(Reading Time: 10 minutes)

Maharashtra, 1669

‘I am sick of this!’ Ilaa grunted loudly.

Though work was at its peak in the cotton fields of Sauviragram, close to the city of Paithan, Ilaa wasn’t anywhere near the farms. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

In her hand was a letter from Aahna. ‘Her Aahna’.

It was a quiet afternoon; she could feel the ease with which the mighty river meandered right by her side. That’s where she liked reading Aahna’s secret letters, ever since she sent the first one about three months ago. Their words wrapped up feelings and sensations that only the river Godavari, being the sole witness to their togetherness, could know or comprehend. Because even though it had been months, the air still felt warm, the river still mischievous, hiding in its holy waters, memories forbidden and sweet.

Ilaa’s mind started drifting back. Three months. She sighed. Sometimes it felt like three decades, sometimes three moments. Three scarring, excruciatingly painful moments. That’s when it all started, that’s when it all changed. Three months ago, it was decided that Aahna had no choice but to marry Parvez, a merchant’s son in the neighbouring village of Ranigaon. Her tormentor. The defiler of her body, mind and spirit. Ilaa always believed that a man could defile the body, but never the mind. Never the spirit. Never that one place deep down where he couldn’t reach, where there is peace. But when Aahna would hear the whispers at night, the voices in her head, the nightmares ravaging her to consciousness, only to find the cause of it all sleeping next to her; Ilaa wondered whether he had raped her thoughts too.

Not only did the soulless ghoul hurt her, he also took away her childhood friend, her partner in crime, away from her. She read the letter again. Like the previous letters, even this one, carried only  stories of pain. Her letters had been coming in more frequently, carrying with them more agony and misery.

In another world, Ilaa, you’d be lying next to me near the river, watching the sunset. In every other world, except this one. They want me to make my husband my world, but how can I do that, when all my worlds are only you?”

***

All Ilaa could think about as she helped her mother with dinner that night were Aahna’s words – that had been ceaselessly haunting her throughout the day. It wasn’t just that. She could feel a sense of impending doom for her own future. A month ago, she overheard her father talking about fixing her marriage with a Sauvir. Sauviragram got its name from a ragtag group of hundred people – farmers, cobblers, traders and what not, who together defeated a bandit and his men, who had wreaked havoc upon the village, some two hundred years ago. After the triumph, as a tribute, all the common folk gave away a piece of their land to the hundred victors, who then tore down the prevailing caste hierarchy to become the lords of the village; their successive generations came to be called as Sauvirs.

But the spoilt, land-rich Sauvirs became a bunch of good-for-nothings; most of them left the village, some were never heard of again, but a few stayed back. Ilaa had only heard stories of the Sauvir that her father was talking about, Shantanu. The very thought of marrying that man gave her the chills.

Ilaa was scared she’d fare worse than Aahna. She’d always been –

“It’s going to be a good year! You hear that? A good year!”

Dinner was ready and her father entered with a beaming smile befitting the tall, moustachioed man. The harvest season had filled him with hopes, quite rightly so. But there was something else on Ilaa’s mind that was bothering her. Halfway through the dinner, her concerns were proven right.

“So, Ilu. The Sauvir. You’re done making excuses. Is the day after good for you?”

“Good for what Bapu?” she asked, her heart sinking already. She’d been trying to escape dinner all week, to be as far away as possible from this precise conversation.

“Why! To invite their family of course! You’ve been making excuses all month! Do you even realise how lucky you are? Who’d have known our Ilu would get a Sauvir!” The smile just wouldn’t go. Ilaa wondered how he was even eating with that smile plastered all over his face.

Ilaa sank further. She felt claustrophobic, like she was falling and the only way was to go further down. She had to play this one out with tact.

“Actually, Bapu, I was wondering. Harvest season is upon us and I have been of no help whatsoever. Let me help!”

“She’s right,”her mother added. “She’s just been lazing around near the river all season. God knows what she does there. You had to go to Paithan to talk to Shashtriji to get some labour na? Let her go. At least she’ll learn something.”

“What non-sense. The Sauvirs are flooded with servants. Our Bitiya will never have to do any work. Such is going to be the ways of her life now.” Ilaa saw nothing but contentment on his face. That’s it. Her future was being written right now and she was eating chapatis.

“Provided she stays at home long enough for them to at least see her,” her mother chipped in quietly.

Ilaa knew what she had to do. She just didn’t know how far reaching its repercussions would be.

“I’ll meet the Sauvir.” she broke the silence at last. “After I come back, I’ll meet the Sauvir.”

***

Paithan and Ranigaon. Not too far apart, she thought.

She smiled. Then she thought of Aahna and her smile became even wider. Then she thought of her last letter and her smile immediately faded. She finally had a chance to go out. It had been months since she last saw her.

She was concerned. The letters hid more than they revealed. Like Aahna herself. The two just happened to be at very sorrowful points in their lives, but Ilaa had to make sure Aahna was okay. Knowing that, would give her in turn the power to face almost anything. Maybe even a moment of togetherness – a fleeting, temporary moment – would heal them enough to carry on a little bit more.

It was afternoon; she was out in the fields carrying lunch for her father when a long forgotten voice startled her.

“Ilaa?”

Satya. Aahna’s brother – the man was clad in a dhoti and his vest was drenched in sweat. He was a mess and completely out of breath – it seemed he had been running in the sun for hours. Running from what?

