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Happiness Lies Within

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ILAA AND THE SNAKE CHARMER

The waters of the mighty river Godavari moved swiftly along. The flow was rapid, yet peaceful.

But there was no peace in the heart of the young girl staring at the river. Her spirit yearned to soar. But she was a woman. Freedom was not her right.

A loud voice rose up a few paces away from Ilaa. ‘You were Aurangzeb yesterday. Today it is my turn!’ a boy was shouting.

A group of boys nearby were battling before starting their game of battle.

‘If you had any sense, you’d want to be Shivaji. He is the real hero,’ Ilaa called out.

‘Why Shivaji? Aurangzeb says he’s a mountain rat,’ the boy retorted

Ilaa jumped up in fury. ‘Is it? Then I will be Shivaji. Fight with me, if you dare!’ she challenged. ‘Fight with you? But you are only a girl,’ the boy jeered. ‘I am Shivaji,’ she said, ‘Fight, if you dare!’ The boys only laughed and made fun of her words.

But that was usual. Who considered a woman’s words worth attention anyway?

There were many things that filled Ilaa with fury. But nothing irked her more than disrespect of women.

“Striyah devah, Striyah pranah,” “Women are Devas, women are life itself,” she had heard. “Where women are honoured, there the very Gods are pleased,” ancient scriptures dictated. Yet, wherever Ilaa looked, women were now considered inferior and good for nothing else than slaving for the family.

Soon, she would become one of those slaves too. Her marriage was already fixed, without her consent.

She had often tried to protest. ‘Women deserve equal rights and freedom!’ she asserted.

Obedience and sacrifice she was preached.

Ilaa raged away from the boys. But before long, her eyes were arrested by a stranger.

A snake charmer was standing under a tree and staring at her. But there was no mockery in his glance. Nor any leering disrespect. The soft smile playing on his lips almost seemed like admiration.

Ilaa couldn’t help but feel something like admiration for him as well. Scant and old though his clothes were, he still failed to look like a lowly snake charmer. He stood erect and had the proud bearing of a soldier. And he was handsome. Tall, well-built and with honest dignity illuminating his every feature.

The man realized that she had noticed him. He lowered his eyes and hastened away. But a group of children stopped him.

‘Show us the tamasha!’ they demanded.

‘Not now, children. The nag devta is sleeping,’ he said and continued walking.

‘He can’t be a snake charmer!’ Ilaa muttered.

Mogul and Maratha spies roamed around in villages, she had heard. As Ilaa watched the man rush away, she felt sure he was a spy. But whose?

Ilaa knew it was best to stay away from spies. But he had fascinated her. She ignored the warnings shouting in her head and followed him.

She managed to trail him for ten minutes. Then he crossed a wooden bridge and vanished into the forest.

Ilaa knew she better not enter the forest. Yet she did.

He was nowhere to be seen. She halted under a Palas tree and looked around.

‘Why are you following me?’ a voice made her jump.

She whirled around. There he was, just two paces away from her.

‘Why are you following me?’ he asked again. ‘Didn’t your mother tell you that it’s not safe for girls to follow snake charmers into forests?’

‘You are not a snake charmer,’ she replied, looking him straight in the eyes. ‘What do you mean? I am a snake charmer.’ he insisted, almost threateningly.

Ilaa shook her head. ‘Snake charmers don’t tell their customers that nag devta is sleeping.’ The man smiled at her words. ‘Well? Who do you think I am then?’ he asked.

‘A spy.’

‘You dared to follow a spy alone into a forest?’

Ilaa was silenced. It finally dawned on her into what danger she might have thrown herself. A Hindu girl in the clutches of a Mogul spy can expect no mercy. She visibly trembled as she thought about it.

‘Don’t be scared,’ the snake charmer said, taking a step away from her. ’My name is Chandar. Yes, I

am a spy. But I am a Maratha spy and respect of women is worship for us.’

A sigh of relief escaped her lips. But she did not like him thinking her scared. ‘I’m not scared. I can take care of myself,’ she said.

‘I am sure,’ he said, smiling. ‘But this is a dangerous place. Let me have the honour of seeing you safely back home.’

