Our nation has seen many rebels, but some remain underrated. One of those humble stories lies in the seventeenth century India. This is Ira’s story. Ira who? One peculiar spitfire, whose story is long forgotten in the pages of history, yet when recalled, represents the undying spirit of that Maratha lady that refuses to fade away.
18th Century Bihar, India
Close to the city of Magadh, modern day Gaya, in a small village called Dehri, which lay along the banks of river Sone, lived a woman named Ira. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not amongst the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Magadh 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 Ira was not to be found in the fields. In fact, she wasn’t working at all.
Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the river Sone, wondering about its confluence in Ganges.
‘I am sick of this!’ she grunted loudly.
Twenty-two years old Ira’s tall and lean caricature was resting under the banyan tree. Sone was flowing besides, quietly, while the sweet petrichor mixed in the moist morning breeze messed with her curly hairs, as it passed through. But, in spite of the pleasant environment, Ira’s round pied eyes were welling up. Her lips, trembling. The fairer skin had gone bronzed, given the peak of her temper.
There was a turmoil running inside Ira’s mind. She never wanted to join her family business. But, she was dragged to it as soon as her husband died of cholera. After his demise, she returned to her widow mother who had two of her younger sisters to look after as well. So, she joined her mother to add earning to the family.
Along with other farmers, they used to work under the wicked Hakim Chand. Also, called as- the Zamindar babu, the short, fat and bald businessman owned most of the cotton fields around and was infamous for his misogyny, influence and temper.
On the other side, life had only taught Ira the dark side of being a woman. But, the threshold of her endurance was crossed when she was humiliated by Hakim Chand for coming late at the field, a few hours before.
With that agony, she kept looking past the banks of Sone, where lay the border-gates of Magadh.
Magadh was a centre for pilgrimage for the seventeenth century Bihar. The well-planned city was famous for its greenery and holy monuments. Later, when the Bihari Empire shook hands with European traders for the cotton trade, it also became the largest exporter of silk and cotton for Europe. And, eventually due to the futile geography, Dehri became the largest producer of cotton for Magadh.
But Dehri, like many other Indian villages had a problem with women. Women were denied of any sort of education unlike men. They were essentially future housewives to the society. Evils like child marriage, sati pratha, and female foeticide were much prevalent. Moreover, the village school was run by zamindar himself. And this, was an eyesore to Ira’s feminist soul. She had always felt bad about the gender-bias, but, it was the scolding of Hakim Chand that had fumed the fire inside her.
Why is he so misogynistic? Father told me than women were respected in ancient days, according to Vedas. There used to be Gurumas, the teachers. So why now, we fell so weak and helpless?
‘By the holy name of Lord Shiva, no one understands me!’ muttered Ira to herself in disgust, while adjusting the plait of her white saree. ‘I never wanted to be this. No girl would want a life like this. I can’t just work in fields like a bull. I wanted to learn things. Become a teacher. But, look at me now...’
Her last line broke into silence before she started sobbing. And, while the sweet moisture of the river kept blowing across, she slowly closed her eyes.
‘Aye, you filthy little bitch! You’re late at work. We have a mere few weeks to take the fibre out of the land. You certainly don’t understand the hurry, do you? And, why would you? It takes a man to understand such things.’ barked the Hakim Chand. His thick moustache trembled with his lips, as his bald head shined in the tempered daylight.
They were standing in the cotton field. Her mother was rushing to her for rescue. But before she could approach, Hakim Chand had already slapped her. Ira smacked onto the ground and while her mother fell on Hakim Chand’s knees to beg mercy for her eldest daughter.
‘Forgive us Zamindar Babu! Punish me if you want on her behalf.’ cried her mother.
‘Aye, you bitch! God! Why are you all so worthless, huh?’ Hakim Chand clenched and pulled Ira’s mother by hairs ‘Did I ask you to interfere? Why did you leave your work without my consent? HUH! TELL ME?’
Ira had lost her temper by then. She jumped up quickly and stood against the merciless Zamindar. Her eyes were red, not in grief but anger. She was at least a foot taller than the Hakim Chand.
‘DARE YOU TOUCH HER AGAIN AND I SHALL TAKE YOUR HEAD OFF IN NO TIME!’ cried Ira while raising her trowel in protest.
Zamindar was taken aback. The incident had grabbed every farmer’s attention. He shouted aloud while Ira stormed out of the field. She was petrified. Last thing she saw was her mother resuming back to the work while Hakim Chand departed to his chambers while cursing the womankind to every devil around.
Suddenly, the skies rumbled to wake Ira out of her drowse.
That dog wouldn’t have barked so loud if I were a man. Our lives come for granted, eh? This must end now!
