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.
Her brother, Aagam, who should be helping his sister in the field, was missing.
‘Why do they have to force Aagam to learn economics when he wants to become a renowned priest like Kawale whom the great Shivaji Maharaj had appointed in Paithan? Why can’t I be sent to the school instead?’ expressed angry Ilaa to the Great Godavari River.
Ilaa, born to a cotton farmer, didn’t get many opportunities to learn art, literature and economics, which the Satvahana dynasty encouraged. It was a time when Paithan gained more and more popularity for its growing commerce and trade with not only Indian states but international consumers also. If art drew the attention of Muslim invaders, trade attracted Romans like bees to hive. Sadly, all education, academics and literature was intended for the boys to learn. The girls got their share only to work at homes and fields.
‘I cannot let this happen anymore. I will have to do something about it’ Ilaa took the blessings from River Godavari and moved hurriedly towards the cotton field.
Ilaa, reminisced the time when she was born as Gargi in the 7th century, a few eras ago. She couldn’t stop thinking of the period when ancient Indian society was much more egalitarian and balanced than other ancient societies, at least in the field of education. What added to Ilaa’s frustration was the fact that Indian society had changed for worse with each century. The flash back of the ancient time when no one in scholarly circle had any trouble accepting Gargi, a woman philosopher as one of them, disturbed her. Economics and literature had come to Ilaa from birth, might have cascaded from ages. She however, sometimes secretly heard her father and brother talk about barter and other economic matters at home and learnt from them. She was a born scholar after all.
‘In contrast to ancient India, primeval Greeks and Romans had excellent public schools for formal education but only for boys, whereas the ashrams of ancient India welcomed girls and young women to learn along with their male counterparts. Then why not today?’ she questioned herself while walking towards the cotton field.
Who would tell poor Ilaa that time had changed!!
She reached the cotton field and as instructed, started to pick cotton from the flowers. This time, she decided collect them in two different baskets, one to be handed over to family, another for her.
‘Am I being revolutionary? Am I doing the right thing?’ Ilaa dubiously mumbled while picking cotton though was determined in her thoughts.
The sun was setting in and it was time for Ilaa to rush towards the home and help her mother in domestic chores. It was a small family of four people that earned bread and butter by selling cotton. The everyday jobs of the family were mostly static. Father spent most of the time in his shop and home calculating his business returns. Aagam would spend half of his day at school learning economics and commerce trade. The rest of his time would get invested in understanding the family business. The mother was, by all means confined to the house and was kept busy all day long. Ilaa, however, would help her mother and father at home and field and secretly spent her time understanding what commerce was all about. She was born different!
Days passed like a gush of stream and Ila’s grit swelled with each day. She spent hours collecting cotton and distributed equal halves in two carriers, one visible to only her eyes.
‘I have to be more efficient, I don’t have much time left’ she muttered to herself.
It was the last week before the wholesalers from Paithan would arrive. Ilaa was happy for the progress she had made in last few weeks and was content with the plan she had in mind. She wanted the barriers to break, chains to set free and capability to talk for her.
‘I cannot just get married and do the same chores throughout my life. I want to study. I am capable’. Ilaa dwelled in such thoughts while cleaning the dinner dishes at home.
‘This Monday will not be the same’ she anticipated before being dead to the world.
As a matter of fact, Ilaa always wanted to be a scholar. She was refused education by her father when she expressed her keen interest. She was refused to learn art. She always wondered why this discrimination existed when everybody talked praises of Goda Valley civilization, which played an important role in shaping the culture of the region she belonged to. Why none of the religious sects of the village – Buddhism, Jainism and Vedic religion promote equality? Time and again Ilaa failed to comprehend why women were forced to commit to ‘Sati’ and deep down she always feared being on the other side. She wanted to have equal rights as those of men. Her intellect demanded fair opportunities based on a person’s interest and skills.
‘I will bring the cotton bales to the market, father’ Ila screamed as she was making her way out of the house on Monday morning. It was her important day. Aagam, forcefully, accompanied his father to the market where the wholesalers would come for the barter.
‘Not bad, Ila. You have done a good job’ she praised herself while carrying the baskets of cotton bales and rushed her steps towards the market. She stopped by the bank of the River Godavari to seek Her blessings. River Godavari had been Ilaa’s best friend ever since she was born.
