The cotton bales were ready to be bartered for necessitates. The camp of traders was pitched in the ground near main market as always. This year the yield had been phenomenal. Sada and family were expecting good returns.
Ilaa was expecting her first child and it was her seventh month running. Motherhood would felicitate her so much that she spend hours talking to the life enwomb. As if she got a comrade after a long time. This was the best time of her life which she stargazed to get better when her child would grow up.
The family loaded the bales in the carts and reached the market. It was very early in the morning, but they wanted to be amongst the first ones to be there. In the market area the tents were pitched and goods laid out for business. Sada had a list of requirements of the family. He went from one trader to another and bartered cotton for them. While Sada and Hara were busy with the job, Ratna and Ilaa stayed near the carts. Two shops away there was a trader who was coming to Sauviragram for first time ever with the sale of books. Ilaa gazed with a twinkle in her eyes and hoped if some cotton remained after all the transactions. Hara and Sada kept coming to take portions of cotton and with the decreasing bales, Ilaa’s hope also minified. By afternoon, there wasn’t much left to be bargained for important items. When Sada returned, Ilaa gathered all her courage to voice her secret desire. With her limited exposure, she had developed a liking for history and wondered if there was a book in the shop which spoke of life beyond hers.
“If we have some unused cotton left, may I buy a book for myself?” Ilaa spoke in a feeble voice and with eyes down.
As she spoke there spread a strange silence of condemnation which took over the entire family. Introducing education to women was a verboten practice. The right was denied and if there were some who studied, they belong to palatial lineage. Ilaa stood affright. She was shaking with fear.
“But what will you do with a book? You don’t even know how to read.” Sada was still in disbelief over the unusual request of Ilaa.
“I know. Panu taught me how to read”. This came like a thundering bang on the not so trained ears of everybody. Ilaa still with her eyes down and unaware of the coming storm, continued. “After the work, we used to sit near the river and Panu taught me.” She immediately put her hands on her mouth as with the prevailing muteness, Ilaa realized what a blunder she just committed. She got so carried away with the charm of her wishes that she forgot what her bindings as a woman in this society were.
“And what else did you do with that lover of yours?” Sada shouted and his eyes burnt red as he questioned the character of his wife.
“Quiet son. We will handle this at home and not here. The entire village is present here” hushed Ratna. The family quickly finished up the remaining tasks and returned back. Sada could not control his anger and raced the cart back home. Ilaa cried incessantly with quiet sobs the entire way. Her baby also became restless with her grief.
“So tell me more about your adventures. You whore.” grumbled Sada. Illa stood summoned in front of the family and kept crying. “I just wanted to study and Panu helped me in that.”
“She is lying. Now I remember of seeing her working close to Panu most of the times in the fields. I am sure of her infidelity”, said Hara.
“I am not lying. Please don’t think otherwise. We only spoke regarding studies. There is nothing more to it”, begged Ilaa. But Sada’s anger went completely out of control and he slapped Ilaa so hard that she fell on the ground with all her weight. Hara kicked her and Ratna held Ilaa by her hairs so tightly that Ilaa cried with pain. She implored again and again to ask for forgiveness still not understanding her mistake, but surrendered to seek the safety of her child. But Sada did not listen. Instead he threw Ilaa out of the house disowning the child. “Who knows whose child is this? Get out of here and never show your face again to us” screamed Sada and closed the doors.
“Please don’t do this to me, I beg of you. I am innocent. I haven’t done anything of that sort. I have just spoken to Panu regarding studies and will never do so again” wept Ilaa. “At least think of your unborn child. Where will I go? Please forgive me for whatever I have done”. Wailing of Ilaa fell on deaf ears and the doors did not open.
Night drew near and forced Ilaa to get up and look for some food and shelter. Broken with the day’s events she didn’t know where to go at this hour. Hoping of some help from the priest, Jana baba, she limped towards the temple. Evening aarti had just gotten over and Jana baba had retired to his hut behind the temple.
“Baba can I get something to eat?” groaned Ilaa sitting on the door of the hut. The voice sounded familiar but Jana baba could not exactly make out who was at the door. The deep pain in the voice made him immediately open the door. “Ilaa you? Here? At this hour?” he shouted almost in disbelief. Ilaa could not answer. Baba helped her to get in and made her lay down on the cot. He rushed to get her some water and food. Ilaa was very hungry. She ate slowly as all her face was aching alongwith her bruised body. Tears kept rolling down while she narrated all she went through.
“Ilaa don’t worry you can stay here till you find a place for yourself and if you have not done anything wrong then why are you crying. The loss is of Sada and his family for losing a women of such an immense honour and courage. Knowledge is God and almighty can never be biased. These norms are made by his selfish kids as per their comfort. Women is goddess and honourable. You yourself are going to be a mother soon. You have to be brave and fight for your rights. You can’t get weak right now”. Baba Jana’s words appeared to be God’s command to Ilaa and she decided to battle against the world. Ilaa went to search for job in the fields of other farmers after she regained her health. She made a hut for herself near the temple and lived life on her own. Two months later she was blessed with a girl. She named her Ananya. Her unbound happiness made her forget all about the hurt wretched on her by past.
Ananya is 5 years old now. Ilaa wants her to go to the school and fulfill her unrealized dreams but the school has denied admission. Sitting by the great river Godavari she thinks of the bygone times and decides of contending the system and demanding the right for her daughter and every other girl who wished to study.
“I am sick of this!” she grunted loudly. “Now I only will have to do something.” Ilaa went to the temple to see Jana Baba.
“Baba, once again the societal stalwarts are ready to crush the esteem of women. I am not going to accept this. I will not.” Ilaa spoke angrily.
“What do you want to do Ilaa?” Baba asked quietly.
“I request you to start a school where all the girl children will come to study. I will speak to the villagers and make them agree to send their daughters to you. I will help you in all possible ways. I know it is difficult but not impossible. We will have to do this to uplift the status of women in society and provide them equal opportunity to study. At least we can try and leave the rest to God.”
Baba Jana agreed and they started with the first girl school in the village. Getting students for the school was not easy but gradually people started sending their daughters. In one year, with consistent and earnest efforts of Ilaa and Baba Jana the school gained confidence of the villagers. Even educated men from the village, who believed in the cause, came together to help Baba Jana and Ilaa.
Ten years hence, Sauviragram boasts of complete female literacy.