to be seen doing something useful, by the time the family reached home for a meal break.  Plucking the cotton was hard work, and they would continue into the hot afternoon.

Ilaa Paithankar’s mind was  split.  She probably carried the methylated DNA  of the old King .

In a  conservative powerful city with  so  many  patron saints and gods,  her mind  would  have  been forced  to confirm to , what was typically expected  of a  young  beautiful adolescent  girl;  it was sheer providence that she lived a bit outside the city  close to her family fields.    

An  afternoon  spent adorning the prayer room floor with  her designs, and  she sat down dreamily to pen her thoughts on the leaves  with one of the huge collection of reeds that she maintained.   She now had a decent collection, and only one person knew about it.

Jairam  Harshe.   The son of the old priest in Paithan’s oldest temple.

He was a friend of her brother, and  was himself trained in the religious texts as well as  a great speaker and communicator, having liased between the city leaders, and the merchants who travelled each year to Paithan to sell their wares.  He admired Ilaa’s writings, and encouraged her quietly, often wandering  on the riverbanks at sunset, when she would come by to fill water.

A shadow fell across Ilaa, as she straightened up after filling the second  handa .   It was Jairam, and she smiled as he looked at her, clearly unable to contain his excitement.

“I just heard.  Shivaji Maharaj  is expected  soon .  My father just received word.  The procession will reach by tomorrow, and there is to be an announcement.   I have been told to be present. Will you be there ?”    he  said,  trying not to reveal too much.

She adjusted the handas, smiled up at him .   He had his answer.   He walked a part of the way with her, and then speeded up as the city path appeared .

Ilaa was excited. She had heard about Shivaji Mahraj.   His exploits as a young ruler, his magnanimity,  his sense of justice,  and his secular outlook.   Brought up solely by his mother,  Jijabai,  he grew up , immensely respecting women and their capabilities.    His procession would pass by their farm on the way to the city.  And she wasn’t just going to stand and gape.  Not her style.  

There was something providential in why Jairam had told her what he did.

The next morning she got up before dawn,  and  rushed down to the roadside  with her red Geru powder and rice powder;  one would be made into a paste to color  some patches, and the rice flour would be used to do her designs on those patches.  
She  laboured on,  inspired,  as she  did design after design  depicting the  reign of Shivaji,   his mother , his childhood,  nature,  flowers, temples, and Gods.  The family , not finding her at home, was shocked to find her there, but  not too concerned.  Her father was very appreciative, and her mother came by with a bowl of rice gruel, to sustain her through the morning.  What they didn’t know, was that wrapped in a piece of cloth along with the powders,  was her entire sheaf of poems, inscribed on leaves. 

She would welcome Shivaji Maharaj  in her own way.

A welcome sound of hooves, and drums woke her from a reverie into which she had slipped.  There was dust  flying up into the air in the distance,  as the sounds came closer.  She stood up.  It wouldn’t do for the  horses  to ride rough shod over  her  rice flour art.  She stood in the middle of the path, her leaf inscribed poems in her hands, folded in welcome.     

The next hour was magical.  The approaching royal company slowed down ,  and the eminences got down to  view her art.   She bowed  in respect , and then uncovered her leaf manuscripts, and then , in a voice full of emotion,  sang the first few notes  of her powadas  in a full voice, that even had the horses  pay attention .   It was as if the trees stopped to listen, and the branches and  leaves applauded after every stanza.   

As  was the custom then, the family served simple tasty  horsegram gruel  to the travelers to energize and welcome them;  nothing fancy, but just what they really needed.  None of this, was planned  by  the family as a team. Only Ilaa’s activity was preplanned.  It was a credit to her father’s  enlightened  attitude that she was allowed to get on with what she wanted to do, while the family  did  everything  else  in indulgent support and good rural hospitality.

Shivaji Maharaj appeared to be pleased, and he sent his aide with a message for Baba Paithankar.   Maharaj  would be pleased to have Baba attend , with his family,  the session at the main temple in Paithan , the next day, where he would be holding court.

Even the sun dawned early the next day out of sheer curiousity,  as a  family, dressed in their finest , set out in their bullock cart towards Paithan. 

Ilaa had never been there ;  just once when she was a child, and she tried in vain to look for landmarks as they approached the temple.   Brilliant decorations ,  flowers,  silks, carpets on the paths, and a welcoming committee were seen guiding citizens  to the sitting area. Some simply stood in awe.   Jairam was seen rushing around running errands for his father, now too old to anything but the actual rituals. He stood on the podium, watching a sea of faces , all agog and waiting for the arrival of  Shivaji  Maharaj.

The arrival  of  Maharaj, at the predecided auspicious moment , was heralded  by the blowing of a conch shell, and  throwing of flowers and rice confetti in his path.  The Conch shells were not intrinsically a Paithan custom, but thanks to the city’s  prominence  in the  traders’  world,  and the  fact that traders from across the world came there,   the people of Paithan learned to appreciate auspicious customs and imbibed them.