She managed not to smile. But could not help feel warmed at the gentle sound of his voice. Her eyes boldly examined his face. There was a scar on his brow. Her hand reached up on its own to soothe it.

He jumped away.

‘You must not. I’m a mahar. Untouchable.’ With that, he moved five paces away and stood with folded hands.

Ilaa’s fingers hadn’t touched him. But she instinctively wiped them on her skirt nevertheless. The instincts enforced by tradition were too strong to overcome even for her rebellious heart.

’You shouldn’t have come here. If someone saw you with me, your reputation would be ruined.

They will even deny you your religion,’ he said.

She agreed.

Ilaa had walked upto him in fascination. She walked away in dread. Dread of her own recklessness. She had followed a spy into a forest alone. She was about to touch a mahar. Her heart trembled at what that might have led to. And she could no longer trust herself.

She walked away from him without a word. She buried herself in her house. Terrified with her own audacity, she threw herself into the bounds of obedience. And whenever she heard his flute in the village, she deafened her ears and deadened her heart.

Three months passed.

She was married. She surrendered her liberty. She surrendered her body to her husband. She became a wife.

There was only one thing she refused to surrender. Her hatred of the Moguls and worship of Shivaji. And all those who did not support Shivaji were traitors in her eyes.

Ilaa was soon to discover that her own husband was one of these.

The whole village was buzzing with news. Shivaji was coming to a nearby village.

In Ilaa’s home too, the atmosphere seemed charged. But more with secrecy than excitement.

A stranger had arrived. He and Ilaa’s husband Gokund had secluded themselves in a room. She had been ordered to prepare special meal for the guest.

But she lingered on in the next room.

‘Is the news certain?’ she heard Gokund’s voice.

‘Yes. When Shivaji comes, he will attend the wedding of his loyal officer Manikram’s daughter. Shivaji won’t burden Manikram’s widow by taking many soldiers along. Only a handful of his most trusted men would be there.’

‘Shaihistekhan won’t get a better opportunity to get rid of Shivaji. This is a valuable information, my friend! Let’s go!’

The two men soon exited the house. Ilaa remained rooted to her place. Her heart felt leaden with shock and disgust. Her husband was a traitor.

At that moment, the snake charmer’s flute beckoned.

Ilaa’s spirit broke its bonds.

An hour later, she jumped out of the window of her room. She was no longer Ilaa. She had transformed into a young man. She sped away from Gokund’s home, trying her best to stay in the shadows.

Maybe she would have done better to walk in the open freely and frankly. A stranger slinking into the shadows attracts more attention than a man walking in the open.

Ilaa didn’t know where to find Chandar. All her hopes rested on being found by him. On that shaky hope, she had quitted her home and her life.

The forest was drowned in darkness. She stood under a tree which she thought was the same where she had almost touched him. Here she waited, laying a hand on her bosom to quieten her heart’s tremors.

Ilaa did not have to wait long. Five minutes later, two strong hands had pinned her against a tree.

‘Who are you?’ Chandar’s voice hissed.

‘Ilaa,’ she said quickly. ‘I came to find you.’

Chandar had no difficulty in recognizing her voice. He freed her instantly and moved away.

‘What are you doing here at this time? And why disguised?’ he asked.

‘I came to find you. Shivaji’s life is in danger,’ she said, making haste to deliver her information.

He listened.

‘You came here alone to give me this message?’

‘I… had no other way.’

‘Do you realize into what danger you might have fallen? You are married now. What if your family finds out?’

‘So he knows of my marriage,’ she thought.

‘I’m not going back to them,’ she uttered in a whisper.

She had done her bit of surrendering. She had killed her will enough. She had accepted everything. But a traitor as a husband was unacceptable. She had decided.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Nothing,’ she said, in a clearer voice. ‘I have my knife,’ she showed him her small weapon.

He grinned at that. ‘That indeed is a mighty weapon, Princess. Thankfully, you won’t need to use it. Go home now. I’ll guard you.’

But he was wrong. She did need to use her knife. She had been followed. And they were now surrounded.

It was a dark night. But Ilaa could still make out that three of them were Mogul soldiers. The fourth was dressed like a farmer. His face was covered and he stood apart.

