A picture can say a thousand words; Avani’s photostory says a billion about rights of women, their sacrifice, motherhood, love and so much more. Produced, written, photographed & directed by Arjun Kamath: “Avani” is a soul gripping story of social evils against women prevalent in India. It took Arjun juz 48 heartbreaking images to tell us about our patriarchal society.
Here’s the story that will shake your bones:
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………. 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…….
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……… 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………. 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…………. 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…… 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.
Mr. Mistla wiped furiously at his eyes as he watched Avani walking away.
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…… 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……. Guru Tai, her lips curving into a thin smirk, lounged on the stairs, studying her bright red toenails. The world was at her feet.
Avani continued pressing Guru Tai’s legs for over an hour without a break, and not once did Tai ask her to stop. 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 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. ……….Aadisesha couldn’t help but notice how Avani, despite her exhaustion, wore a constant smile as she rubbed his mother’s legs. ……..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………..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
The little mirror from the Aarti Thali crashed into the ground, shattering into shards and tinkling pieces. A dazed Avani turned towards the ground instantly, only to catch a glimpse of her face in one of the broken pieces of glass.
The sun followed Avani like a lodestar through the tangled crowns of the trees as she scurried through the thick bushes, the clicking of her heels echoing through the forest as she searched for her husband, Aadisesha. Avani had reached the middle of the Kashyapi, but there was still no sign of him. Fear caught in the back of her throat as she quickened her pace, constantly wiping the beads of sweat from her brow. With all five senses heightened, she capitalized on her instincts as she rushed ahead with a dagger, which she carried from home, intermittently screaming Aadi’s name. Thwack! A loud noise pierced the silence of the forest. She spun around, eyes wide open, and moved briskly toward the sound.
A surge of courage gripped Avani’s lean body when she saw her husband inches away from the foaming mouth of the hungry wolf. Disregarding the fact that a pack of wolves could be nearby, Avani let out a blood-curdling scream, her face contorted in an all-consuming anger. With nostrils flaring and eyes closing into slits, Avani lunged forward towards the wolf like a merciless animal bent on killing.
Avani’s eyes were wide. Wild. They found a mark on the wolf’s neck. Pushing Aadi aside, she leapt forward, sinking on her knees and then using her full might to stick the sharp edge of the dagger into the ferocious wolf’s thick neck, twisting it mercilessly back and forth. The wolf howled and foamed from its mouth, as it fell over writhing in pain. An expression of relief spread across Avani’s bloody face as she jerked her dagger free.
Lunging forward to come between Aadi and the hungry wolf, Avani selflessly put her own life at risk and attacked the beast’s head with the sharp dagger. So deeply had Avani lodged the dagger into the wolf’s neck, that as she freed the weapon with all her might, the head detached from the wolf’s body and fell to the ground with a loud thud. The otherwise gentle and timid Avani had turned protector, saving her husband from the clutches of the dreaded Kashyapi wolf……Avani returned Aadi’s embrace, and staring at the wolf’s lifeless head on the ground, she muttered under her breath, “Aadi deva killed the dreaded Kashyapi wolf. . .” Gently extricating herself from the hug, Avani walked towards the dead wolf and slowly bent down to pick up the bloody and surprisingly heavy head with her bare hands. Looking straight into Aadisesha’s eyes, she said with a twinkle in her eye, “Aadi deva killed the dreaded wolf, and Pravadh will celebrate!”
Come what may, Avani insisted that Aadisesha tell everyone that he beheaded the dreaded Kashyapi wolf to protect his pride in the conservative Pravadhi community. All she cared about was that her husband was safe. Initially, Aadi had disagreed; he had wanted to boast to everyone in Pravadh, including his mother, as to how blessed he was to have a wife like Avani, so courageous that she would risk her own life to save his. However, the selfless Avani had no intention of making her beloved husband look weak before the entire village. She pressured Aadi to walk back into Pravadh with the wolf’s head in one hand and the bloody dagger in the other so that everyone would assume he killed the wolf. She pleaded with Aadi, saying that it didn’t matter who killed the wolf – it was all the same. Aadi’s pride was her pride and she would protect it at any cost
The dreaded Kashyapi wolf, responsible for the death of over a dozen villagers, had been slayed, and by no better man than Aadi of the illustrious Sayan clan – the most respected and revered family in Pravadh. However, it wasn’t for their wealth alone that they were celebrated; their courage and fearlessness ran deep in the veins of their men as well. The villagers never suspected that Aadi Deva would be dead by now if it wasn’t for his wife, Avani, who had selflessly risked her life to save her beloved husband by darting into the woods and beheading the ferocious beast.
