A TRAGEDY OF INDIAN SOCIAL EVILS TOLD THROUGH 48 HEARTBREAKING IMAGES - PART I./IV
Avani is a brilliant photo shoot by Arjun Kamath, constituting 48 photographs that convey the story of a woman in a patriarchal society. Avani’s story can be the story of you and me as the struggles and setbacks that she faces are the common problems of India, a country which is still deep-rooted in patriarchy. Here’s her story.
When met with atrocity, a woman ceases to exist. She is taken over by a beast, a demon, the God of Death if you will. Or it is safe to say that all this wildness is carefully weaved inside her, revealed seldom. And lest we forget, a demon is the most dangerous if it doesn’t act like one. Avani carried kindness and grace tied to the delicate anklets on her feet. She bore a divinity- the one that often peeps out of simplicity, rendering the person harmless and pure. And maybe she thought the same about herself. Little did she know, she was destined for greater things. Things she may have never consciously chosen to encounter. But life doesn’t work like that, anyway. The Kashyapi forest would echo her heart-wrenching tale for years to come. Presenting Avani, a moving photo story packed with soul, brimming with colour and emotion. A tale of a daughter presented with separation. Of a wife faced with near loss. Of a mother summoned to sacrifice. But most importantly, a tale of an ordinary woman placed under extraordinary circumstances.
Avani was the most beautiful and educated girl in Pravadh, a little hamlet in central India. She was the only daughter of the Mistla’s, a humble couple who owned a small sweetmeat shop. With a comely figure, saffron complexion, and kohl-black eyes, Avani was gorgeous, like a painting of a goddess brought to life. Avani was pure and kind hearted, and she had dreams of opening a school for girls in Pravadh. Educating girls was not as important as educating boys, which had bothered her since childhood. Avani was home educated by her father, while boys had the privilege of going to the local school. The peace-loving Avani, although strong willed and intelligent, would never go against her parents’ wishes out of love for them. Their happiness meant the world to her, even if it meant crushing her own dreams.
Pravadh was known for its emerald-green fields, and one would often hear the yip of wolf cubs break the dawn quiet, from the woods bordering the town. Fluffy, white clouds would glide across amethyst skies, releasing warm, incessant rain that snapped and crackled like bracken pods in a bush fire. The rain descended as little drops of silver, to cleanse the land and banish the silence of winter. In the village, dirt pathways wound, providing direction, and travelers would often stand in awe at the beauty of such a scenic place.
A turquoise stream called the Vimala provided water and was the pride of Pravadh. It wound its merry way along the edge of the town, murmuring and gurgling as it sprang over pearly white rocks. Pebbles glittered, hurried along by the current made of water that tasted like the nectar of the gods. Most mornings, streaks of soft light beamed from the heavens, washing the stream in pure silver, while dragonflies glimmered and danced. The hedgerows along the dirt roads were pregnant with berries, engaging the inhabitants with their pleasant scent.
Despite its beauty, Pravadh was a primitive community, where the wealthy convinced the rest of the townspeople that a woman’s only job was to take care of her family and stay at home. Although Avani’s parents loved her dearly and wanted to support her dreams, they had succumbed to the extreme pressures of the village elders and had begun to search for a man to wed their daughter.
It was Avani's big day. Her parents, the Mistla's, had left no stone unturned in the search for a worthy groom for their beloved daughter. Although Avani was against marriage, she had never openly expressed her own feelings on the matter out of respect for her parents’ wishes. Secretly, she hoped to continue working towards her dream of opening a school for girls in Pravadh, even after her marriage, and she fervently hoped her future husband and his family would approve of the idea.
It was with a somewhat heavy heart that Avani finally agreed to marry, although she never expressed any displeasure. She wished her parents would come to understand her true feelings and her dreams; she would have preferred them to change their mind on their own, rather than going against their wishes. In Pravadhi culture, children were expected to respect their parents’ every word, even if it meant going against their wishes.