Ilaa didn’t know how it had happened. Things had moved too quickly. She didn’t even know whether she felt more scared or angry when those Moguls tried to pin her down. All she remembered was telling herself not to drop her knife. With that knife, she had lashed out like a madwoman.

She only faintly remembered her turban tumbling down and unloosing her long braids. Then had followed a shout. That farmer, so far standing distant from the fight, had rushed in. She remembered him lunging at her with fury. Her eyes had recognized a face. Her mind had raised an alarm. But her body had moved on with its own fury. And her heart did not recoil.

She did not know where the blade struck him. He fell down and did not get up again.

The soldiers continued fighting. Chandar’s sword blazed like lightning. Ilaa continued thrashing with her knife with all she was worth. She was a born fighter.

Now there were four bodies lying on the ground. The knife in Ilaa’s hand was bleeding. So was her shoulder.

‘Are you badly hurt?’ Chandar asked, stepping over to her.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Are all soldiers dead?’

‘Not all of them were soldiers. He was a farmer,’ said Chandar, ‘You know him,’ his voice dwindled as he said these last words.

Ilaa’s head jerked. She looked at the man she had killed. The face her eyes had half-recognized looked up at her with stony accusation.

The world swooned around her.

‘Oh! I killed my own husband!’ she fell to her knees. Her eyes looked wildly at the dead face.

‘You … you are…’ Chandar stepped nearer to her, wanting to say something. But for once, his courage failed.

Ilaa looked up at him. ‘A widow! I have killed my own husband!’ she mumbled. Her voice trembled with the horror of what she had done.

When she had jumped out of her home, she knew she was quitting it forever. But she had hoped for her own death. Not his.

The long moment of silence stretched on. Ilaa did not cry. Nor did she speak or move.

A sound broke through the night and footsteps approached.

‘Someone is coming,’ Chandar whispered. ‘More soldiers, perhaps.’

That finally roused Ilaa. ‘Oh! You go away. Quickly!’ she urged. ‘Save Shivaji.’ ‘And you?’ Chandar asked.

‘I? I have made myself a widow. My life ends here,’ she replied.

It was dark all around. But she could see the flames of the pyre around her. ‘Only the flames can purify me of my sin,’ she told herself.

Chandar looked at her for a moment. He understood what she was decreeing as her punishment.

But it was unacceptable to him.

‘No!’ he said. ’You are a warrior. And the life of a warrior deserves to end with heroism on a battle

field.’

Ilaa looked up at him with blank eyes. The footsteps approached nearer.

Chandar walked over to pick her fallen turban. Gently and respectfully, he put it on her head.

‘Come, warrior, motherland needs you,’ he murmured.

Ilaa’s eyes widened. She shook her head and moved away from him. ‘I’m his widow!’ she hissed.

‘I urge you for the service of our sacred motherland, not for myself,’ he said quickly. ‘Valour is your destiny. Don’t let the society snatch it from you.’

Two years later, a fierce battle was waging on. A young Maratha soldier moved about like whirlwind. His sword was light, but his mettle strong.

A battle cry rose up in protest of his valour. Five sturdy moguls charged at the slender young man. Blows rained. His sword lashed out like lightening, killing three.

But his time had come. His service, his ambition, his dream fulfilled. His body fell. Her spirit soared to its final flight.

From a distance, another Maratha warrior gave a shout. He rushed on, lashing and shouting through the blows. Rushed on to save his brave warrior.

But it was too late.

After every battle day, the living victors celebrate by the light of bonfires. The dead warriors burn alone. But that night, near one pyre stood one lonely Maratha. His lips were pursed tight, cheeks streaked with tears.

As time passed, many more battles were fought. Maratha history was written with golden ink. Many names became the symbol of heroism.

One shining name remained lost in the oblivion. Heroism was her right. And she had claimed it. But nobody knew that among the great Maratha warriors there had fought a leonine who gave up her happiness, her life and even her identity for the sake of motherland.

Nobody, except one mahar in whose pure heart she had attained immortality.

* Although the narrative mentions historical figures like Shivaji and Aurangzeb, it is fictitious and not a historical account.

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