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.
But, she knew she was not thinking of the work. The image of a girl being thrown forcefully into the pyre kept coming back into her mind. Ilaa has not been able to get rid of the image ever since she witnessed it few days back while coming to work. She caught the smell of burning wood and inched closer to the source of the smell. There was a big pyre in the middle of the crowd, leading to smoke all around. A group of old women formed a circle closer to the pyre and were singing what felt like a sad song though she could not catch the exact words over the noise of the hustling crowd. And there was a young girl crying bitterly closest to the pyre. Perhaps, she has lost somebody close to her, that was why she was crying so intensely. But, on closer look, Ilaa noticed that one of the older ladies of the circle has got hold of hand of the young girl and was trying to push her into the pyre. Then, Ilaa understood that real reason for the crying of girl was not the death of her husband but that she was pushed to the pyre herself! Before Ilaa could try to scream or move forward, young girl was thrown to pyre. She could hardly believe that young girl was gasping for breath as she stood there helpless. Soon, crowd started to disperse. She also dragged herself back to her house, only to be haunted by the memory for last two nights. The other details have faded but images of young girl being thrown mercilessly into the fire still upset her.
Ilaa has not been able to work in the fields since morning despite knowing that bales of cotton are to be sold to traders next week. She knew she has been lucky to be a part of household that is not dependent on whims and fancies of traders but still she cannot afford to lose the money that traders will have to offer. With this thought, she dragged herself back to the field to continue working. She has just plucked a dozen of cotton crops that have fully matured when ladies working on the field started discussing the same event. One of them said casually as if it was a daily routine, “ Shardha became sati , I was there to witness the holy ceremony. “ Another woman said with a sigh,” She was so young.” The first one replied acidly,” It does not mean that she will be exempted from showing devotion to her husband.”
Feeling sick again, Ilaa decided to move back to her home on the pretext of finishing household chores. Her house was little far from the fields just like any place in Sauviragram.
Most of people of the village were prosperous due to its close proximity to Paithan. Paithan was one of the most important business centers of Maharashtra as it has been well developed because of its trade links with major states in India and countries of Europe. The traders of Paithan frequently come to Sauviragram to obtain harvest of crops especially cotton. This has led to good living conditions in the village.
Ilaa’s house was in the middle of the muddy terrain adjoining Siddheswara temple. Although she visits the temple daily, what she liked best about temple was hearing bells followed by chants that made for morning prayers. She entered her hut feeling tired. It was a cozy house with walls made of red rocks, floors carved from brownish rocks and thatched rooftops constructed using hay from fields.
She took a sip of water from the square pond outside her house and caught glimpse of her yellow Aurangzebi saree. As she entered the house, she noticed that her eldest brother Pururavas was there. He demanded that food to be served to him as their mother has also gone to fields to work. But, he also knew that utensils are to be cleaned by him in case their mother is not at home and Ilaa cooks food for him. She has taught his brothers well in this regard although she cannot pull off these deals in front of her mother.
Soon after having food and taking some rest, she returned to the fields. It was already noon by the time she reached fields, so she started plucking cotton crops. By evening, a group of merchants came to collect bales of cotton. It seemed that everybody was taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of this group of men. Nevertheless, they were keen to get a good price for their crops. Some of the farmers were cleaning patches of their fields to provide them a clean spot to stand.
Merchant named Balaji appeared on side of Ilaa in a white dhoti laced with golden Asavali thread work and cotton kurta. He looked quite young as compared to other men of the group. Maybe he has just started procuring crops from the villages.
“I should be able to get good price of crops from him if I could convince him to come after few days.” She thought to herself.
“Sir, I am not ready with bales of cotton yet, sir. We were not expecting you till next week.” Ilaa gasped.
Balaji was looking at her spellbound, oblivious to the surroundings.
“We have high quality cotton that will be greatly useful for textile manufacturers” she pleaded on. Balaji kept looking at her blankly. Ilaa thought he was really angry that bales are not ready.
“Oh bales! yes, by when the bales be ready?” Balaji said finally in a faint voice.
“It will be ready by next week if you could visit the village again.” Ilaa requested in a soft tone.
Balaji simply nodded and went back to the group. Next couple of days went in hard labor at the fields. Finally, bales of cotton were ready. Farmers were quite happy with the harvest as they were expecting good price for their output when merchants visit the village the next day.
Tired by arduous labor, Ilaa was sitting on the banks of Godavari river when she heard cries of other farmers.
“Merchants are here!”
” Merchants are here!”
She was shocked to find them arrive a day before their designated day. It has never happened before. Merchants always visit a village on the day allocated by them. They have been very particular about it since she has known them. She quickly moved to the fields to make sure that her crops are not left out.
To her immense disappointment, she could not spot Balaji among this group of men. Ilaa said to the eldest male of the group “Hello sir, look at our pile of bales of crop. They are as healthy as I told Balaji last week.” “Who is this Balaji, stupid girl? I do not know any Balaji who is a merchant. And we never came to your village last week.”
Ilaa was numb at this piece of information. Merchants negotiated the price with other farmers and paid in goods and gold. Ilaa was very puzzled. If these were merchants, then who were those men who visited the village last week.
That night, Ilaa was in a restless state of sleep. She dreamt about Balaji being thrown into pyre while she sang traditional songs. Her mind was in a state of confusion.
Next morning, she was cooking food for her family when she saw Balaji coming towards her house with a group of men. He was wearing stole over white dhoti and beige kurta. The men accompanying him were carrying huge baskets laden with shiny objects. She could see objects of one of the baskets as the cloth covering it has loosened. It had various garments including tivate, jafarkhani, shela, patihani brocades, kimbkha and mehmudi. Ilaa has seen such prestigious clothes only at a wedding of a daughter of a trader in Paithan city.
Balaji started talking to her father as soon as he entered the hut. Although she could not hear exact words, she could make out that they were having a serious conversation. Then, she was summoned by her eldest brother to be part of the discussions.
Usually, only male members of the family participated in the discussions. She was stunned to be called to the room.
“I have some great news. Our highness wants to marry you, my dear Ilaa.” Her father Wakhore cried in ecstasy as soon as he saw her. It turned out Balaji was Balaji Bajirao, son of the great king Bajirao and the ruler of Maratha Empire.
“It is an honor to be considered for marriage by the highness. But, I will get married to the emperor only on one condition.” Ilaa said in a high-pitched voice that has been used to being shut up. “What are you saying?” her father started disapprovingly.
“Let her state the condition.” Balaji ordered.
“I want sati to be abolished from your kingdom. I do not want any girl to think herself as an extension of her husband or father or brother or a self-deprecating woman.”
She did not have to wait for his answer as Balaji looked at her spellbound just like he had looked at her the first time.