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Just One Among HIS Many Devadasis

Posted: March 23, 2020

They fought pretty strongly Bhairavi, looks like, in less than a month, this Devdasi custom will be totally abolished, you will be free forever.

The second winner of our March 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Preethi Warrier.

Bhairavi watched with a shine in her eyes, as the head priest applied turmeric and vermillion on the little girl’s forehead. The hour long POOJA was finally ending, she wondered what all the fuss was about. Why couldn’t they just get it over with, it was just a marriage ceremony, with no groom.

The girl’s parents had claimed she was only ten, but she was physically endowed, she looked almost thirteen. She would be well in demand, she had to be smuggled sooner, Bhairavi thought.

The temple bells rang loud in harmony, as the head priest announced the conclusion of the ceremony.

“I thus declare you married, to our God, to the temple. You are, from today, Ragini, the Devadasi. God’s Bride.”

The little crowd of villagers cheered, as they rose to leave. Little Ragini seemed lost, staring listlessly at her parents who walked away without a second glance.

The priest pulled her by the hand and handed her to Bhairavi, who gathered the little one in a loving embrace.

“You know the drill, teach her some hymns she can recite at the temple every day. Let her take some dance lessons too. Most importantly, train her, you know, she has to entertain my men. We are done with the other girls, they weren’t any good anyway. And you say the two good ones you had, eloped.” The priest instructed Bhairavi while his gaze and hands stuck to the little girl.

“What’s her story?” Bhairavi changed the subject.

“Oh, her mother died, father got a new bride. They don’t want her and she hit puberty a week back. This was their best opportunity to get rid of her and earn something in return, I paid a huge amount you know; and you got to be careful with her. Girls keep disappearing from your brothel…”

Bhairavi cut him short, fuming, “It’s not a brothel. It’s my Ashram. And we Devdasis too need money to live. You and your rich friends lose all interest in a girl after you lay your eyes on the younger crop. I can’t feed them forever. If they run off with their beaus or go looking for greener pastures, you think I could stop them? They can’t even get married, you know that right?”

“Don’t act innocent with me.” He hissed. “I’ve heard rumours that you have customers coming late in the evening, spending time with the girls and later you whisk the girls off with them, for a larger pay. Trust me, the day I find enough evidence, you will be done for. Now get out and train her well.”

The bullock cart ferried them to the far end of the village, making it’s way over dirty, bumpy roads. Their little Ashram or whatever the so called decent people called it, was despised in the day and immensely desired at night. The head priest and his family owned the temple and the girls, so they performed for the deity in the morning and pleasured the worshippers in the evening.

Bhairavi herself was almost thirty five now, well past their desirable age. Her brothers had tried their little sexual experiments on her, but she had somehow managed to escape their clutches and approach her parents. Her parents in turn found no fault with their sons, and decided to get rid of their burden, her. Selling her off to the temple brought cash and little shame.

But then, she had served the priest for the longest time, and she had served him real well. So she had ended up being the Head Trainer at their little Ashram. But then a little mistake on her part could cost her the top position, her peace and perhaps her life, she knew.

She was jolted back from her thoughts when the rickety cart jumped over a ditch. It was already dark by the time they reached home. She ushered Ragini in and five girls, all aged between twelve and sixteen rushed to welcome Ragini, who had been understandably silent all along.

“Will they be coming tonight Amma?” asked the eldest among them.

“Yes, the Priest and his entourage will be busy with Pooja and festivities for a week, tonight’s the right time for you to leave.” Bhairavi replied.

Night fell, they heard the expected knock at their door. A middle aged lady walked in along with a young man. Ragini recognised them instantly, “Teacher, sir?”

The guests smiled sweetly at Ragini but then the man hurriedly picked up the eldest girl’s bag and turned to leave. The lady in turn embraced Bhairavi.

“Bhairavi, remember that interview of yours we recorded a few months back? We got it publicized. Its written version got published in top magazines and newspapers. There has been an uproar, the lady ministers in the cabinet forwarded a petition. They fought pretty strongly Bhairavi, looks like, in less than a month, this Devdasi custom will be totally abolished, you will be free forever.”

