Along the banks of a river, in a nameless town, lived a girl named Ilaa. She was from an affluent cotton farming family.
The wholesalers and traders from the city factory would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. The bales of cotton had to be organised in time! There was so much to do!
But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the river.
“I am sick of this!” she grunted loudly.
Her younger brother Apu stopped skipping stones long enough to turn to her with a bark of laughter. He had already finished his morning prayers.
“Who told you to show Father your anklets?”
“I didn’t! That horrid lady was snooping around.” Ilaa continued to chew the neem stick in her mouth roughly.
“Okay okay,” His expression darkened at the mention of their aunt. “I ran from the field. She was making me an ox! Look, my feet are halfway hooves already.”
Ilaa spit out the water and laughed.
“Come on, let’s go fill the water casket. And get the clothes from the washerwoman. She might even give us some candy and sweets that her aunt must have made for the traders.”
Unfortunately, the withered form of their aunt greeted them at the washerwoman’s long mud gate.
Apu slinked down to the base of one of the pillar at the porch of the neighbouring house, to hide from her. Inevitably, she found them, all the same. She pulled at Ilaa’s right ear to pull her up in a severe manner.
“The traders are coming in three weeks! We must sell them the cotton. What are you doing? You simply cannot afford to sit like that; so lazy, and stupid. Where have you been? Dancing again? And you! Go help your Father.” Apu took flight immediately after, and Ilaa was sure it was not to the cotton farm. She ran after him as soon as she stopped feeling like a puddle of water.
The day the traders were to arrive, the Tulsi plant was specially decorated and prayed to, for luck. Ilaa covered her head with her sari pallu and peeked out of the hole in the wall into the porch. It had been a nuisance to them all monsoon, but she was grateful for it now, despite her nose being half buried in watery cow dung disinfectant. The trader who sat across her Father was all of six thousand ox carts. Another man sat on the thistle mat next to the huge man. He had a bursting moon face and a bursting red mouth.
Her Father and uncles huffed and puffed the cotton sacks into position. Her brother was carrying them to the cart stand. A thwack on her head jarred her out of her observations. Her aunt was holding a plate of sweets, and a jar of cooling drink.
“Quick, give them this. Don’t look up. Now go!”
She imagined herself as a big fish, gliding in the water, then trashing about in someone’s hands.
So Ilaa donned her best invisibility uniform and marched out to the porch, setting the plate down and offering each of them the cups.
“-those white traders from the west are always demanding more. My son here says they pay handsomely, though. We need to show our village pride here!” The ox-man was saying. The moon faced man had been reading a ledger, until he appeared to gawk at her. Ilaa fled, immediately after pouring the buttermilk into the glasses.
“Mother would have been miserable,” Apu wailed, “She would have hated the way the house runs now. Did you see how much that fat man took without even paying?”
“Shhh. Yes well. She is dead.” Ilaa sounded just as despondent. “Here, hold the anklet with the right rhythm.” The anklets were much too big in Apu”s tiny hands.
Ilaa bowed and saluted her art, and began.
Dancing was praying, wishing with hands, feet and eyes. Music swells in her ears, and she doesn’t feel human any more. She feels like a larger fragment than her frail thin body could contain. Then she sings, the way her father used to love it. Just as he quietly loved their mother, who ran away from her house, for him, all those years ago. It was she who taught Ilaa all she knew about dance, having learnt it all in her childhood. Ilaa later suspected that this tethered her mother to her own ancestral childhood home; the one she broke away from.
“Ilaa! Ilaa! The milk is ready.” Her aunt called out from her kitchen.
Apu darted away, to hide the anklets and the sheets of music before their aunt found them.
Churning the buttermilk to butter and was easy for Ilaa. Sometimes she would sneak some of it to Apu. He was a proper Krishna. She was learning a song from her music sheet while flecks of milk flew everywhere.