The Mistla’s were so pressured by the Pravadhi community that they wanted to arrange a marriage for Avani before people started gossiping. They forgot that marrying their only daughter to a man without her consent would mean sacrificing Avani’s happiness, just to maintain their own social status and dignity.
Meanwhile, Aadisesha, who was the son of the Sayan’s, was the most eligible bachelor in Pravadh. His parents were the wealthiest and most respected couple, and the children were expected to carry on the family name. The Sayan’s owned thousands of acres of farmland, several herds of cattle, an ancient temple, and lived in the most sacred and revered home in the community. A tulsi plant, in the center of their front yard, was said to have been planted by Lord Brahma himself, while he was disguised as a beggar to destroy a rakshasa in ancient Pravadh.
Many parents of young daughters wanted to arrange a marriage with Aadisesha, and dozens of families would line up daily outside the Sayan home to offer marriage proposals. Guru Tai, Aadisesha’s stepmother, was waiting for the largest dowry, and each day, hundreds of girls were humiliated and rejected when their dowries did not meet her expectations. Her insults were always subtle and only understood by the person whom she had insulted. Like a snake slithering in the grass, she would creep up on her victim without anyone else noticing. Money and pride were all Guru Tai cared about. Meanwhile, Aadisesha’s father, Sumedh Rara, was never at home and avoided the hustle of wedding proposals. He would often visit neighboring towns with his guards, to confront his brothers over ancestral land, which didn’t belong to him. While he was away, Guru Tai ran the Sayan household.
When the Mistla’s approached Guru Tai with Avani, they had very little hope that the marriage proposal would be accepted. Aadisesha had so many beautiful Pravadhi girls to choose from, and the Mistla’s were not wealthy enough to offer a dowry. However, when Aadisesha saw Avani, he was instantly infatuated by her radiant smile and deep black eyes. She was nursing a wounded puppy, and the sight of her caused a sharp pain in his heart. Without understanding why, he ran to Guru Tai and immediately expressed his desire to marry Avani.
He wanted to own her from the very instant he saw her because that was how he had been brought up—he had always been given everything he had ever wanted. Guru Tai had been a protective mother, who had constantly told him that everyone else was inferior. As a child, playtime for Aadisesha was sitting on the riverbank of the Vimala every evening and watching golden fish swim by, with guards standing watch. During the day, he attended the local school, under the supervision of Sumedh Rara’s guards, because his father feared that his stepbrothers might hurt his son. Due to Aadisesha’s protective upbringing, he had never fully understood how to share with or care about others. To him, love meant to own something and never let it go.
The way women were treated around Aadisesha had given him the impression that they were no more than pretty objects who took care of household chores, without any life of their own. When Aadisesha saw Avani, he wanted to own her and have her to himself, and he thought that, maybe, she could lend a hand in the Sayan household. Initially, Guru Tai rejected the Mistla’s proposal, but at Aadisesha’s request, she reconsidered. She had no children of her own, and Aadisesha was the son of Sumedh Rara’s mistress, Pushpini, who had went missing when Aadisesha was young. The village believed that Guru Tai had thrown Pushpini to a pack of wolves for refusing to stay away from her husband, but Pushpini’s body was never found, and there was no proof of murder. Guru Tai had maintained her innocence and had taken care of Aadisesha herself.
The Mistla’s expressed concern for what they could offer as a dowry. The amount was so little that it angered Guru Tai, who took the offer as an insult, throwing the family out of her home. Avani felt helpless and wished she could somehow make the humiliation easier for her parents, who pleaded with Guru Tai. It wasn’t until Guru Tai saw Aadisesha’s glowing face that she changed her mind and accepted the Mistla’s proposal, all the while cursing Avani for attracting her son despite the smile on her face. Jealous and hurt, she finally agreed with the stipulations that Avani must stay at home after the marriage, the Mistla’s must sell their cattle and sweetmeat shop, and they must provide 20 sacks of gold as a dowry. It wasn’t enough for Guru Tai that Avani was flawlessly beautiful and the most educated girl in Pravadh.
