In seventeenth century India, 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.
Sitting by her side, Radha did not react to Ilaa’s outburst as she knew that it was her seasonal rant. It was like the tempestuous Godavari during the Monsoons that occasionally scared the villagers with threats of floods by bludgeoning against the shores. However, it had never changed course or caused any problem for the river-bank dwellers. Radha had heard Ilaa’s complaint in the previous harvest seasons too and was almost certain about the statement that Ilaa was about to make.
‘In the name of Bhagwan Munisuvrat Nathji, I swear that the bugger never paid attention at Paathshaala. His attention was always at playing kho-kho. Just because he has been maintaining bahi-khaata, Baba feels that he is smarter than me and can deal better with the businessmen from Paithan. It is simply ridiculous. For the last three years, I have been pointing out mistakes in his book of entries but did not mention about them to Munshiji. Now he will be busy for two days dealing with the traders while you and I will monitor the labourers filling gunny bags with cotton. Today I am going to confront Karan,” Ilaa said. Radha kept munching on chivdaa that she had carried with her. Despite her brother Karan, being termed a ‘bugger’ she knew that Ilaa adored him far too much to point out his errors to anyone, leave aside their father, Munshiji.
Munshiji had been in the service of Ilaa’s father, Raghuveer Sawant, for the past 15 years. He had migrated from a neighbouring village to Sauviragram after he lost his wife to plague. With Karan and Radha, who were then 6-year and 3-year olds, Munshiji had found solace in the company of his employer. Sawant owned substantial agrarian land which bore him three crops per year. He needed someone who could advise him regarding profitable crops for cultivation and also manage the accounts. When Munshiji had first visited Sawant, Ilaa was overjoyed as she had got two playmates. She was especially happy to have Radha’s company as they were of the same age and joined Paathshaala in the same class.
After completing their education at Paathshaala, it was time for them to either pursue higher education or find employment. Ten years of formal education had given them a sound foundation to take on worldly matters and be on their own. It was decided by Sawant that the girls would follow Karan’s footsteps and assist Munshiji in managing the business. Karan had already been assisting Munshiji for three years; however, his attention was always more towards the village kho-kho competition. With regular exercise on the playground he had grown into a handsome young adult. His teammates would often tell him that if he was more regular on the field then they could participate in the Annual kho-kho competition in Paithan under his captainship. The prize money of 60 swarna mudraayein (gold coins) in the presence of Nanasaheb Peshwa was a big attraction, however, as Munshiji was growing old, it was now up to Karan to ensure that the business did not suffer.
Karan was elated when Radha and Ilaa joined him as he could now delegate work to them and spend more time with his teammates on the kho-kho ground. But he soon found out that Ilaa was smart enough and it would be matter of months when she would be at par in her understanding of the business which he had painstakingly learnt over years. Time went by as they continued to work together. Ilaa used to make a number of suggestions on changing crop patterns for better productivity which Karan duly appreciated. Ilaa also took keen interest when he regaled his stories from the kho-kho ground to her and Radha. She found his stories charming and somewhere within her, Ilaa just wanted to take care of the child in Karan who refused to grow up.
It was the morning of Vaishakha Krishna Dashami and there was festive fervour in Sauviragram. Every household was busy making arrangements for the birth anniversary celebration of Bhagwan Munisuvrat Nathji. Though a Jain Saint, celebrations for the anniversary transcended all religious boundaries. It was a ritual for Radha, Karan and Ilaa to walk all the way by the banks of the Godavari to reach the temple. On their way, Ilaa raised the topic of Karan’s indolence regarding business and hyperactivity on the play ground. “This year I will deal with the traders from Paithan. I know your heart is in sports, so it is better that you focus on it while I take care of the business with Radha and Munshiji. I have seen you on the playground and I believe that if you focus on your game, you can take it up professionally. The State supports sportsmen and I don’t see a reason why you should not achieve your full potential when someone, who is better than you at the job that you presently do, is willing to fill in your place,” Ilaa blushed as she spoke the lines which she had prepared over the last three days. To conceal her praise and affection for Karan she had added the statement of her being better than him in business matters. She had expected Karan to contest her but instead of a repartee what she got was two minutes of silence and a teary-eyed Karan.
“No one in my family has ever said what you have just told me Ilaa. I have always known that you are better than me in business matters but I too have some talents, which nobody appreciates. I can work like a bull if needed and it is evident on the playground but all that I am expected to do is tally books of accounts,” said Karan. If Radha hadn’t been around, Ilaa would have surely taken Karan’s hands in her own and assured him that as much as she appreciated his talent, she loved him too and was willing to share all his responsibilities.
But the big question that now arose was regarding sustenance; if Karan was not going to assist Munshiji then what would he do to earn a living. Ilaa decided to broach the topic with her father. In the evening she told Sawant that henceforth she and Radha would assist Munshiji and also engage with the traders from Paithan, while Karan would help the labourers on the field. She was sure of convincing her father but Raghuveer Sawant was a seasoned man, he understood human emotions well. Though he understood that Ilaa was trying to help Karan achieve his true goal in life, he was not going to make it so easy for Karan. He did not agree to Ilaa and feigned that he could not let her deal with strange traders from Paithan, while being fully aware that she was well prepared to deal with the shrewdest of the businessmen. While Ilaa’s suggestions were being refuted, Karan stood like a mute spectator unable to muster the courage to speak about his innate desires. Karan’s silence stung Ilaa like a venomous snake and she got very upset.