“I’ll make you glow like the sun
By bathing you in sandalwood
You will live forever then, my sweet
You will be strung together, my life
You will more than once, smell the dust
Meanwhile, my wildflower
I’ll make you glow like the sumusi
By bathing you in sandalwood.”
It was the lullaby her mother taught her, when Apu was still a new born.
She noticed her aunt towering over her, and looked up, readying herself for a scolding. Unexpectedly, her aunt bent down to caress her head and cheek, and smiling sadly, she declared, “You are our Lakshmi.” Her face turned less soft. “You’re getting married, now you need to be a good girl and do as your husband and his family says.”
A warm breeze gusted through the verandah, ruffling the Tulsi plant.
Ilaa watched the music sheet float away with her childhood.
On her wedding day, Ilaa felt carefully gift wrapped. She wore gold bangles, earrings, a nose ring and even a shiny chain. It was the bursting face and bursting red mouth man sitting next to her father’s twenty one bales of cotton, a cow and a bull and an ox and a casket of steel utensils and silver ware on the other side of the fire. Her father smiled at her while he fed her sugary curd before she left. Apu lurked beyond her reach. He was still angry at her for leaving him. He didn’t understand why she had to leave. Truth be told, she didn’t understand any of this either.
Everyone told her she was marrying up, into a better house. She didn’t understand. Until she arrived in the neighbourhood of her new house. The houses were all distinct and almost regal looking in her inexperienced eyes. Everything was bigger and cruder and fashionable.
Many days later, she was completing the morning rituals by lighting an incense stick in each room when she chanced upon her husband in one of the ornately fashioned rooms. Nashik was a far cry from Sauviragram. The town rejoiced in each of the festivities occurring throughout the year as though King Rama’s brother Lakshmana cut off the nose of Shurpanaka, the evil demoness sister of Ravana, just yesterday, each time.
“My first wife died here. Of child birth. She was only a little older than you are now.” Ilaa stood still. She didn’t know what to do or say.
“Did you know, I saw you dancing by the Godavari ghat the day before I came to your father’s house? It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. You were rapturous. And I had to laugh and laugh when I saw you that day, and found out your name. It means ‘no’ in a language down in the South! I had been traveling for many years there, and encountered your name so many times!” Vyaas, her husband was smiling at her.
Ilaa slowly learnt to love her husband through her eyelashes, looking down and looking up at the same time.
A few months passed, while Ilaa continued to train herself in her art in secret. She feared being reprieved by her new family. Until one day-
“You are dancing!” Vyaas was thronged by all the other children from the joint family.
Ilaa shifted her feet as though she was standing on a carpet of hot coals instead of a Persian rug.
“That was beautiful! You must teach us. We have always wanted to learn dance.” A little girl pronounced.
A window opened in Ilaa’s chest. She looked at her soon to be pupils and smiled shyly.
Manu mamaji the ox-man heard the racket and frowned at them. “What’s going on here?”
“Ilaa is going to teach Munni, Rekha, and Suki dance!” Vyas pinched each of their cheeks as he said their names.
Manu mamaji harrumphed,”Do it quietly!”
Athya peered in through the commotion. “Go get the herbs child! Your great grandmother is coughing again! And great uncle needs some juice. Bring lemons too. The lemon and chili garland need to be reinstated at the door again. Otherwise bad omens will fall on this house! Remind them that the shop owners owe money too.”
Ilaa ducked her head and nodded.
She donned a different saree and set out.
“Hello Lasyaji. How many times have you been called a witch today?”
“Too less, my dear, far too less. The normal I presume? For the old hag? Is she any better, or is she troubling all her daughters?”
“No no. Both Athya and Ajji are fine. What is new for today? Any gossip going around? I know nothing, until I come to you, and thus I become the last person to know everything!”
Lasyaji’s den always had the sweet acrid smell of pickles. The Lost Cave seemed to be out of a child’s drawing; a child who loved the colour red.
Her house had it’s own personal weather around it, much like her bombed out hair.