As Avani walked toward the mantap escorted by her parents, beautiful memories flooded her mind and heart. She recalled how when she was a little girl her father, Mr. Mistla, would return home from the sweetmeat shop, tired and sweaty. Even so, he never let it show on his face. Instead, he would freshen up immediately and then come out in the most energetic mood, ready to take Avani out.
Avani loved going on cycle rides with him, and her father knew it. They would travel on his bicycle every evening, Avani sitting in the front and Mr. Mistla sitting behind. They would navigate through the colorful bylanes of Pravadh and share beautiful conversations as they rode along. Mr. Mistla would tell Avani about funny encounters at his sweetmeat shop, and Avani would tell him what new things she had learned from Ma.
Each day as they cycled through the streets of Pravadh, little shops appeared along the sides of the streets, and Avani would ask for something new . On some days if it was cotton candy, and on other days it was a lollipop. Mr. Mistla wanted nothing more than to see his daughter happy, so he would buy her whatever she wanted.
Usually after cycling for an hour or so, they would go up to the Pravadh mountaintop and watch the glorious sunset. More often than not, the sky would adorn itself with brilliant reds and oranges. If there was enough light, Mr. Mistla would start a school lesson and teach Avani something new each day. Since Avani never went to school, Mr. Mistla made it a point to educate her himself.
On most days, they heard the grasses rustling behind them, as if they were whispering to one another, and watch the fishes in the Vimala River leap and sing in the golden, sun-dappled waters. Avani would enjoy her lollipop or cotton candy as Mr. Mistla read from the book.
When the birds huddled with their loved ones,anticipating the day's end, and the sun had disappeared along with its light, the stars peeked out from the black night sky and lit their faces. It was time for hide and seek. They would play for a good half an hour before going back to the lesson. Her father would switch on the lantern he carried and start reading from the lesson book under the stars. Avani would listen intently but eventually fall asleep on his lap. Then her father would carry her home and put her to bed.
All of these beautiful memories came rushing back to Avani as she walked to the mantap. Time had flown by, and now it was time to say goodbye and start a new life. Avani wanted to hug her father tightly one last time, but seeing his smiling face, she held back her tears and continued walking toward the mantap.
The wedding was arranged to take place in the middle of the Kashyapi Forest, at the border of Pravadh and Bandhunagar. The forest was considered auspicious by the Sayans, because the sacred Vimala River had its origin there. It was believed that fairies often bathed in the Vimala at night, and that its blue color derived from their wings. Ancient myths claimed that ferocious beings, half-lion and half-wolf, guarded the birthplace of the Vimala. They were said to attack only if someone caused harm to the forest. Nobody had ever bothered members of the Sayan clan when they held their ceremonies there, and so if there was ever an auspicious event in the Sayan home, it was celebrated in the Kashyapi.
The Mistlas slowly escorted Avani, taking her up to a point and then stopping. Avani continued hesitantly, constantly looking back at her parents as she inched closer to the mantap. Anxiety twisted in her stomach, and she could feel her cheeks getting hot. Aadisesha, Guru Tai, and Sumedh Rara stood silently by the sacred fireplace, waiting for Avani to arrive. Aadisesha did not turn even once to look at the beautiful Avani. Now that she had agreed to the marriage, she would soon be under his control. He stood there like a stone pillar, expressionless, as if he had lost interest in her.
