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The purple peacock: my entry for Amish Tripathi write india contest

1) The story has to be set in the 17th century, not in Ancient Vedic India.
2) Remember, India had changed a lot from its ancient mores by the 17th century. But some still remembered the ancient days, when women were respected.
3) The story must be set in reality and not have fantastical or mythical angles to it.
4) I want the story to be written using the historical information available now about 17th century Paithan. But use your imagination to fill in any holes in the research. Just don't resort to fantasy, keep it plausible.
5) The heroine of the story will be Ilaa - a woman who lived in 17th century Paithan (in what is modern Maharashtra), and who remembered the ancient Vedic days (when women were respected in India) and demanded equal rights as any man.
6) A story which, while entertaining and fun, must deliver a message on women's rights. Something that many of us in Modern India could learn from.
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.
 1500 to 2500 words.

The purple peacock

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.

She looked down at her calloused hands, they were sore from picking cotton. She dipped them in the cool Godavari waters. Even as the water acted as a soothing salve for her cotton picking weary hands, her mind remained rest less.

She wondered how her mother and all the other women in the village could bear to continue working in the heat, carrying bags heavy with cotton on their back.

And for what? Everyone knew that the merchants made a huge profit by selling the farmers cotton in the city of Paithan. The cotton they grew was coveted by all the nearby regions, not just for their superior quality but because it was utilised to make woven saris which were then exported as far as Egypt and China.
But for all the hard work that the villagers did, they got very little from the cotton they grew. Some years the crop was not good, and they got paid less. Two years ago, they had almost no crops at all because of untimely rains which had spoilt most of their cotton before harvest season.

Ilaa shuddered at the memories of the year when they had no money and were unable to pay the loans they had taken for the seeds and the farming animals.

At least they had a huge crop this year. Counting her blessings she sent up a silent prayer to shri munisvarnath bhagwan  as she got up to go back to the fields. Maybe this indeed was her lot.
As the sky turned from monochromatic white of the summer skies to the multi-coloured hues of evening, the cotton pickers carried their day’s pickings to be weighed. They got paid per kilo.

There was a commotion at the front of the line and Ilaa went to find out what was holding up the line.
It seems that the warehouse and landowners had decided that they would not be giving the female cotton pickers their yearly raise. Every year the cost of labour as also the cost of cotton increased. The women would get a 10 % increase to their half anna they earned per kilo of cotton. But this year the landowners decided to continue the previous year’s wages.

‘It is to pay off your debts that you have from 2 years back. There was very little harvest that year, but all of you had borrowed money for seeds and farming equipment, all that does not come cheap.’
“But you had agreed that you would waive of that money. We had even agreed on working extra the last year. You yourself had said that the debts are cleared!” cried out an indignant Ilaa.
“And what of that girl? Are you going to go crying to your father about it? Do you have any idea of the high costs of storing these cotton bales? Times are tough. If we do not give the merchants the wares at a competitive rate they will go to the nearby village.” replied the warehouse owner.

“Why would they go to the nearby villages when for years they have come here, you are trying to trick us out of our money.”
“This year everyone has had a good crop. All the villages want to sell their cotton, because otherwise it will get spoiled. We have too much cotton and not enough buyers. And so we must sell at a lower price. It is called business of demand and supply, a menial cotton worker like you will not understand.”
That day all the workers went home with less pay than they had hoped.

Next day the mood in the fields was sombre. Even the women who sang folk songs of cotton collecting did not feel like singing the happy tunes. Lesser wages meant needing to pick more cotton; vegetables and wares were not getting any cheaper, and they had to still survive on their daily wages.

‘This will never stop, we will always remain at the mercy of either nature or landlords, or someone else, we need to take charge of our own destinies, have a say in how our future is to be. A year of bad crop and we suffer, a year of good crop and we suffer. ‘Ilaa thought.

That day Ilaa did not even manage to pick one kg of cotton, she had been engrossed in her thoughts.
As the women made their way slowly to the cotton depot, Ilaa struck upon an idea. She quickly walked up to a senior lady in the group. Miriam was an old but feisty woman, bent with age as she was, she had never missed a single cotton picking season in her 50 years of harvesting.
Ilaa handed Miriam her sack of cotton.