“Satya?” Ilaa quickly glanced around. They were alone. “What…what are you doing here?”

“It’s Aahna. She’s in trouble!”

Ilaa didn’t know what it was, but she knew she had to sit down for this.

“Aahna?!” Satya was at a loss of words. “Last night, Aahna tried to kill herself.”

***

“A temple?!” Ilaa asked incredulously.

“Lucky for her,” Satya said. “I knew the priest, so I worked something out. The temple is where I could fix her for the night. Her in-laws have forced her out of the house and my parents won’t take her either.”

“That’s ridiculous! She needs help!”

“She needs your help.” The two were almost jogging as they made their way to the temple.

“I … I don’t understand. Why would she do this?” the anger in her voice gave way to gloom.

“Ilaa. There’s something you need to know.”

Ilaa stopped and looked at him, but Satya was unable to look at her in the eye.

“She’s pregnant.”

Ilaa was dumbfounded. Her heart was racing and she thought she’d faint.

“Here” Satya pulled out a damp envelope and gave it to her. “For you.”

Ilaa was stunned and unable to move. She looked at the crumpled piece of paper before her, afraid of the news it bore. She had a momentary desire to rush back to the Godavari to read it, but she opened the letter anyway.

“I can’t even kill myself. Who knew?

I am assuming Satya told you. Please, Ilu, try to understand. Don’t try to change my mind. I can’t bring a child into this world. This repulsive world, which is full of hate and disgust. There’s no way I’ll come out happy on the other side. No way this child will ever smile and be happy. Happy, urgh. I don’t even know what happiness would be like for me. I don’t want to live anymore, Ilaa. But, maybe the reason why I couldn’t kill myself was because I don’t want to go out like this. Alone, in a strange village, with no Godavari or my Ilaa around me. It’s ugly. I want to be with you when I go. I want to see you for the last time, my Ilaa. And then I want to look at Godavari again, which still hides all our secrets in its waters. It’s only the river that can put me out of my misery.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense.

Just come. Your Aahna is waiting for you.”

***

“So, a Sauvir, huh?” Aahna giggled.

“I heard a cow once kicked him in the head. In the head. How’s that for a Sauvir?”

Aahna burst out laughing. She laughed like she hadn’t laughed in months. She laughed like there would be no tomorrow. Ilaa just kept looking at her as her laughter pierced the silence of the night.

“There’s something about getting lost while looking at a starry night.”

The two were lying right alongside the river on a soft patch of lush green grass. It was a quiet night with a clear sky and the stars were out in all their glory. Ilaa and Aahna were lost. In the stars. In each other.

“I am glad you aren’t angry with me.” Aahna whispered, still staring at the sky.

“I don’t know what I feel, Aahna.”

“God, Ilu. I wanted this. To lie with you, near the river, gaze at the stars. Just this and nothing else, not a care in the world. I wanted this so bad.”

“Aahna?”

“Please don’t say it.”

“Don’t do it.”

Silence followed. Aahna turned to look at her Ilaa. It wasn’t a full moon, but her face glowed like it had a light of its own. She could look at her for the millionth time and still fall in love with her all over again.

“No talking, Ilu.” Her eyes were moist. “Let’s just spend the night like this. I need it.”

The river was flowing by quietly, as another silence was broken by Ilaa.

“I understand, why you don’t want to bring a child into this world. I think I do.”

“You do?”

“You think there’s so much hate in the world. You think there’s so much hate within you. Quite rightly so. But there’s also love. I know it. I have felt it. I am feeling it right now. In the world. In you.”

“I told you I won’t change my mind, Ilaa.”

“How about we raise the child together? Far-far away from here.”

Aahna’s eyes widened. She got up in shock and turned to her. She wanted to say something but words wouldn’t come out.

“But, you know, we can talk about it in the morning,” said Ilaa. “I was just throwing ideas around.” Aahna turned back, lay on the grass and tightly held her hand.

“I have a feeling it’s going to be a girl” said Aahna.

Ilaa gave a gleeful smile and cheered.

Ilaa looked at the woman she loved. The woman who was supposedly scarred for life. The woman who tried to kill herself last night. The woman who was now making a choice. She looked at her and kissed her on the lips.

They both knew there was a chance they would wake up in the morning and go back to their house and forget all about it. They were the misfits, the rara avis and they knew they weren’t made for this world. Had they been born centuries ago, or maybe centuries from now? But, certainly not this world.

But for now, they just held hands and allowed the serene night sky to blanket them as they both looked at the stars that shone and the woman they loved.

***

That night, Ilaa had a dream. No, a vision. She didn’t know whether she was awake or not. She didn’t know whether she was looking at the river or the sky. But she had a vision. A vision of a goddess, born centuries ago, in the land where she now lay. It was a vague image, but Ilaa remembered bits of it. She saw the goddess as a girl, playing in the mud with a doll made of clay, while it rained, with a smile so radiating it lit up wherever she went. She then saw her as a woman, worshipped by her family and by the people around, the glowing smile still there, illuminating everyone and everywhere with her light.

Ilaa woke up. She thought she had woken up. She looked at the sky. The vision changed. She now saw the same goddess, born centuries later, in the land where she now lay. She saw the goddess as a girl, dressed in rags, going from one house to the other. She then saw her as a woman, lying on the ground, beaten, bruised, the smile gone, while it rained.

***

In the end, and whatever that end may be, there is only one thing you can ask.

Where was my choice?

***

 

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