The mantap, which was decorated with deep red flower blossoms, had been erected right in the middle of the forest. All around, almond-brown trees stood serenely, awash with a tender glow from the first blush of the morning. Looms of light filtered down in beams of gold, chasing shadows and spilling into spaces where mist had earlier stalked. As Avani continued to walk, she arrived at a wide glade where the trees fell away, revealing the morning sky. It appeared like a child’s painting, overflowing with pinks and oranges, reflecting off low-hanging clouds, and filling the world below with wonder. The last of the morning’s stars were glinting like freshly-cut diamonds while the golden sun glowed in the distance, casting a honeyed sheen over the trees. Bags of gold and jewelry that were on offer as dowry to the Sayans surrounded the mantap area, as if a treasure chest had spilled its contents. Despite having sold their sweetmeat shop and cattle, the Mistlas were overjoyed that their only daughter would be married into the most reputable family in Pravadh. Little did they know that Avani wanted a different life, and that the marriage threatened to make her into a caged bird with clipped wings.
The sweet scent of jasmine filled the forest, as Avani and Aadisesha stood opposite each other in complete silence. And as the pandit started chanting the mantras, the forest came alive with its own orchestra, playing one enchanting symphony after another. The leaves danced to an unheard beat, whispering their songs to the wind. The mantap sheltered by the mighty trees, glowing in the cascading light, as a brilliant white shaft illuminated Avani’s nervous face.
The tall trees of the Kashyapi had now become personal guests, almost like individuals with their various emotions, while one tree looked hunched over, with its branches hanging as though in dejection, partly covering the rest of it, the other one stood tall despite its great age, with every branch apparently alert, as though it is gazing into a distance that mere humans can't see. The presence of the trees made Avani feel as though she wasn’t alone. But on the other hand, the thought of these ancient trees looking down at her ferociously, as though judging her every move, made her uncomfortable as well.
Although hesitant at first, Avani mustered the courage to surrender herself physically and emotionally to this auspicious moment, and as she did so, she felt like a huge load was removed from her chest and she could now breathe freely. She didn’t have to fight her inner fears anymore; this was going to be her new life, and she was going to make it beautiful, come what may.
Her future husband now stood before her, and she only wanted to entertain good thoughts in her mind and heart; she would love and respect Aadisesha dearly and serve him to the best of her ability. When she was a child Avani’s dad had always taught her to love unconditionally and never to have any ill feeling towards anyone, no matter the situation.
Mr. Mistla’s words echoed in Avani’s ears as she bowed her head down to Aadisesha in respect. The stone-faced Aadisesha leaned forward and tied the mangalsutra. Happiness filled the air as Avani’s mother pressed her fingers to her mouth, blinking glad tears away, while Mr. Mistla nodded his head, smiling broadly. Guru Tai and Sumedh Rara stood a few steps behind, calm and composed, as they watched young couple exchange vows.
The ceremony was over in a flash. To Avani, it all seemed like a dream.
She had mustered the courage to embrace her new life ahead, but the thought of leaving her parents and settling into a new home made her heart pound with anxiety and fear. Hot tears flooded Avani’s cheeks and dripped off her chin as she hugged her Dad one last time. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but all that came out were deep, gut-wrenching sobs that tore through her chest and convulsed her small body.
Meanwhile, Aadisesha had started walking towards her, emotionless, as if he wanted to separate her from her father. As he drew closer, Avani hugged her father tighter, not wanting to let go.
Above them all, the tall tress of the Kashyapi stood like mute spectators watching Avani’s tears wet the forest floor, almost like they were hiding some ghastly secret. Even the wind in their boughs sounded thin, sickly, and fearful. The golden sun hid beneath the clouds, and the wildlife was silent, as if they, too, felt Avani’s sorrow in their hearts.
As Mr. Mistla hugged Avani back, he looked up at the tall trees. Their starkness and immutability made him realize he had to be strong. Avani’s mother on the other hand hid herself behind a tall tree and cried her heart out. Avani was a part of her soul, and she was going away forever.
Avani wanted to run back and throw her arms around him one last time, but Aadisesha had gripped her hand tightly, and Avani was afraid to free herself. She had to start a new life, and she was prepared, but the sight of her father sobbing inconsolably on her mother’s shoulder broke her heart. She had never seen him so frail, so weak.
“Will you write me a letter every week?” Mr. Mistla cried, his voice breaking.
