The Blooming Oleander

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. Her thoughts were still lost in the conversation that she overheard last night. Two strangers had sought help to spend a night at her house. Illaa’s brother was more than happy to welcome the guests. Illaa’s father was well known herbal practitioner of Marathawada. His fame shot up after he was rumored to cure Shivaji Maharaja’s deep abdomen cut after Battle of Kolahapur which stamped the authority of Maratha rule in Deccan and alarmed the Mughal King Aurangazeb. Illaa had prepared the pooran poli, a sweet wheat bread popular in the region, which she learnt from her grandmother. While she was serving food to the strangers, one of them asked her in deep husky voice that commanded respect, “Are you doctor’s daughter?

She nodded in affirmative. They looked at one another and smiled. Then they continued their discussion. That was when she heard them talking about Mughal king Aurangzeb’s policy of destruction of temples. She had already known this. Everybody was talking about it. Many of the village’s men had served the Maratha army. When they returned, they talked about the destruction they saw. One of the village men, Pranavrao Nalawde had served under Hambirao Mohite when Marathas defeated Mughals at Battle of Patadi.

Fighting Aurangazeb
The day before, while picking cotton from plants, Pranavrao’s wife Sanskriti told Illaa about her husband’s experiences. She told her how Aurangzeb had demolished the temple of Kalkaji at Delhi and changed the name of Mathura to Islamabad. She went on to narrate to Illaa the story that her husband had told her about the priest of Govardhan who saved the idol of Srinathji from the barbarian Aurangazeb. Maharana Raj Singh had promised the priest that Aurangazeb could touch the idol only after he would kill one lakh brave Rajputs of Mewar.

But what those strangers were talking about was more disturbing to Illaa. They were discussing that Aurangazeb was coming to Deccan to crush the Maratha uprising and he had ordered to demolish all the temples in his way. The two strangers were particularly worried about Paithan. They were talking about protection of Kawale priest who were appointed by Shivaji as royal priest of Marathas. Illaa shuddered with the thought of demolishing Paithan’s tirtha. Aurangazab was mighty and haughty. They say power comes with responsibility but not in Mughal King’s case, she thought.

“Illaa..Illlaaa”, a loud voice called.

Startled, she looked around. Sanskriti was calling her. She was walking towards her with Pranavrao by her side and four cows that they owned. Illaa was so engrossed in her thought that she lost track of time. It was already evening. The fierce bright sun had given way to a comforting pale sun. The bank of river was filled with people taking dip in Godavari and praying Sun God. Children were throwing stones in water and counting number of splashes made.


Sanskriti came and held her from behind while Pranavrao was managing the cows.

“Illaa, I am going to meet my mother. Pranavrao is accompanying me”, Sanskriti told Illaa with a voice full of ecstasy.

“Is everything all right? Till yesterday, you did not have any plan to visit your mother”, Illaa asked surprised.

“Aree!!! Paithan has a big fare starting today. Pranavrao suggested going there and you know my mother’s village is only 5 kms more from Paithan. So, I thought I would visit them as well”, Sanskriti replied.

Sanskriti was delighted. She was even making animated hand movements and humming a folk song that talked about aimless wander of two lovers.

“Who knows what you two lovebirds are up to? Planning to make me aunt?” Illaa teased her friend.

“Leave your rubbish and help us make you aunt by taking care of our cows for two days. We will be back by then.” Sanskriti said, unperturbed by Illaa’s joke.

“Ok! Why don’t we walk to my house? You tie your cows there. Anyways I have to carry some water. We have guests at home. I brought water in the morning but that was not enough.”, Illaa spoke while standing from the rock.

Illaa looked at the cows and nodded towards Pranavrao in respect. Pranavrao nodded and pushed the cows to make them move, since the cows had started feeding on the grass. While on the way, Sanskriti was talking to Illaa about her sister’s pregnancy, Illaa was lost somewhere else. Her thought was still at Aurangazeb and his hatred towards Hindus. She was getting more furious as she thought about the wicked King. If only she were a man, she would have fought with Sambhaji Maharaj and taught the barbarian a lesson. They reached Illaa’s home. She led Pranavrao to the place where her own cows were tied. Somewhere there, Pranavrao was startled and left the control of his cows. His eyes were fixed at the corner of room where the strangers had kept their belongings. Illaa panicked. She thought Pranavraao had a stroke. She held his hand and started shaking him vigorously. Some seconds later, he got control of his body. He pointed at a stack of clothes in the corner.

He asked Illaa, “Whose belongings are these?”

“Two strangers. But what happened to you? Why are you shaking?”, Illaa replied hurriedly.

Illaa had heard about soldiers getting bad dreams due to constant exposure to extreme violence. She thought may be Pranavrao was affected by the disturbing images of war.

Suddenly she saw Pranavrao sitting on his knees and praying towards the belongings kept in the corner. She was unable to understand anything that was happening at that moment.

