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.
“Still thinking of your dream?” Tara calmly inquired, her gaze fixed on flowing Godavari.
“Why can’t I shake this off – it comes back again and again!”
“Come on it’s just a nightmare”
“And what about all the trouble it brings after it?”
“What is there to worry so much about it? And anyway, I like you better when you call yourself Sudyumna; you act so peaceful and logical.”
“What about that I don’t remember a second what happened during it. Baba says I get possessed, because I go out at night with my hair untied.”
“Nonsense, why do we girls only need to follow all the rules?”
“Exactly, was goddess Kaali always possessed? She always had her hair untied.”
“You are no less fearsome than goddess Kaali, when you have the sword unsheathed.”
“And you still prefer me as Sudyumna?”
“I don’t want to lie, but the warrior Ilaa is much more useful at current situation”
“Now you are talking. So is our tonight’s plan final?”
“Yes we meet at midnight.”
Thee midsummer sun is on its way towards the horizon. Manuraj Konde was hurrying back home, after a long day at his farm. The roads were mostly empty; the cowherd are yet to come back with their cattle. Manuraj takes the turn at the edge of the mango grove towards his house, and he hears the commotion. The village kids were most probably fighting for the mangoes. Manuraj was about to ignore the lot with a smile, when the sight made him stop in his track. It was not a usual fight between the boys. It was fight between two sari wearing girls fighting against six boys; some seemed even elder than the two. He recognized one as Tara, who was shielding the mango loot, pushing and biting whosoever tried coming near her. But she was hardly facing any trouble, as the boys were finding the other girl quite handful. The other girl, about five or six in age, with her untied mane flaying, was fighting the boys’ singlehandedly. With her sari tied in the traditional Marathi style, her legs were free to issue the deadly kicks; while holding one of the boys by his neck around her left arm, she was punching and slapping furiously at the rest. Soon the boys gave up; one of them lifted a pebble, planning to throw at the girls. Tara’s shout alerts the other girl, who stared back at the boy to dare him throw. The boy got the message and fled. With victory confirmed, the girl, deftly tied her hair into a bun and turned towards Tara. Manuraj was stunned to see her daughter Ilaa.
Manuraj, decided not to confront her rebellious daughter in front of the village, and took a detour to his home. Like every day, Sharadabai ensured that the water was ready for Manuraj to take a wash before he rested in the porch, leaning against the mud wall beside the main door to the hutment. He stopped after drinking half of his glassful of buttermilk and called his wife,
“Sharadabai, are you sure you gave birth to a girl?”
“What kind of question is this? We got Ilaa after so much prayer. I know, both of us wanted a boy, but by the blessing of Mitra, our sun-god, we had Ilaa. And after five years of her birth you are still unsure about her?”
“Well what I saw today gave me the doubt, if she is really what we think she is.”
“Now what did she do? I am tired of all the complaint I get from the neighbors,” Sharadabai could not suppress a touch of tiredness in her tone.
“Nothing serious, she just fought off five or six village boys singlehandedly, while her friend Tara defended their loot”
“I would say, those boys deserves thrashing, if they can’t handle two little girls,” responds Sharadabai, this time with a smile in her face and satisfaction in her tone.
“But Sharada, she is getting older now; soon we need to tell her not to roam so freely with the boys. Tell her to start helping you around the house.”
“Can’t we send her to Rahuji’s ashram?”
“Are you mad Sharada? Sending a girl to ashram? We will be ostracized by the entire village. Not a single girl from Sauviragram has ever gone to ashram.”
Sharadabai remained silent for a while, lost in her thought. When she saw Manuraj, keeping down the empty glass, she hurried to take it from her hand; looking down, she pleaded her husband –
“If you promise not to be angry, can I share something with you?”
“Now what is in your mind?”
“I took the liberty to show Ilaa’s birth chart to Guruma, in the Ashram. You know unlike rest of the females at Sauvira, she is not only literate, but more learned than many males. She has deep knowledge of astrology, and do you know what she predicated for Ilaa?”
Manuraj was already stunned. Though villagers do talk about Guruma Durga being literate, her being an expert proponent of astronomy was beyond his imagination. Awestruck Manuraj managed to ask his wife for the details, and Sharada started-
“Guru-ma predicted that our Ilaa has stars’ support to change the history of Maharashtra and Marathas. With the blessing of Vishnu, she will guide the nation against the oppression. That’s why I was wondering if we can somehow help her with knowledge.”
“Even if you manage to coax Guru-ma, how do you plan to convince Rahuji Somnath? He is lord Shiva incarnate. Have you not heard tales of his temper? By the grace of Lord Parshuram, he is like his lord, a Brahmin whom even the kings fear to face in battle.”
“That’s also why I want Ilaa to attend ashram. While working there, I have seen guruji has special class for his favourite disciples. He not only teaches Veda and Vedanta, but also how to wield a staff and swords.”
“I know, but don’t talk around about it. It’s on special request of Shivaji maharaj. But that still doesn’t answer my question – how do you convince guruji to take Ilaa as his disciple?”
“We won’t tell him. I will take him dressed as boy. There is anyway very less difference between a boy and our Ilaa, which you have seen today. But of course I will tell Guruma. And I think she will be happy to see her prediction coming to life in front of her eyes.”
“Are you sure Sharada that this would work? She is our only child. She hardly keeps her hair tied, and you want her to hide it under a headgear, pretending to be a boy?”
“Just tell her once that she could beat a boy, and she will be ready to do anything you tell her.”
“She really hates boys that much?”
“It’s not boys, neither is it hatred. She is just tired of being a girl tied down by our society; she want to break free.”
“May be this is what Vidhata has written for her,” conceded Manuraj. Though fear of risking the life of his only child, putting her against all societal norms, sent a chill down his spine.