Sitting by the banks of Godavari, Ilaa said, “I am sick of this. I had given the bugger a chance to speak up for his own wellbeing but he just kept silent. Had he told Baba that he is not good at book keeping then we could have met the traders from Paithan this season and he could have focused on his game, but the idiot did not speak.” Radha who was still munching on the chivdaa spoke up, “If you are so concerned about my brother’s wellbeing, why don’t you tell it to him?” Ilaa blushed at the suggestion but could not conceal her frustration that Karan had let her down when she needed him. She stood up and started marching towards the village kho-kho ground.
Reaching there she held Karan by the arm and pulled him out of the playground. With Radha by her side, she asked Karan, “Do you like me?”
Karan was dumbstruck but managed to say a feeble yes.
“Do you love me?”
Karan could hear his own heartbeat but managed a louder yes.
“Will you marry me?”
Karan and Radha looked at each other as Karan was silent for almost a minute.
“I need an answer now.”
And it was the loudest of the three ‘yes’ that Karan had managed to speak till now.
On getting the answer that she wanted from Karan, Ilaa started walking towards her home still clutching Karan’s arm and pulling him behind her. On reaching home she went to her father and blurted out in one long breath, “Baba, I want to marry Karan and I want him to focus on his game while I would take care of the business. I need your consent for our marriage.” As Sawant had already sensed a development on these lines a few days back, he was not taken by surprise, however, being an intelligent businessman he laid out a condition for the communion.
“Being a father, I am concerned about my daughter’s future, therefore, I will agree to your proposal only on the condition that before this year’s Navratri, Karan will earn more money than me,” said Sawant.
Ilaa was stumped by her father’s condition. There was no way that hapless Karan could earn so much in such a short amount of time. But what her father said next made Ilaa feel that she was definitely not the incarnation of Parvati standing in front of King Daksha. “I am not an irrational person, I will let Karan and you use half of the land that I possess. In the next six months, you should earn more money than I do from the other half, on which I will continue to grow cotton. You can help Karan in his endeavours, however, I will not be providing you any monetary help to start your business,” said Sawant.
Though a little uncertain, Ilaa and Karan knew that they stood a chance to overcome the hurdle set by her father. They had the combination of Ilaa’s intelligent ideas and Karan’s physical abilities. For the next two days, Ilaa kept strategising about the crop to maximise their earnings against cotton. She was also concerned about the proposition of raising capital to begin the job.
It was the month of April and the festival of Navratri was six months away when Karan came across a State Announcer mentioning about the Annual kho-kho tournament in Paithan. It was just the right opportunity for Karan and his teammates. If they could manage to win, each one of them would get 5 gold coins. Karan could take a loan of another 10 gold coins from his teammates with which Ilaa and he could start their business. With the proposal he gathered his teammates and started practising for the tournament.
In the meanwhile, Ilaa found out that Paithani silk saris were gaining their lost lustre under the patronage of Nanasaheb Peshwa. She learnt that the raw materials of silk and zari came from Yeola, Bangalore and Surat. If she and Karan could manage to produce the raw materials in Sauviragram, they would be able to sell the finished products at a lower cost than competitors as the factors of production were available in the village while they would save on transportation cost.
It was in mid-May that the Annual kho-kho contest was organised. Karan and his teammates started their journey to Paithan on two bullock carts. On their way they came across an old man walking barefoot and humming the songs of Sant Tukaram, he seemed to be on his way to Paithan. Karan had pity on the man as he suffered under the scorching sun. As there was hardly any seat for the man on their cart, Karan asked the old man to take his seat and he chose to walk. When they reached Paithan in the evening, the old man asked them why they had come to the city. When they told the man about their goal, he said, “Jaa jag jinkuya” (go conquer the world). Karan knew that they had just met Santaji Jagnade.
None of the teams in Paithan were a match for Karan and his teammates and they managed an easy victory. Post the win they just wondered why they hadn’t participated in the earlier editions of the contest if it was so easy. From their prize money, Karan took a loan of 1 gold coin from each of his team mates and gave 16 gold coins to Ilaa to start the business.
According to Ilaa’s plans, half of the land allotted to them was converted into a plot for silk worm breeding and the rest was used for processing the cocoons, spinning four charkhas to produce silk yarn, a hearth to produce zari and three handlooms for weaving saris. Within three months, Karan and Ilaa had managed to produce enough yarn to make saris. Ilaa had engaged the services of an artisan who could make gold zari. Two gold coins were put in the hearth and the artisan produced some of the finest zari which could be used in the Paithani saris to be woven on the handlooms. Eight saris were woven from the raw materials that Karan and Ilaa had produced. A small amount of raw material still remained unused. Karan had worked tirelessly with the weavers and in three months he had also learnt the art of weaving.
It was Durga Ashtami when Karan went to meet Sawant, who had by now already known that Karan had not only met but overachieved what was expected of him. Karan presented his earnings from the sale of the saris which Sawant happily acknowledged as being more than his earnings from sale of cotton bales.
When Ilaa asked Karan why he looked so tired, he said that he had been busy weaving for three whole nights, then he presented her a scarf with the motifs of three goddesses with a sentence in bold: Tuhi mazi Durga, Lakshmi aani Saraswati (you are my goddess of strength, wealth and wisdom). Feeling the soft weft of the fabric in her hands, Ilaa felt mellower emotions within her and despite the presence of her Baba, Maa, Munshiji and Radha she could not resist embracing Karan.