Several prayers and blessing in honor of Shivaji Maharaj   having been completed, his chief aide, got up to make announcements, in response to a look and a gesture from Maharaj.    

“ We have great pleasure in announcing  the new priest  as the head of this temple complex.  The incumbent ,   Laxmanrao Harshe ,  having served the temple and the people with exemplary service ad courage,  is getting on n years, and had requested  us to appoint a successor.   Shivaji Maharaj  has great pleasure to announce that  this post will be now held by Shri  Jairam Harshe,   who  has proved himself  worthy with his scholarly activities, people connect, and   mastery of religious studies. “

Jairam  slowly walked forward, head bent in respect.   Presented with a  shawl, a scroll spelling out his appointment, and an  auspicious coconut , he walked backwards to one side on the dias  and looked up, to see  everyone  applauding and cheering  amidst slogans of Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai.  He saw Ilaa and her family off to one side, and smiled .  It was meant for Ila.  

But Shivaji Maharaj noticed it too. And he smiled.  Not because everyone was smiling,  but because of what he planned to announce next.

His aide held up his hand, and the crowd  quietened   down  to a low buzz. 
“Shivaji Maharaj takes great pleasure is announcing a new appointment.   That of the Poet Royale of  Paithan.    A life time post .    Commissioned to write the history of kingdoms, people, and in particular, women,  through  poetry and art.  With great pleasure, we announce that the first holder of this honored post will be Kum.  Ilaa Paithankar .”

For a while there was total silence.  In the crowd,   as well  as on the faces of the Paithankar family.  This was too sudden, too unexpected.  Poet Royale,  and  that too a woman. 

But then ,  everyone realized , this was Paithan, and here was Shivaji Maharaj.  There was appreciation of capabilities, and your gender did not matter.  This was a land of saints  , both  men and women,  each so  special;  of warriors, and mothers of warriors.  And the tradition simply continued.

Jija,  Jairam’s mother , motioned to Ilaa to come, and led her up to the Maharaj, and stepped back herself.  A  Silk saree   in 9 yards  , a green cloth and rice  was offered and she accepted with gratitude . She bent at touched the feet of the elders. 

Baba Paithankar  could only stare, wide eyed, as his wife wiped the tears from her eyes.  They always knew Ilaa  was special.  It was their secret.    The family bent low and did namaskars to  Maharaj.   Jairam looked on, a pleased smile on his face.  He hoped the future would hold what he thought it would hold. For him and for Ilaa. 

The special Court session having concluded, the city  bid farewell to Shivaji Maharaj, at the gates of the city, as he continued his tour. 

The Paithankars,  sans Ilaa  went back to their farm. 

She would be an icon  in the years to come , with her sensitivity, her artistry and her evocative poetry.

He family knew  she was special, she realized she was special,  but it took  a century to realize really how special she really was.

Long after she was gone,  she inspired Bahinabai Chowdhary,   a gifted Brahmin lady  in the throes of a dichotomy  regarding society, women, her marital status,  and her responsibilities, to compose some wonderful  soulful verses .

Special verses.  

So valid even today………


  1. Surangaa ji, (I liked your name, I heard this name first time).

    I read few of your blogs like on bhondla, Eshaa Pradhan and the knief in her dupatta and above story.

    And after reading I had following questions in my mind.

    Are you sensitive or observative or imaginative or positive thinker or all of it ?

    How can you write so simply and so effectively ?

    What qualities, habits, values, experiences, need, point of view has made you like this ? (I feel I am entering in your personal territory, kindly answer only if you are fine.)

    It reminded me of my brother (he left me n this world 12 years back) he wrote small small line but very simple language and effectively conveyed the feelings.

    It also reminded me of the G. A. Kulkarni's story " Vidushak".

    In the story Vidushak is the most studied scholarly person (studied vedas, suktas, etc. and believed that it is everything and there is nothing beyond it) but pretending to be vidushak (joker) and the lady is the one who is not studied but is just observative and learning from the surrounding.

    At the end of the story lady who has lost everything (her beloved hero) speak with the vidushak when he is going thro the jungle (he too have losing everything i.e. his pride about his wisdom & is confused).

    The lady makes him aware that life has many facets n although the knowledge he has learned is good but not sufficient and complete as life is ever evolving.

    One can learn many things from life if one has a defined goal, is focused, is dynamic in taking task that test his capabilities, is observing him selves and surrounding, is sensitive & alert enough.

    I want to live life as stated in the above statement but unable.

    Just now while completing my replying, I felt as if I am like a vidushak and you are like a lady in the story.

    Wish you life full of happiness with your beloved ones.

    Happy navaratri !