This was my submission to TOI’s Write India initiative, a short story competition taking place this year. Backed by a team of published authors, the process requires the participants to work on a certain prompt given by an author every month.
The prompt for this story (in the brown font below) was given by Amish Tripathi in the month of July 2015. My attempt could not make it to the top ones ( 😦 ). But of course, there were people who seemed to have worked hard on it for the whole month and I can’t expect my 2-3 days of work to top that :-).
Happy reading. As an aspiring writer who is learning, await your inputs.
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. ‘Sow the seeds, water the fields, guard against pests, work all around the year only to sell all the produce for a pittance!’ Ilaa shook her head glancing at the cartload of cotton bales which she had wheeled away from her family fields. ‘In two weeks, I shall prove to my village that we need to go beyond all this. We need to show that Guild of cotton traders that we are not their slaves!’
‘Am I late’? She heard a cheery voice behind.
‘Can’t complain when I need your help.’ Ilaa retorted standing up. ‘Somu, we have only two weeks!’ She turned, knotting her loose plait into a bun before tightening the pallu of her Nauvari.
Tarasom, in his late twenties still carried a spark of teens in his eyes. ‘You get angrier each day. Dread letting you loose on my loom!’ His wink made Ilaa aim for his side with her elbow. It made her lips curve as well.
‘Let us get to work.’ Ilaa said wheeling the cart following Tarasom, also called Somu. He hailed from a family of weavers. A tragedy had left him and his younger brother Mangal orphaned. To fend for themselves the boys ran odd errands. Though he was taught weaving quite early in life, Tarasom could not sustain the profession after the death of his parents. Their looms lay unused in their family home which had once provided employment to ten families of Sauviragram.
Ilaa sighed at Tarasom’s carefree whistle as he pulled the cart behind him. ‘Where is Mangal?’
‘At home, oiling the loom. We took it out after a long time, thanks to your sermon last week.’
‘Sermon, Somu?’ Ilaa protested. ‘All I talked was numbers. The price of cotton comes down each harvest. Those traders get more and more aggressive as we yield. The price of woven textile on the other hand only keeps rising. Why don’t our people understand? My arithmetic did not convince these people fettered in fear. Because I am a woman.’
Somu nodded. He knew that Ilaa’s call to the villagers, mostly farmers to get into weaving was rejected by most. Other than he and his brother Mangal, a novice, there was only one family of weavers in Sauviragram. It would take months before the two families could weave the whole of the harvest. The villagers feared that the trade season in Paithan would pass by, leaving them with unsold stock. Ilaa also had called upon the women to invest their time in spinning and weaving. She argued that woven products did not need a ‘trade season’ to sell. Finding long term buyers of cloth would make them depend lesser on the Guild of cotton traders. But the farmers of Sauviragram were averse to taking risk. Ilaa’s gender, Somu sadly realized did not help. But he believed in her.
‘Here we are.’ Somu halted as they reached his house. They entered the huge hall, an open quadrangle, surrounded by a sheltered corridor which opened into different rooms. The dilapidated palatial structure was all that was left of Tarasom’s family. The looms and the spinning wheels were placed in one of the sheltered corners. Ilaa and the brothers got to work. Her mind furiously thought about final textile products that could fetch a price worth all the sweat that went into making them.
After a tiring and yet productive day, Ilaa strode into her house displaying a piece of the newly woven textile to her father, Ganoji. His eyes widened in genuine admiration for a moment and then narrowed. ‘Selling isn’t going to be as simple as making them, Ilu.’
‘Last week, you said weaving isn’t as easy as plucking cotton, Baba.’ Ilaa smiled.
‘How much of this can be made before the fair at Paithan?’ Ganoji asked. ‘Enough to break even Baba….’ Ilaa chose her words and then added, ‘…if Ayi and Vahini can join us from tomorrow. You should lend a hand too!’ She added.
‘…Leaving the cotton unharvested and unsold, turning ready fortune away from our doorstep in pursuit of a mirage?’ Ganoji retorted. ‘Goddess Mahalsa! Give her some sense.’
‘Goddess Mahalsa! Give him some sense!’ Ilaa chuckled. Something about his whole reaction was different from the resistance she had seen before. ‘Please risk this one harvest, Baba…for my sake.’
Ganoji gave in and nodded. Before Ilaa could react, he raised a finger. ‘Not all of the harvest. Only a quarter of it. If your Vahini wants, let her join you, but I don’t want your mother to strain herself.’
Ilaa felt that the battle was half won. Her father despite his fears had started to believe in her. ‘Two weeks’, she sighed to herself.
The activity at Tarasom’s house increased each day. Ilaa had managed to inspire not only her sister in law to join them, but also the daughters of the other weaver family and some girls who knew spinning and stitching. For the whole of two weeks they labored hard. Between them, they streamlined and wove all the cotton into cloth and some portion of the cloth into stitched products. Tarasom was confident that with some good luck, the rolls of un-stitched cloth too would bring them a good price.
Before they started for Paithan, he saw Ilaa smile at him as they loaded the stock onto the horse cart. ‘Thanks, Somu.’
‘You know!’ Ilaa nudged him. ‘Let me save the long emotional speech for the day we sell it all.’
‘If you can share it now, I can suggest improvements.’ Somu laughed and ducked before Ilaa’s elbow landed on his arm this time.
The group laughed and set off to Paithan. The marketplace at Paithan looked festive with traders from neighboring places, farmers, artisans, entertainers and performers gathering together. Anticipation of the fortune to be earned here had kept them sleepless in the past weeks. For Ilaa and her friends, the last couple of nights had also been filled with activity. The darkness under their eyes however paled before the hope that shone in their 6 eyes. They met with an encouraging response – with the smaller products selling away quickly. But Ilaa’s group needed more than that. She knew that the demand for woven textiles sustained beyond the seasonal trade fairs. Ilaa needed a trader or two to trust them and agree to buy their cloth over longer term.
