By Gauri Mishra
Amaya was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the river Godavari.
‘What am I going to do when I grow up? ’ Amaya thought to herself and yet, she could not think of anything that would be more important than picking cotton for a girl of her age.
She was convinced about her higher purpose in life; nobody, not even her parents and her younger siblings knew that her mind was the only thing that kept her company and her imagination was what made her disarmingly attractive.
Amaya had just turned twenty and considering her remarkably bright demeanour, was quite a popular person in Nandigram. There was not a single man, woman or child in the entire village that was not aware of her outspoken nature.
Her grandmother was the only one to support her, irrespective of earning the wrath of the village elders. She had some inkling about Amaya’s secret dreams to have a life that was not ordinary and drastically different from her own.
It worried her, the way her granddaughter was coming along, but strangely she also trusted her, and her faith in this fresh perspective of living a life differently, on her own terms.
Rising reluctantly from her comfortable position, Amaya started to walk towards the fields. It seemed to her that the time had come for her to prove to everybody including her parents that there was more to life than picking cotton. She liked to sing, and craved to possess a sarangi. But she could not, for the life of her, ask her parents for the same. The house was always abundant with all kinds of groceries, rice and spices. Her mother managed to create delicious meals out of ordinary vegetables and the entire household of seven members had their share.
Their clothes were made only once a year, out of the rejected bales of cotton and woven hurriedly into long pieces of cloth serving as sarees for her mother and sisters, and for the men of the household, lungis or the head cloth which saw occasional use. Everything else apart from this, the finery and rare gifts found its way to the large trunk that contained every item of even a slightly higher value than the routine ones.
It was her covert desire to open the trunk and gorge on the beauty of each one of its treasures, but that was not to be as her old grandmother guarded it furiously, coughing away on her little cot, just close by.
She reached the field, with its flowering cotton all around her. Her fingers had started to bruise because of the care with which the flower had to be picked so as not to damage it.
All the village girls between the ages of seven and twenty-three or thereabout worked their way through these fields, which seemed to Amaya, endless. It was considered a woman’s job, just like the other mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning the kitchen and the outer courtyard, fetching water from the river Godavari and looking after the cattle.
It seemed to Amaya that she was a misfit among these girls, because she did not feel proud of the fact that her basket was full the earliest. There was no elation in her spirit and body while she mechanically plucked the white cotton blooms.
She started to hum a melody she had recently picked up while the temple priest was practising with the devotees. The song was a Sanskrit prayer to Shiva from the Ramayana. Amaya could not understand it. She had no knowledge of Sanskrit, but she had spent many an evening listening to the stories of Ramayana from her grandmother, about the way the beautiful Sita prayed to Parvati to grant her the wish of marrying Lord Ram and the abduction of Sita at Panchvati. While listening to these stories, she would always imagine herself in Sita’s role and the sheer magnitude of her imagination made her reach an entire new realm of heavenly pleasure. This is what she wanted her life to be, extraordinary and out of the pages of an epic.
The simple melody made her task easier and she continued picking cotton, totally oblivious to the world around her, while she craved to have something to sing along. Even though the words were incomprehensible to her innocent mind, just the melody and the haunting notes of the lyric were sufficient to make her sway to and fro and create a harmony of the mind with her body. It was strange what music did to her. Her grandmother’s daily visits to the village temple on the top of a hill made it mandatory for Amaya to accompany her and that is how her mornings became enchantingly musical. The temple priest was a happy, pot-bellied man with a sense of humour. His knowledge of Sanskrit and Marathi was comprehensive enough for their little village with a handful of literate men.
He always recited impeccable Sanskrit, translating it later for the benefit of his ignorantly rapt audience, but all Amaya could think of was how she could put those beautiful verses to music. She imagined herself with a sitar or a sarangi singing the verses in her sweet, evocative voice and holding a captive audience right there in the temple courtyard.
Sometimes the priest sang in Marathi; the verses of Bahinabai devoted to Vithoba were her favourite. She especially liked one particular verse in which the simple woman saint cries out that if she has a woman’s body, how would she attain truth? Amaya felt that the songs of Bahina which the priest recited so simply held the same ordinary principles that her grandmother spoke about in her stories from the epic. The husband and God, both had to be worshipped, and there was very little difference between the two.
“Let’s go home Amaya, it’s time we ate something,” her friend Manjari’s voice interrupted her song. Amaya was amazed at her collection of the cotton flowers and she noticed the reddish hues and rashes on her palms and fingers. She felt that she could come back again but immediately changed her mind. Maybe she would persuade her grandmother to accompany her to the temple again in the evening.
This did happen occasionally. In order to escape the dry heat and sweaty evenings in her room, her grandmother would ask Amaya to take her to the temple where the breeze would calm her mind. She did not know how much her granddaughter enjoyed these sojourns.