“Here take this, I don’t want it today. I picked very little cotton and it won’t add up to much, but together with yours it would be enough for you.”

“And what do you want in return?” Miriam was not one for pleasantries. She had seen enough of the world to know that there were no free meals, no such thing as charity for charities sake.
“Ask all the ladies to meet under the great banyan tree outside the Temple. Tell them I have a way to make more money.”

“And what is this secret method?”

“Come to the tree at 8 tonight after lights are out, and you will know.”

With that Ilaa left, skipping and running towards her home.
That evening a few inquisitive women gathered around the banyan tree, Ilaa was initially disheartened by the turn out but realised that even the women who had gathered at this very moment were breaking a lot of social barriers to be there.

“Sisters, all of you agree that our wages are very low.” Started Ilaa.

‘But what can we do? We don’t have any say. “Said one of the women.

“Not now we don’t, but we can. If we train ourselves. If we stop being victims of situations and of society. I propose we train ourselves to be weavers and sell our sari creations.”

“But we can’t-“Gasped someone in the audience.

“It is not that we can’t it is just that we haven’t tried yet. We make our simple cotton saris, so why can’t we make saris like the weavers in Paithan city?”

“Have you gone mad girl? You have forgotten your place in society and are filling these girls heads with your rubbish. “spoke up Miriam finally. In all her years she had never heard a woman speak of working out of home, or sell wares.

“Why amma? Why only women should be expected to be happy with our lot? Why should we be happy with our lazy husbands, or our paltry wages, satisfied with whatever is in our destiny? Men are taught to make their own destiny. We are proud of our men who think beyond the village, join the royal army, or go to make their fortunes in Paithan city and even beyond. Why do we women not have the same opportunity?”

“All I ask of you is to build on your strengths. We have a woman’s instinct, we understand the feminine aesthetics. The weavers in Paithan may be gifted, but they are men, they know not what a sari wearing woman wants. We may never be able to afford the expensive saris but we know what we would have liked to wear, if we ever had the money. I propose weaving such a sari. We have very little time just shy of a month, a full lunar calendar, today is a new moon, by next new moon we shall have made a sari so dazzling that the traders will fight over themselves to buy it. We will be able to sell it to the highest bidder and make not just money but a whole new means of livelihood, which does not depend on rain or shine. We will turn into skilled workers as opposed to the manual workers that we are now.”

Ilaa’s impassioned speech was met with silence. Could it really be possible that simple village women of Sauviragram, could weave a sari comparable to the great weavers of Paithan, and all in a month, what took most of the weavers months to make?

Only 5 women volunteered for the task, the others left shaking their heads at the ‘ghor kalyug’ that was to come if women started thinking like Ilaa.

“We will need a sturdy loom and enough cotton bales. The whole planning for the sari weave depends on the pattern, we must think of a pattern that is both striking as well as something which is appealing to women….” Ilaa went on to define her plan to the 5 other women. There was no time to waste, she could feel a fire burn within her, she knew there was no turning back. She would see this plan through no matter what.

It took the women two days to gather all the required material. They decided on a body loom of orange and yellow, and a border and pallu of bright green and yellow. Royal colours, but which were easy enough to dye with the natural dyes that the village women possessed; Orange from the turmeric and flower stamens, green from the forest trees, and yellow from flowers. They needed zari just like the saris of Paithan, and had set Ilaa’s younger brother to source it from the village merchant. It was tricky but he had been promised a year’s supplies of kites and all the sweets his heart desired in exchange for his troubles. The zari thread itself cost them 4 annas, and Ilaa was glad that they were making just one sari.

They had decided to make the simple weave they used for their own saris for the body of the sari, but the zari border and the pallu needed hours of delicate work. Patterns had to be worked into the body , and not embroidered over the sari. The whole pattern was tricky especially while working with the zari. Every morning one of the women got away from the fields to secretly work on the sari and the others picked cotton. They then contributed 2 kilos of cotton to the woman who worked on the sari. That way neither of them lost their daily wages and yet managed to work on their secret activity without anyone being the wiser.
Ilaa was still looking for something to make the sari stand out. It needed to be special, a plain orange and green cotton weave would not fetch them the attention she wanted, even with a zari work.