“Quick, let’s leave.” The man whispered. The lady clasped the girl’s hand but the girl turned around and teary eyed, embraced Bhairavi.

“Amma, I can’t leave you like this. They’ll return in a few days and I’m sure they’ll hold you responsible. Why don’t we all go together?”

Bhairavi kissed the girl on her forehead, “No dear, all of us can’t, as of now. They’ll attack these poor girls’ families then, maybe their sisters will bear the brunt. I’ll work out something, don’t worry. And who knows, maybe, very soon, we wouldn’t be hiding anymore. You don’t fret, just go. She’ll take you to the shelter in the city, you could be educated, you could learn some skill, lead an independent life better than this wretched one here. Go dear, go before someone finds out. I’ll tell him you ran off with your lover from the neighbouring village.”

The girl touched Bhairavi’s feet and they were soon gone, disappearing into the night on a horse cart. Bhairavi silently prayed for their safety. These social workers who helped the downtrodden villagers and taught their children for free, were indeed courageous, risking their lives helping her. They had got in touch with her almost a year back for a documentary, and though they had proposed to involve the police and help the girls in a less secretive manner, Bhairavi had refused. The priest was highly influential, he could harm them all later, she wasn’t sure to what extent. So she had devised this plan to smuggle her girls into a better life. Once they were all free, she could rest in peace, she wouldn’t be afraid of any punishment thereafter.

“Amma, what was the teacher doing? Where did that didi go?” little Ragini tugged at Bhairavi’s sari.

“What good news were they taking about?” another girl questioned.

Bhairavi smiled and stroked Ragini’s hair, “Just a few months more dear. Didn’t you hear her, we won’t be Devdasis anymore. We would neither be married, nor be Dasis. Forty years of independence and we are being sold by our families, bought by the temple, married and exploited in the name of God. But it’s never too late, we’ll be set free from this hell. In the meantime I promise, I won’t let anything happen to any of you. I’ll make some excuse, they won’t touch you.”

“Does that mean we have a different future Amma? I too could be like other children?” the little one sounded hopeful.

“Of course!” Bhairavi’s eyes welled up. “Remember, you are a woman. Strong and intelligent. You are the country’s future; the country has realized that, so she’s giving us an opportunity. Very soon, we’ll all be walking out of here, into the sunshine, no hiding and no fear. You will go to school, you will study, work and choose your partner someday. You won’t be a slave to anyone, you will rule the world. And I’ll always be there, your Amma, to watch over you, to marvel in your success, to bless you for your journey ahead.”

*

Editor’s note: It’s the new decade of the new millennium, and here’s a fresh theme for our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month. In 2020, we bring to you quotes feminist women achievers around the world – we hope to bring you some food for thought, and look forward to the same engaging short stories that are a hallmark of our Muse of the Month contests.

Here’s the woman for March 2020 – March is Women’s History Month. And who epitomises Indian women’s history to where we are today, than Savitribai Phule, the woman who started education for girls and women, as well as for the Dalit-Bahujan samaj in the mid-1800s? As a co-incidence (there are no co-incidences, someone has said!), the anniversary of her death is on 10th March – she passed away on 10th March 1897, while helping people suffering from bubonic plague in Pune.

Savitribai Phule’s life and work was not known much till a few decades ago, to some extent as a result of the discrimination she faced as a ‘lower caste’ woman, promoting education for those traditionally kept away from any knowledge. But let’s not forget, that today we, Indian women, can read and write all thanks to her. She has recently been honoured by the naming of Pune University as Savitribai Phule Pune University. You can read a quick timeline of her life here.

There is not much saved of her words, though a book of her poems, Kavya Phule, is still in print in Marathi. A few of her letters written to her equally illustrious husband Jyotiba Phule while she was recuperating from an illness at her parents’ home, also survive, and the English translations are also available in book form – an excerpt from this book can be found here, from which I have taken the cue for the March Muse of the Month.

The cue is this quote by her: “Success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.” 

Preethi Warrier wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations! 

Image source: a still from Tamil movie Srirangam

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