“Oh yes. You are still new to the town, dear. They think you are only a child. Ha! They married you already, and they call you a child. Your schooling is all over, and they still call you a child. Rupa came here yesterday along for herbs and mixture for making her baby a son! That is magic which is not determined by you or me, don’t they know that? Of course nobody understands it. She even started crying longer and harder than a manglik in raahukala whose path was crossed by a black cat! Her mother-in-law is the real witch here to have such control over a poor dear like Rupa…”
Ilaa supposed she had it better than the others.
Her friend, Gowri had to go through the fire just last year. On the other side of town, Lakshmabai, day in and day out, stood by her useless, drunk man. Just by the river, with all the abundance of water too, Raji, cloaked in white, was selling all her mother”s jewellery one by one, to survive her three girls and five boys.
The maid came in crying, one day, mumbling, horrified, and wide eyed, of a bloated body of a baby girl, found inauspiciously close to the Shri Munisuvrat Nath Bhagwan Atishaya Kshetra temple bath ghats.
“-And they want to drag me around the village naked whenever one of their cattle dies. This world is not sane I tell you my dear. This is not the best we can do. There is much to see, learn and remember.” Lasyaji snorted, her hair flying in tandem with her own personal hurricane. “We were made for much more than baby making vessels. What? Don’t shush me! I know what I am taking about. My mother and her mother and her mother and her mother- the line of Brahmavadinis- we knew!”
Ilaa scrunched her little nose. “What does that mean?”
“Look at that! No one ever even knows! We studied fine arts and yes, that’s right-study! We knew and contributed to scholarly works, even the Vedas. We had shares in properties. Don’t you know? What do young girls like yourself even know these days? What are you allowed to learn? Nothing, I tell you, dear. It’s ridiculous. Durga Ma, Preserver of us all, why aren’t you protecting these poor young ones? Kali Ma, oh Destructive One, when will this patriarchal mess be abolished? Oh passionate Lakshmi devi, do help us in our time of need! All prevailing Saraswati Devi, enlighten us in our quest in creativity!” Lasyaji bowed at all her idols and paintings of the Goddesses.
“Have I scared you, my child? I apologise for my outburst, but I will not be sorry for the truth I utter.”
“N-no Lasyaji.” Ilaa gulped the cowrie in her throat, “Truthfully, I don”t know what to say.”
“That’s all right dear. Take the bag and be off with you!”
Ilaa turned away, and almost stepped outside the entrance of the Lost Cave, the place which had fallen out of time much like its mistress, with her left foot. She turned back.
“Lasyaji? I want to understand what you were talking about.”
“Soon enough, little one, soon enough.”
Ilaa saw a glistening pebble shaped like a tiny man. Or a woman. She was not sure. Apu used to collect strange looking pebbles to make a fort of them, and be the Prince of his realm. She remembered his wild wolf roars as he protected his fort, fondly.
She was thinking about what Lasyaji, the town’s own matronly crone had said.
She wondered about her future. She was not going be another Gowri or Raji, was she? What will her dancing in secret, ever do for her? She had to teach those little girls something, just as Lasyaji parted the curtains to a new world, for her.
This was what Ilaa suddenly found herself wishing for the most. To grab her brother’s arm and sprint back through time the way a clay house, with a clay doll sitting in it, can be deformed and still be wonderful shapeless clay.
She was holding Suki’s hand, to show her the correct position of the dance step, when Rekha fell, trying to hold herself afoot on only one leg, and upset all the pots of curd, butter, ghee and milk in the room. She burst into loud tears.
Manu mamaji, and Athya rushed in along with the maids. Mamaji’s entire width, slid on the spilt milk, down the red oxide flooring and granite steps. The cacophony that ensued ensured Ilaa the trashing of her life.
But for Ilaa, unknown to anyone else, this was only another step up from a world that is an impregnable fort of conventionality. Maybe somewhere far away, in space or time, little girls will be blessed by Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati.
But not today.