The ‘bazaar’ was full of traders and buyers. Wholesalers from Paithan, different parts of India and Rome had come to bargain cotton, brocade textiles, ivory products, conch bangles, ornaments of terracotta and precious stones. The incessant noise of the market could be heard several yards away. Ila rested herself in a corner and placed her cotton carrier right in front of her.
‘Where are your father and brother today, Ilaa? Are you trading on their behalf?’ Chuckled some neighbors who had also come to exchange their cotton for gold and goods.
Ilaa stayed assured and began her trade. She had come to test all she had silently learnt from her family. She remembered how she was in ancient time and decided to use all her skills in trade that day. It was not a common sight for the villagers, wholesalers and the region to see a girl in the market. Ilaa drew many stares and overheard all that people talked about her. All she wanted was to make one good deal that day.
‘What do you think you are doing here? Go home and help your mother’ shouted her father as he spotted Ilaa in the market.
‘I can do this, father. Please let me try. I can do a good exchange for the cotton’ requested Ilaa.
Aagam, who was close to Ila, requested his father to give his sister a chance. He knew what Ilaa was gifted with. The father, unhappily, made his arrangements next to Ilaa and allowed her to do the commerce with her basket of cotton bales. He wasn’t sure of how much Ila would accomplish.
In some time, Ilaa was found bargaining with several wholesalers from Paithan. Many came, few stayed and nobody bought even half a bale of cotton from her stall. Demotivated, Ilaa stood strong like a pillar.
‘Oh, so we have a young lady doing business in this village of Paithan. Something very new, isn’t it? So what do you have to impress this trader from Paithan today?’ Inquired a wholesaler. He carried gold and ornaments for barter, looked rich, experienced and a learned person.
‘I have 10 bales of cotton. How much do you need sir?’ asked Ilaa
‘I can very well buy the whole of it or even more, but I need reasons to purchase it from you for an exchange of ornaments I am carrying’.
‘Well, I assure you sir that this is the best cotton you will find in the whole market. This cotton has been cultivated from long frost free period, in plenty of sunshine and with lots of love and care. The softness of this cotton can be used to make garments. Its sturdiness will allow you to make fishing nets and tents out if it. If you check closely, the width of each thread is fairly uniform, has high luster and low resiliency. If used in garments, it would keep your body cool in summer and warm in winter because cotton is a good conductor of heat. How much should I weigh for you, sir? ‘ asked Ilaa
‘I am impressed by your knowledge. I can buy 10 bales for 3 gold bangles’ proposed the trader.
Ilaa continued to negotiate with the trader and made a profitable barter that her father could not do in years. Not only this, her economic skills and vision helped her win a long term contract with the wholesaler. Ilaa had made a history, she had made an impression.
Within no time, her popularity embraced the market and everyone, who wished to buy cotton, was found queuing up in front of Ilaa’s stall. She not only sold her share of cotton bales, but emptied her father’s as well. All she was left with was a satisfactory beam on her face.
The same evening, many astounded villagers gathered at Ilaa’s house to praise her for the skills she possessed. People thought it to be miraculous. The society now knew that women were capable of helping family in more than just one way. Ilaa had brought a change.
Happy Ilaa stepped out of her house and addressed the villagers.
‘I, Ilaa, remember being born as Gargi in ancient time, where I was a scholar and was one of the Navratnas at King Janak of Mithila’s court. I was invited to conferences all over the country. The girls and women in that age were sent to ashrams for education with boys. Women were not only a figure to work at home; women were respected and treated as equal. There were no Satis, no purdah, and no inequality that existed in a time like that. Today, we have good art and literature schools; we belong to one of the most prosperous dynasties of the nation. The Marathas want to govern us for our richness in religious and economic sectors. We have trade relations with Rome, where women are sent for education. Then why do we lack this fairness here?’
People listened to Ilaa as if her words left an impression on everyone’s soul. She continued to talk about how life was easier in the 17th century but was fairer in ancient times. She spoke how women could study, marry, run a house, produce kids and work at the same time. All that the society needed was to provide equal rights of education and respect to the women. Ilaa’s parents stood in complete awe.
Soon after that, Ilaa’s father opened doors to her education for he had no reason to stop his skilled daughter from learning art, literature and commerce. Ilaa was joined by many other women of the society who had an inclination to learn different subjects. She also started to teach young girls of the village when she was free from school and household chores.
And one fine day, on a beautiful summer afternoon, Ilaa was in a playful mood teaching her students who also came from nearby villages of Paithan.
‘I am sick of this’, laughed Ilaa while answering to her students questions!!!