The cotton bales waited to be transformed into gorgeous Paithani sarees with bright colours and gold borders but that was after they were bartered for grain, gold and utensils with the traders who came trudging their goods to Nandigram. Weaving their magic into the cotton fabric, the small community of weavers created these sarees. The traders then sold these sarees to the rich landlords whose wives constantly competed with each other for the perfect Paithani.
Village girls had only heard about these fascinating sarees, and few were lucky enough to find such an ancestral heirloom in their families. Amaya knew there were a couple of them in her grandmother’s trunk. However, she was not really fond of sarees, their multiple folds reminded her of bales of cotton piled together, and all she wanted was to rush out to an open field and sing a melody at her own pace, along the precious notes of a sarangi*!
Amaya had been practising a particular song in Marathi. It was about the unspoken dream of a princess who did not want to live like one. She wanted to run in the fields and swim in the river; she did not like her finery and jewels but craved the sound of the waves and the rustle of the forest trees. Amaya felt that she and the princess had a lot in common, that just like the princess, she too wanted to sing among the green fields and play the sarangi to her heart’s content.
Amaya’s father was the only one who scared her. She was too afraid of him to even speak in his presence. His deep gaze and his resounding tone, even when he spoke to Amaya’s mother made everyone around him acutely conscious of his presence. Her grandmother also felt her authority giving way when he was around.
Like all the village girls of her age, Amaya was expected to learn all the skills of becoming an ideal wife, somebody who could turn a home into a heaven. But her father did not know that Amaya was the last person to mould herself into this perfect woman. She could not put her heart into cooking and instead of all the routine chores her friends enjoyed doing, she wanted to do something which made her parents proud of her, of pursuing a dream that she alone had seen, of sailing in a boat to the unknown shores and to sing the way her heart wished to!
Traditionally, the harvest festival was always celebrated in the temple, with women dancing lavanis and the men all dressed up to watch the festivities and praying to God to give them another year of a full harvest. It was natural then, that the priest had worn his dhoti with extreme care and his meticulous rituals made the temple look pious and festive at the same time almost as if even God wanted to bless this charming village with its simple folk and its calm environment.
Amaya had prepared a song with perfection and she had shyly asked her grandmother to take the priest’s permission to sing it at the end of the evening festivities. She had hoped that the majority of the audience would have left by then and those present would be too bored to listen to her beginner’s skills. The function began with the prayers to Lord Ganesha, asking for his benevolence for another year of a good harvest.
This was followed by a lavani, a traditional dance by women wearing colourful nine-yard sarees, tied like a dhoti to their slim waists going round and round in circles, swirling and twisting their bodies in a melodious unison, all the time holding each other with a precise rhythm. Amaya was mesmerized with the song, a beautiful one of a woman’s separation from the beloved and asking for God’s help to unite her with him.
The rest of the evening passed like a breeze and Amaya was surprised that the play on Saint Tukaram and a bhajan to Lord Vithoba would be over so soon. Finally, it was her moment. She began to feel apprehensive as soon as the priest announced her name. What if this turned into a big joke and no words came out of her mouth; would she be able to sing in front of so many people including her father, her family and all her friends?
She prayed to Vithoba silently and touched the priest’s feet before starting her song. With a brief introduction to the song, she began and instantly there was a silence around her. Everyone was enraptured by her melody and her voice rose. She felt, she could take it even higher, and control the musical notes and the lyrical melody perfectly. For the first time in her life, Amaya felt a sense of elation and total freedom. It was exactly the way she had dreamt herself singing and she knew that it was all she wanted to do in her life…
The family and all the villagers blessed her although she could sense her father’s silent gaze on her. The happiest was her grandmother, giving her a warm hug and blessing her effusively.
They had returned home. Amaya was surprised to see that her grandmother had in her hands the keys to the trunk that nobody had ever seen the inside of. She leaned towards the cot and sat down, urging Amaya to open the formidable-looking lock. Amaya was curious and mystified. What was inside the trunk that her grandmother wanted to give her?
The trunk smelled of camphor and a strange musty fragrance filled up Amaya’s nostrils. She opened the first lot of the wrapping of white cotton and inside it was a beautiful Paithani in a rich red and green colour, with the most exquisite gold border she had ever seen. Suddenly, she noticed the polished handle of a long wooden stick just beneath it and she gently pulled it out. It was an old carved sarangi. She could not believe her eyes. The object of her dreams was right in front of her. When she turned her head to see her grandmother’s expression, she noticed that the Paithani was in her grandmother’s hands and she was caressing it lovingly, lost in her beautiful memories of yesteryears.
Amaya knew that the saree was her gift. With a look of extreme gratitude, she wrapped the Paithani back into its cotton wrapping and instead picked up the sarangi. After an initial look of surprise, her grandmother understood Amaya’s desire to take the gift she really wanted. As for Amaya, no other gift would have mattered as much as this. She knew she had found her way.
*sarangi – a string instrument
Dr Gauri Mishra is teaching as Associate Professor in the department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi. She likes to dabble in some poetry and short fiction from time to time. She is very passionate about teaching and also heads the placement cell of her college.
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