Before she could answer, Avani disappeared into the depths of the forest towards Pravadh.
Guru Tai and Sumedh Rara, on the other hand, were busy evaluating the sacks of jewelry and gold they had received as dowry. Sumedh Rara was more interested in the money that he was about to receive from Avani’s parents than the wedding itself.
Time flew. On her first morning at the Sayan home, Avani was up and about early, before anyone else. She took a hot bath and took a moment to pray to the Lord. Looking out at the dark, jagged mountains, Avani wondered what she would wear. The sun was rising, projecting brilliant colors through the trees. The Sayan home admired the shimmering shades of red, pink, orange, and yellow; and as the ancient house began to glow softly, Avani put on the lucky saree that was given to her by her mother and excitedly prepared the paraphernalia she needed to perform the Tulsi Puja.
Everyone in Pravadh knew about the sacred Tulsi plant in the front yard of the Sayan home; the site was considered extremely auspicious, so much so that on festive occasions, the locals would stand in line to offer their prayers to the plant. Avani, who had been brought up in a religious household, had performed the Tulsi Puja every morning with her mother in their own home, which had a Tulsi plant as well. The Mistlas believed that if the Tulsi Puja was performed in the morning, the entire day would go well and the evil spirits would keep their distance from the house and it's occupants.
Just as Avani was about to enter the front yard with her aarti thali, her arm was grabbed from behind. Avani quickly turned her head, and realized it was Guru Tai, who reluctantly released her grip and stared at her. Avani felt it would anger Tai even if she moved an inch. Tai then seized Avani’s hand, forcing her to put the puja thali down, and a chill went down Avani’s spine.
Tai walked Avani through the shadows of the ancient arches, all the way to the front yard, in silence. She sat on the top stair at the entrance to the Sayan home, looked at Avani, and pointed to her legs. Avani understood what she wanted right away. She knelt down and started massaging Tai’s misshapen feet. Avani felt helpless, as though she was caught in the woman’s clutches, but she smiled weakly, as she progressed to her legs. Deep down, Avani did not feel comfortable; she felt that Tai didn’t like her. Nevertheless, Avani wanted to care for Guru Tai, as though she were her own mother, and she sincerely tried. Tai, on the other hand, seemed constantly displeased with her. Tai told Avani to massage her legs harder. Avani, pressed her flesh more vigorously as Guru Tai, her lips curving into a thin smirk, lounged on the stairs, studying her bright red toenails. The world was at her feet.
And as the twilight melted away, the majestic sunrise, with its red–orange glow leaked over the horizon, as if the light itself was being poured from a molten sun.
Avani continued pressing Guru Tai’s legs for over an hour without a break, and not once did Tai ask her to stop. Avani’s hands had started to ache, the pain now visible on her face. Searing fiery bursts pulsated through her hands, intensifying each time she pressed, jarring and brutal. With each movement, the pain amplified, her muscles quivered, and consciousness ebbed. Black mists swirled at the edges of her mind, but still Avani pressed away, not wanting to disappoint Tai.
As the sun rose higher into the blue sky, powerful rays flooded the Sayan home, lighting every blade of grass, shining from each leaf. Avani started to sweat; she hadn’t eaten all morning, but she continued to press. The sun, now getting brighter and hotter, started to bother Tai, who was lounging on the stairs all this while. Tai stood up, almost pushing Avani aside. She gave Avani a cold, dirty stare before disappearing into the house, leaving Avani alone on the stairs.
Avani wondered if Tai was upset with her. Perhaps she hadn’t pressed Tai’s legs hard enough? Unsure and anxious, Avani stood up hesitantly and walked into the house to apologize to Tai.
She noticed the Aarti Thali, which she had earlier put down. She forgot about the apology and picked up the Thali instead. Seeing nobody around, she walked straight to the Tulsi plant in the front yard. She smiled as it glowed in the sun, its rays warming the soft green leaves, like kisses from the divine. She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and offered prayers to the sacred Tulsi plant.