“What is it? What are you praying?”Illaa asked. She looked confused.

“Do you see that?” Pranavrao replied. Still, in the same serious tone.

“You are not seeing what I am seeing”, replied Pranavrao.

“Don’t play more riddles. Just tell me what it is. This is confusing.”, replied irritated Illaa.

Pranavrao stood up, and walked till the stack of clothes. Behind the stack, there was fodder for cattle and amidst that, something was shining, a metal perhaps.

Pranavrao cleaned the fodder around it and the shiny metal turned out to be a sword. The pommel of the sword was stamped with a flying flag in shape of a rectangle and a triangle cut out from the front side. Further there was stamp of Goddess Bhawani. The flag was royal Maratha symbol and was stamped on all swords carried by Maratha royals. But the symbol of Goddess Bhawani was stamped on only one sword, Bhawani Talwar, the sword of mighty Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Pranavrao explained this to Illaa.

Illaa hastily asked, “Does this mean that the two strangers are from Maratha royal family?”

“Not just Maratha royal family, one of the strangers that you are talking about must be Sambhaji Maharaj. You must not tell anyone about them. They must be on some secret mission”, Pranavrao remarked.

Pranavrao tied his cows and sent Sanskriti home. Then he and Illaa went to the room where the two strangers were sleeping. Pranavrao instantly recognized commander in chief of Maratha Army, Hambirao Mohite and sat near his feet. Illaa sat near Sambhaji’s feet and looked at him with reverence.

A little while later, Sambhaji got up and saw Illaa and Pranavrao standing with folded hands. As he realized that he had been recognized. Sambhaji said, “Your father has served my father well. If it had not been for your father, Shivaji could not have achieved what he did. I am because he was. I want to thank your family for your service.”

“Take me with you, I want to kill Aurangazeb. No more Hindu temples should be destroyed”, Illaa instantly said.

“If you are determined, you will find a way”, Sambhaji said and asked his Senapati to get ready to move.

Years passed by and Sambhaji was killed by Aurangazeb. He did not yield to the torture by Aurangazeb who was forcing him to convert to Islam and earned the title of ‘Dharmveer’.

The mighty Sambhaji

Illaa used to remember him and curse herself that the barbarian Aurangzeb is still alive. Every day she prayed to Dharmveer Sambhaji Maharaj along with her family deity.

One day while she went to fetch water from Godavari, she saw a grand arrangement being made on the other side of the river. There were thousands of people preparing camps. She enquired with the nearby people. They told her that Mughal king Aurangazeb's camp was getting prepared. They told that the camp was more than 30 miles in radius with thousands of camels and elephants. There were about 250 bazaars in the camp.

Illa was uneasy that night. Sleep was far from her eyes. Words of Sambhaji Maharaj were echoing in her ears.

“If you are determined, you will find a way”

Is this her chance? What can she do? Her mind was calculating all the options that she had. She remembered the great Vedic philosopher, Gargi Vachaknavi who said that nobody is beyond time and space. Even the mighty fell after some time. 

She made up her mind. This was her chance. Next day, She bought a burqa and walked to the camp that was getting set up to welcome the Mughal king. At one place she saw people setting up a place to eat. She introduced herself as mute Muslim from Burhanpur as she was afraid that they might suspect her religion listening to her dialect. She told them that Burhanpur was attacked by Marathas and they ransacked everything. She had no place to go and nothing to eat. She offered her services to the camp and sought refuge there. Mughals agreed and asked what she was good at. Illaa used sign language to convey that she was good at cooking. She started making local dishes there and was soon famous in all Aurangazeb’s camp for her culinary skills. Words of appreciation reached Auranagazeb who wrote a decree to induct Illaa into royal chefs. Illa was very happy with her promotion and made a pulan poli with mashed oleander leaves.

the oleander

Few days later, Aurangazeb fell sick with severe diarrhea and he died with abnormal heart beat and diarrhea. As the news of Aurangazeb’s death reached Illa, she thanked Ganpati and remembered her father who was tortured to death by Aurangazeb’s commanders to know the location of Shivaji thirty years back. She looked at the oleander plant, outside the window.  Her father stopped her from eating those oleander leaves as a child and explained how dangerous those leaves can be. “The oleander leaves act as slow poison”, He explained. She had seen the effect on one of the most powerful men on the earth – Aurangazeb.

Illaa killed Aurangazeb.

She looked at the little charcoal tablets tied in her dupatta. As a cook, she had to taste those pulan poli before the food is served to the Emperor. These tablets were her savior. Her father had also explained the antidote of Oleander poisoning. Charcoals are good adsorbent. Oleander leaves adsorbs on the charcoal adsorbent. She vomited and all poison was out. She smiled as she wore the burqa. Ironically, she was going to mourn the death of Emperor on the happiest day of her life.

Illaa did what many men could not.

Wriiten for TOI contest.

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