One night her mother woke Ilaa. She handed her a carefully wrapped package, inside which lay the finest most smooth thread that Ilaa had ever seen, and in a colour so vibrant she didn’t even know its name, except that she had seen it on the peacocks neck.

“What is this Ma?”
“This is silk thread, one year I had purchased it during the annual harvest fest, I had planned to give it to you when you got married. “
“It’s beautiful, is it made from peacocks?”

Hat pagli it is like cotton, itself. The merchant told me it is what the Chinese use to make their clothes, the colour is called purple and it is worn by the royal people. I was thinking you can use it for your secret sari. “
“But this must be very expensive, and you have cherished it for so many years, ma.”

“Yes, but I realised over the past few days how hard you work, and how little I have given you. Your brothers get so much more, and the way you and the other girls are working on this sari, it makes me very proud. I cannot publicly say it, but I am proud of you.”

Ilaa looked down at the shining thread in her hands, it seemed to have an inner shine all its own. She was mesmerised. She knew that the merchants would be too. But how could she weave it into the sari, and what pattern would she make?

Next morning was her time to work on the weave. She went to a little hut near the temple premises, to meet a man who had once been a master weaver in Paithan.

“Can you teach me how to make the bangdi mor, (the peacock pattern)?”

“The peacock pattern is one of the most difficult patterns and saris with that weave take months to master and make. It is what makes the saris very expensive too.”said the master.

After much convincing the old master weaver decided to teach Ilaa how to weave a peacock pattern. Ilaa, started working on the peacock pattern at nights. She used to steal away in the moonlight to work on her masterpiece.

The other women were enchanted by the silk, the colour, the shine, the smoothness. Slowly other women started to came drawn as if by the spell of the silk.

What is it? Is it a magic thread? Is it made from peacocks? Is it made from poisonous flowers? It must be black magic!

Rumours and speculations flew around but there was no denying the beauty of it.

The yellow and orange sari along with the zari shone like gold in the moonlight. And the emerging purple peacock with dancing green parrots around it were like jewels in the gold.

“Someday all saris in Paithan will be made of only silk and gold, and their beauty and richness will be celebrated around the world.” Said Ilaa; smiling at her growing audience.

It was the day before the merchants arrived in the village and yet a lot was left to finish on the sari. Ilaa had decided to work all morning on the loom.

But it was not to be. That day they were made to work over time in the fields, as there was still a lot of cotton left to pick and sort. No one could get away, no hands could be spared.

Soon it would be dark, and it was ‘Amavasya’ new moon night. She would not be able to work in the darkness. They could not light a fire or lantern either, not just because it would attract attention, but because the copper zari would get easily heated and would singe the cotton and silk threads unravelling their handiwork.

 Ilaa was in panic by now. She had to get the sari done; it held a whole villages dream, her mother’s precious silk and 4 anna worth of zari.

Helpless and hopeless she went to pray to Shri Munisvarnath bhagwan.
 As she was exiting the temple premises, she met Shri Chimna Pandit.
“What did you ask Bhagwan  for Ilaa?”

“I asked him for a full moon night pandit.” With that Ilaa, rang the temple bells and headed towards her home.

That night as Ilaa and her mother prepared the night bedding in their courtyard, they looked up to see the moon shining brightly. It was to be a new moon night but the moon shorn more bright than it had ever before.
Mother and daughter looked at each other.

“Go. “Said Ilaa’s mother, even as Ilaa turned and ran leaving half-done bedding for her father and brother’s bed she ran towards her dreams, and her destiny.

Even as Ilaa’s mother made the beds for her husband and sons, she looked up once more at the moon; her eyes sparkled with unshed tears, sending up a prayer for herself and her daughter.

Note: the Munisvarnath Bhagwan temple is known for it’s many miracles and a popular tale is of the new moon turning to a full moon on shani amavasya. read about it here
Before the 18th and 19th century Paithani saris were made of cotton, today it is exclusively made of silk.


Sini Rachel said…
Very well written. Loved all the historic touches. Thorough research has indeed gone into it.

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