Aadisesha had quietly observed Avani all morning; she accidentally woke him while getting dressed. Once awake, Aadisesha could not go back to sleep. He witnessed how his mother had prevented Avani from performing the Tulsi puja. Taking her to the front of the house, she asked her to massage her legs. Avani had agreed without the slightest hesitation, kneeling with a cheerful smile and massaging Guru Tai’s legs with vigor.
Aadisesha couldn’t help but notice how Avani, despite her exhaustion, wore a constant smile as she rubbed his mother’s legs. The beads of sweat forming on his wife’s forehead made him wonder if he had ever done anything as kind for his own mother. He had appraised Avani too quickly; he thought she was just a beautiful girl who could cook for the occupants of the Sayan home, please him in bed, and help his mother with everyday chores. As he watched her now, he felt guilty for once seeing her that way.
Avani was like no other woman he had ever met. She was selfless, polite, and charming. Most beautifully, despite his mother’s rude behavior, she carried herself with dignity and grace all morning. As Aadisesha stepped out of the Sayan home to visit the woods, he followed behind her. He watched as Avani prayed to the Tulsi plant with so much devotion that he could have watched all morning.
Within minutes of Aadiesha leaving for the forest, Avani finished the Tulsi Puja and bowed her head down one last time when a violent scream ripped through her heart and jolted her senses.
“How dare you?” the angry voice echoed.
Avani spun around, only to see Tai marching towards her hurriedly with piercing eyes. Avani stood there paralyzed as Tai grabbed her hand with her muscular fingers, almost crushing it.
“How dare you perform the Tusi Puja without my permission? This is the Sayan Home, not your father’s hut!” she fumed.
Tears welled up in Avani’s eyes hearing her father’s name. Her parents had sold pretty much everything they had to get her married, and the very thought of her family made her emotional. Tears streamed down Avani’s face as Guru Tai grabbed the Aarti Thali.
Aadisesha had left for the woods after watching Avani perform the puja for a few minutes. Although, there were numerous workers in the Sayan Home, Aadisesha enjoyed getting the firewood for the Home himself, a habit that he picked up from his father, Sumedh Rara. Each time Sumedh Rara was in town, he and Aadisesha would still go to the forest every morning, gather firewood, and share breakfast over a conversation. Growing up, Aadisesha watched his father chopping trees in the Kashyapi forest every morning; little Aadi would often struggle to pick up Rara’s big axe even. Each time Rara chuckled at the sight, Aadi shouted, “I will grow up to be a strong man, Bapu, and chop all the trees of the forest!” Rara would laugh loudly, pick Aadi up and throw him onto his shoulders before walking back home.
Aadisesha had now reached the forest, and ventured deeper and deeper into the woods in search of a big tree, unaware that his mother was creating discord back home, threatening his newly wed wife and making her cry.
A huffing wind rose, stirring the flags in the Sayan home as Guru Tai lunged for the Aarti Thali, taking Avani by surprise. Fatigued and emotionally drained, Avani, released the Thali, thinking that Tai had already grabbed it, but Tai, who was screaming furiously, hadn't quite gotten her hands on it yet, which sent the Thali crashing to the ground.
Silence engulfed the Sayan home as Avani and Tai stared helplessly at the mess on the floor. Avani's heart thudded against her chest as a deep sense of foreboding consumed her.
Tai, overcome by trepidation, took a few steps back. "What have you done?" She whispered.
Shell-shocked, Avani stared at the floor as large pillows of cloud formed in the sky, blotting out the old, gold color of the sun.
Adisesha, who had ventured deep into the woods, noticed a wall of clouds, grey and sad, standing over him as though in mourning. Ignoring it, he walked deeper into the Kashyapi, having no clue as to what had just happened back home.
Deeply in love with storytelling, the creative photographer in me finds tales everywhere, be it tucked in a little corner of the world or sprawling across an ocean of human emotions. Visit www.kamatharjun.com
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