If this happened, she felt that the elders of her village would find the courage to go beyond selling bales of cotton to weaving textile at home. It would also make the women of Sauviragram self sufficient.
Somu left to survey the fair and assess the prevailing prices of similar woven products. Ilaa stayed at the stall and sought to make eye contact with prospective long term buyers while the rest of the women started calling out to passers by showing them dhotis, turbans, and other smaller products.
She noticed a visitor stare at the roll of textile in her hand. The man with a conspicuous beard was in his forties. Dressed in a humble kurta and a faded dhoti, he did not possess anything that spoke about him being a wealthy trader. Ilaa however, was struck by the keenness and majesty in his eyes as he looked around. When she saw his gaze come to a halt at the textile in her hand, Ilaa took the cue and opened the roll by a length. She saw his lips curve and his eyes sparkle but only for a moment. She was about to call out to him when another voice caught her attention.
‘Aren’t you from Sauviragram?’
Ilaa recognized the trader. He was the one who usually bought her family’s cotton produce. She nodded as he stared at their merchandise. From what she saw, the man was not pleased. Ilaa would have preferred that he go away, but he approached their stall. Her instincts told her to roll back the textile and keep it away from his reach. Her sister in law and Mangal moved closer to her in a protective manner. They had sensed her discomfort. ‘Namaste’, she said not failing to meet his gaze.
‘You girls have toyed with spinning and weaving?’ He remarked, feeling the Kurta that was hung by the side. Ilaa quoted the price in a bland tone, not wanting to entertain him longer. He sneered in response. ‘You actually expect me to waste money on this useless rag made by up-start women?’
‘Please move on. I too would like to sell the fruit of our hard work to someone better than you.’ Ilaa retorted and beckoned the other bearded man who had caught her interest before. ‘Do please have a look at our Dhotis, Shriman. They would suit you too.’
‘Check your arrogance woman! I am still to buy your father’s produce!’ The trader shouted.
‘He dares to threaten us!’ Ilaa sharply whispered to her group. ‘Because our village has never questioned his unfair demands. But as we have started producing cloth, he fears losing his negotiating vantage.’ Ilaa then turned to the trader. ‘Do you, Shriman really fear us so much? How about offering us a fairer price for our cotton then?’
The humble onlooker laughed, further agitating the trader who advanced towards the women, clearly meaning no good. Ilaa grabbed a staff and tapped it on the ground. ‘Move away!’
The trader backed. ‘These shameless women are sending the honor of Paithan down the drain!’ He shouted gathering the attention of others around.
Ilaa saw others stare at her group and clenched her jaw. ‘Honor of the Goddess Mahalsa, Honor of the King Ilaa who became a woman and founded this city, honor of the Shatavahana Queen Mothers Gautami Balasri and Vashishti, honor of Devi Muktabai the incarnation of the goddess Saraswathi and the honor of every woman behind the spirit of Pratishthanapura is of course upheld by this gentleman who sneers at hard work, looks down upon women and cheats farmers!’ The spirited statement hauled up many pairs of brows in part awe and part admiration. The trader advanced again and this time, Somu who had returned from his tour hurried to stand in between. He looked at Ilaa who was not yet done. ‘I refuse to sell my products to you even in exchange for a fortune. As for our family’s harvest, I would prefer burning it rather than letting you get our produce!’ Somu pushed the trader, not wanting to waste any more breath conversing with him. The trader shook a finger at them before he left and the rest of the group breathed easy. ‘This privileged Guild of cotton traders needs to be challenged! Our fear is their strength!’ Ilaa grunted.
Somu now turned his attention to the silent bearded bystander who had walked up to them. ‘Yes Shriman..’
‘The lady has hidden all the cloth. Can I buy the Kurta?’ The man smiled. This managed to make Ilaa smile back as she pulled out the roll of cloth that had interested him earlier.
‘How many more do you have?’ The man asked examining the Kurta on display and then the cloth. ‘We managed to make four of them, all in the last ten days. We can make more if you give us some time. More women shall join us and work faster.’ Ilaa said catching a spark in his eyes which betrayed his otherwise humble appearance.
‘Your price too shall be taken care of as you buy more. Our cotton is one of the best.’ Somu added.
‘Did you say Sauviragram?’ He asked Ilaa as he paid. The group nodded in unison.
Three days later in Sauviragram, Ganoji sat on the stone seat in front of his house. Ilaa’s theatrics had cost him his permanent buyer. He was also facing the wrath of other farmers who were now being forced to sell their produce for a loss. The Guild of cotton traders had conspired to take advantage of what happened at Paithan and had quoted a reduced price for the farmers’ cotton as a ‘penalty’ for their ’outrageous’ behavior.
Ilaa and Tarasom had laughed away their fears, confident of their work. The unsold cotton produce meant that they had more raw material at their disposal. Ganoji lookied at the western skies in despair. He saw horsemen approach the village from a distance. The sound of hooves brought others out of their houses.
‘Soldiers!’ Someone exclaimed as the visitors drew nearer.
‘Where is the woman who sold clothes at Paithan?’ the horseman asked. Ganoji’s heart missed a beat.
Ilaa who had heard him came forward and introduced herself. The horseman got down and handed her a letter. Ilaa’s eyes widened as she read the contents. She looked at Tarasom, her jaw dropping. ‘A trade offer! All the harvest of the village might fall short. The man bought our Kurta in Paithan! Do you know who he was?’ Somu stared at her as she stopped for breath and so did the village. Ilaa swallowed hard, her lips now curving into a grin as she held the open letter to everyone’s view. ‘Shrimant Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj!’