On that thought, Ira went down to her home before the rain hit the soil of Dehri.
After the rain stopped, Ira rushed to visit the Mukhiya, to ask justice. Though her mother warned her of consequences, Ira was one hundred per cent sure to drag Hakim Chand into the courts of law.
Each village then was controlled by a Mukhiya. The village head, used to be the prime judiciary body in a gram panchayat, which was a legal counsel comprised of several elected villagers, to solve the village disputes.
Ram Lal was the Mukhiya of Dehri, also called as Dehri Naresh by many. He was a wise person. His tall but fat physique was synonymous to his eating habits. The village head was also known for his humour, politeness and persuasive abilities. The good old fatso was typically recognized by a peculiar ear-to-ear moustache, accompanied with a dhoti-kurta, when in panchayat proceedings.
‘Ira, what you’re saying can start a dispute...’ said Ram Lal who was sitting in his veranda, sipping tea, with Ira. It was late evening. The man was in his brown dhoti and kurta.
‘... let me finish first.’ snapped Ram Lal, while raising his palm to pause Ira’s interjection. Ira fell silent on his gesture. ‘See, your take is justified. What you preach about woman education and our vedic culture is true as well. I know the vedic history and yes, women were upheld then. But, time has changed. It would only take a revolution to bring that kind of change. Look around you; people like Hakim Chand are everywhere. Dragging him into the panchayat would only result in creating a rivalry with the most influential person of Dehri. He will get away in no time. What then?’
The Mukhiya was right, however, Ira reverted-
‘Father used to say- if you want a change, be the change. And, that hard times create strong people.’
Ram Lal chuckled. ‘Yes, and strong people create good times, good times create weak people. And weak people create hard times. This is a vicious cycle, dear. And, you’re haven’t been through that cycle, yet! Either it would make a useful revolution, or would lead you to an abyss where you stop caring about things. Where even your least pint of sanity would starve.’ Ram Lal had been a revolt prior. But time had lessoned him the harder way- that revolts in books and lives, are different by nature. Those in books took pages, those in lives took blood.
Ira got the picture Ram Lal was indicating. She sighed hopelessly. ‘Isn’t there anything that I can do more?’
Ram Lal winced. ‘Not much. But, yes. There’s one thing that can...’ said Ram Lal while scratching his (double) chin. Ira kept looking at him eagerly. ‘See... don’t address Hakim Chand. That would specify the case. Throw the light on woman rights. This would address the root of all problems. You cannot defend anything personally, while standing on the threshold of a revolution.’
‘You mean address the whole system?’
‘Yes.’ Ram Lal’s reply wasn’t convincing, but, had a point. ‘See, Ira... when demanded with accountability, the establishments feel vulnerable. I don’t think this would make any difference, but yet, I would call a panchayat tomorrow. I have got a feeling... that this might just start, what you’re looking for.’
The panchayat was held under a Peepal tree- led by Mukhiya and his group of five advisors, the sarpanchs, to hear Ira’s say. However, it proved true to the Mukhiya’s warning, when the panchayat ended while mocking Ira’s feminist ideas. Though women and a few humble men were happy with Ira’s stand, they weren’t really the majority.
Ira came home disappointed while imagining her next day in the same cotton field, with same monotony and sick Hakim Chand. But, destiny had something else for the poor soul. While the heartbroken Ira sobbed inside, outside it started raining cats and dogs.
Next morning, Dehri woke up only to find their cotton field ruined down to mud and dead crops by the nightlong rain and the flooding River Sone, destroying everything in way.
‘Dear Lord, have mercy!’ muttered the gobsmacked Ram Lal after seeing the huge devastation the devilling rain had bought upon the village. Every villager was hopeless now. Hakim Chand was shattered with the loss. They have lost their best chance of income completely, and, that too all out of sudden. Panchayat was summoned to discuss the problem.
‘Fellow villagers, we have faced a calamity lately. Our crops are gone and there’s no possible way that we can re-cultivate them. Now, either we starve or we look forward to a quick plan of action to compensate the loss. If anyone can suggest a thing, please volunteer.’ said the Mukhiya. Everyone was quiet. Suddenly, Ira stood up from the mob.
‘Sir...’ as soon as she spoke every head turned to her. ‘...I have an idea. If we can purchase the cotton harvest of Kaimur...’
Kaimur was a nearby village, mostly hills, which also had equally futile cotton fields.
‘As far as I know, rain hasn’t strike there and they have harvested the crops too. So, if we can purchase their harvest for the compensation?’
‘We don’t have that much of gold in our village treasury.’ replied the Dehri Naresh.