Dashahara was around the corner. Sitting under a peepal tree beside his land, Manuraj surveyed the tilling of his farm. Soon it will be time to sow the cotton. Ilaa has been studying in ashram for almost six years now. Guruma was already seeing her prophecy coming to life.
Last year the Nizams of Ahmednagar lost Khidki to Mughals. They say, Mughal prince has decided to make the town his southern head-quarter. He even changed the name of Khidki. Fateh Khan named the growing town on his name – Fatehnagar. Now the Mughal prince announced it to be on his own name – Aurangabad. If even half of what is rumoured is true, then it’s bad for all. Both Malik Amber and Fateh Khan were fierce warriors, but they cared for the commoners. Mughal’s have only aim; to fill their coffer. They have already started plundering all towns and villages one by one. They not only have eye for the cottons we reap but the girls we protect.
Manuraj’s chains of thoughts are disturbed by some unfamiliar nose. The relative calm of the land is pierced by some faint noise coming from the direction of Sauvira. Manuraj got up and turned his eyes towards his village. Soon a thick cloud of smoke started rising; the shrieks and cries of women grew louder. And then their worst fear was confirmed by the loud war cries of Mughal force. Their Sauviragram was being ravaged. Everyone dropped what they were doing and ran with their life. Manuraj was praying hard while he ran. They must have come to know about the troop that Guru Rahuji Somnath is training. But Sharada and Ilaa are also there. And everyone knows what a plundering army does to the females.
By the time Manuraj reached the ashram, it was already blazing. The thick smoke-filled with the stench of blood and burning flesh made it hard to see of move forward. Manuraj wrapped his turban around his face and moved ahead. He stumbled on something and nearly fell on his face. Dead-bodies were strewn around in heaps. Involuntarily he raised his hand to his forehead as a mark of respect. The one on which he stumbled was not hard to recognize; the flowing white beard confirmed the fierce guru of the ashram has left this earth. But where is Ilaa? Did Sharadabai manage to escape?
The authoritative voice of Guruma pulled Manuraj to left of the ashram. Blocking the entrance of a hut, she was trying to stop the Mughal general.
“They are only female kids; they can’t hurt you. Please leave them alone. You already have what you came for.”
A soldier shouted back, Ï have seen a slimy Marathi woman take his boy inside; they must be hiding other boys too.”
Guruma was clearly taken aback. Then it stuck Manuraj, they must be talking about Ilaa and his wife. Before he could think of anything, the general signaled and the thatched roof of the hut was on fire. The collective cries of girls inside wrenched Manuraj’s heart out. He was about to dash out to save them, when a hand stopped him from behind. Others behind him pointed the shrubs at the back of the hut. They crouched and started making way to back. A young one not able to bear the heat dashed out, with her mother behind her. Before the mother could reach the girl, a spear impaled the hapless girl. Moments later the mother was scooped up by a soldier mounted on his horse. The men were already at the back of the hut with their farming tools, frantically trying to dig a tunnel.
Manuraj was among the first to enter the hut. Sharada was already on fire, with wailing Ilaa trying to put out the fire on her mother clothes. Manuraj held Ilaa’s hand and dragged her away. One look at Sharada, and he saw her dying eyes recognized him. He gave a peaceful smile before she finally passed away. Ilaa was desperately trying to break free to save her mother. Manuraj dragged her away.
Sound of a hundred footsteps, muffled screams in the dark tunnel. Clutching her father’s hand with all her might, she turns her head, eyes frantically searching for a face.
“Dad, she is still there inside, we must go back!”
“Come-on child, you want to live? Or die like rest of the lot?”
Father’s sweaty hand was slowly slipping out of her clutch as they emerged from the tunnel.
‘I am sick of this!’ she grunted loudly.
‘Still thinking of your dream?’ Tara calmly inquired, her gaze fixed on flowing Godavari.
It’s the dream of that fateful night that kept chasing Ilaa for last four years. And every-time she dreams of it, she wakes up to be a different person. Ilaa dreams and Sudyumna wakes up; Sudyumna of Rahuji Somnath’s ashram dreams and Ilaa comes back.
Tara was not complaining. Sudyumna had the best of plans, he was not only articulate to the last detail, but could cough of examples and reasons to support their cause, from every Purana and Upanishads you can name. And Ilaa was Chandika incarnate. When she moved with her sword, no one dared to come close. They both were an asset to the guerrilla group they formed to save the common Marathi’s’ from the rampaging Mughal army.
“So we are meeting at midnight?” Ilaa wanted to confirm.
“Yes of course; there will be only a small contingent with the Mughal tax collectors,” confirmed Tara. “But before you leave I have some news for you.”
“What is it now?”
“My dad is coming tomorrow.”
“Hansaji Mohite? Chief General of Shivaji, coming? Is everything all right?”
“Shivaji is coming with him too.”
“What? What is going here? What are you hiding from me?”
“I have to go – he is coming to take me to Raigad. I am to wed Prince Rajaram Bhosale in fifteen days.”
“Oh my god, you are going to be a queen? But what will happen to our troop?”
“I am leaving it under you. Train them well. I hope Sudyumna also teaches them well. When the time comes, I will call for you. We have to fulfil Guruma’s prophecy. You and me together, we will make sure Maharashtra rises.”
With her eyes fixed on the flowing water of Godavari, Tara said, “Men say, we need to be protected, as the first thing any invader does is to attack the land’s women. We are Shakti. If they believed in us, we could not only protect ourselves, but them, and our motherland.”
Tara saw two unfamiliar beads of tears swelling up from her friend’s eyes. Ilaa picks up a scoop of Godavari’s water in her right hand, and places it on top of Tara’s right hand. Together they vowed to fight together when time calls, to rewrite India’s and Maharashtra’s history.