‘Maybe I can help.’ Said Ira and took out two golden bangles. Her mother looked at her with awe. Those bangles were dearer to her than life, as, were gifted to her by her father, on her most recent birthday. ‘If each one of us contributes a bit, as much as to his or her capacity, we can raise a healthy fund.’
Everyone fell silent. The girl did have a point. Ram Lal stood up with his golden chain. ‘This is my contribution.’
Suddenly then, a woman from the mob volunteered her silver necklace. The rest of the mob followed the fashion.
‘But, we are still falling short Dehri Naresh!’ commented Hakim Chand while estimating the collected fund value.
‘Yes. But, let’s try once. I’d go to Kaimur and bargain. Their Mukhiya is on a tour as of now. I would go once he returns. Rest is our fate.’ replied Ram Lal, while pinching his forehead.
Only a day was left for the traders to arrive, when the village saw Ram Lal coming empty handed from Kaimur.
‘The village Mukiya refused to acknowledge our request. He demanded a better deal. I would reserve the fund for now!’ replied Ram Lal to the village in the panchayat assembly.
Hearing this, the mob lamented in despair. Even the last ray of hope had gone. Only a miracle could now save Dehri from the years of starvation, poverty and death.
‘All of this has happened because of this Ira!’ cried a villager aloud. ‘It was her idea. She wasted our time. Tomorrow only they are coming and we don’t even have a bale to sell!’
‘Yes. Hakim Chand says right. Womankind isn’t trustworthy!’ yelled another man.
Ira was gobsmacked. She couldn’t bear more insult. While Ram Lal debated with them in favour of Ira, she stormed out of the scene and reached down to the destroyed cotton field. She fell on her knees and howled out in agony and grief. Her lament echoed across the horizons. She kept crying for hours, until her mother reached there. As Ira restored to her composure, something hit her eyes- it was a cotton seed. She suddenly lit up, jumped to her mother and danced out of happiness.
‘Maa, the village inventory should have the cotton seeds, right?’
Her mother went confused by Ira’s behaviour ‘Yes, but...’
‘That’s it! YES!’ cried Ira excitedly and ran back to the village area.
Finally, the day arrived, when traders were scheduled to come and the biggest producer of cotton had absolutely nothing to offer. Moreover, the villagers didn’t find their Dehri Naresh and Ira anywhere in the premises. Adding to their surprise was the absence of the collected fund.
The situation raised questions. Villagers accused Ram Lal for stealing the fund, while it was Hakim Chand who had a better theory.
‘Ira has stolen the fund. Mukhiya has just helped her. I always knew that girl was bewitching him. No wonder Mukhiya always took her side. Women I tell you fellows, nothing but distractions!’
And this had invited a panchayat session. Ira’s family was dragged to the stage. Villagers were all ready to burn them alive. But, just before anything could start, something rumbled aloud. Villagers turned with awe, just to find out Ira in her green salwar yelling in happiness, while Mukhiya riding her bullock cart with gallons of cotton bales.
The scene had left everyone dumbstruck. They had brought the bales just in time. But how?
She jumped out of the bullock cart as her mother ran down, just before she embraced her tight, while crying aloud.
Ira turned to Ram Lal, who was smiling hard at her.
‘It was actually Ira’s idea to access the inventory. The cotton seeds in the inventory were an apt compensation that we all overlooked. We bought these bales while exchanging the stored cotton seeds along with the fund. Am I right, Ira?’
‘Yes. Kaimur’s Mukhiya was more than happy to accept cotton seeds with the offered currency. The cotton seeds would help them to raise new crops in no time. This deal, to them, was just too lucrative to refuse.’
This suddenly changed the village’s mood. Everyone rejoiced while taking Ira over their shoulders. The village was finally saved and when they arrived in evening, the village incurred hefty gold and goods from the wholesalers and traders of Magadh. The victory was so ground-breaking, that it even melted the old zamindar who later apologised to Ira and opened his school for all. Even girls were now about to receive education and the reason was Ira.
Few years later, Ira succeeded Ram Lal to become the first woman Mukhiya of Dehri Panchayat. Under her leadership, she built dam over the Sone River, to restrict future floods. The tales of leadership reached beyond the once confined horizons of Dehri, and impressed the majesty of a nearby city named Rohtas, famous for its dairy business, who later married Ira. And, when demised, in her memory, the majesty of Rohtas, built a fort on the hills of Rohtas, called the Rohtas Quila.
Ira didn’t just bring the change; she became the change. She transformed her village for once and for all. Unfortunately, some stories get lost with time. But, when remembered they leave a permanent mark over our memory. Yes, because this tale of history might have faded from the maps of India today, but Ira’s life was one such fable, indeed. NOTE: This short story is nominated for the SALISMANIA.com Best Short Story Of The Year Award 2017.