Days turned into months, and Tai still refused to allow Avani to perform the Tulsi Puja. While Avani attended to the regular household chores every morning, Tai performed the daily ritual. Most days when Tai wasn’t around, Aadi helped Avani with the household chores and this made her smile. Aadi didn’t want to upset his mother by taking Avani’s side, but at the same time, he didn’t want to neglecthis wife. He did whatever he could to lessen Avani’s burden, while ensuring that both women in his life were kept happy. A man who once thought that his wife’s sole purpose was to feed him and satisfy him in bed, Aadi was now transformed. Aadisesha had learnt the real value of love through Avani……….Since Tai wasn’t around, Aadi decided to help Avani with her morning chores. So, while Avani bowed her head down in prayer to the Tulsi plant, Aadi swept the front yard to lessen Avani’s burden. However, within minutes of Avani starting the Puja, her vision grew blurry, her head started to swim, and a darkness descended over her, clouding her eyes.
Aadi’s frazzled nerves jumped all at once as he saw Avani staggering backwards with the Aarti Thali in her hand. Dropping the broom he was holding, Aadi bolted towards her, his head bobbing from side to side with each footfall and his eyes enlarged in their sockets. Before Avani could hit the ground, Aadi caught her, holding onto her gently, as if she were his baby. Avani wasn’t moving and a panic-stricken Aadi looked around helplessly, trying to make sense of what was happening. His watery eyes widened and the hairs on the nape of his neck bristled, as he held onto a lifeless Avani.
Avani’s delicate naked skin was covered in goose bumps, as Aadi patted her face repeatedly, pleading with her to wake up. Fear seemed to rise behind his eyes as the tragic feeling of helplessness paralyzed him; he closed his eyes and gazed into fields of nothingness as the tears streamed down his face and onto Avani’s cheek.
As the warm feeling faded away, Avani stood up with a gentle smile pasted across her face, savoring the memory of Aadi’s care and gentle touch. The feeling was a blissful reminder of the love that had grown between them. Avani loved when Aadi and she simply talked, laughed, and made silly jokes. Aadi, who was still concerned that Avani had fainted, tucked Avani’s hair behind her ear and tried to make eye contact with her to see if she was okay. However, Avani refused to look up at Aadi; Avani’s blush seared through her cheeks, and for a minute, she thought her face was on fire. She suddenly felt awkward, demure, and coy, even going so far as attempting to hide her delicate features behind her elegant fingers. Avani knew that Aadi’s eyes were glued to her – eagerly awaiting a response, or even a glance. Aadi held his breath as Avani leaned up against his shoulders, and raising her lips to his ear.
he look on his face was so ecstatic that Avani cupped her face in her palms; she had never seen him so gobsmacked and elated. Aadi jumped to his feet at once, and breathing heavily, he walked backwards to an earthen pot filled with crimson. He immersed his hand in it, almost toppling it over, and grabbing a fistful of color, Aadi chucked it forcefully into the air, screaming at the top of his lungs with joy. A surprised Avani giggled like a little girl as she looked at Aadi’s smiling face. Her bright eyes followed Aadi as he leaped with joy repeatedly, just how a mother’s observant eyes would watch her child in a playground; she had never seen him this happy and free.
“You’re going to be a daddy soon!” Avani had softly whispered in Aadi’s ear, much to his joy. As the young couple hugged, soaking in each other’s happiness, Guru Tai peered furtively from the window above like a cobra seeking its prey. Avani’s heart was filled with joy and the dulcet tones of her laughter echoed through the hallways of the Sayan home. Guru Tai’s face slid into an insincere smile as she lurked in the shadows of the ancient structure. As Tai continued to watch the young couple’s jubilant celebrations, she silently gestured to the worker at her side for a slip of paper and a pen. After calmly writing something down on the thick sheet of paper, she rolled it up, tied it with a saffron thread, handed it to the worker, and said, “Call him.” The worker respectfully bowed his head, and then slipped through the back door of the Sayan home, darting surreptitiously into the woods.
Guru Tai had shrewdly sensed what was transpiring in the front yard of the Sayan home the moment Aadi and Avani embraced. Quickly realizing that Avani was pregnant, Tai sent a messenger to Mukaddeswar, Pravadh’s chief astrologer, requesting that he grace the Sayan home with his holy presence. Mukaddeswar, or Mukh Baba as he was affectionately known by those closest to him, never visited anyone; people usually had to go to his ashram in the Pravadh foothills to seek his blessings or his advice. However, this was the illustrious home of the Sayan clan, and for them, he would make an exception.
The pregnancy had brought joy and nervous anticipation. Days turned into weeks, and with Avani now a few months pregnant, Aadi had new responsibilities. As far as he was concerned, Avani was the focal point of his life and she deserved love, nourishment, warmth, and protection. There would be days when Avani felt tired and sometimes apprehensive and nervous; however, Aadi never left her side, constantly giving her support, encouragement, and love. The enormity of soon becoming a father was a bit overwhelming, but Aadi faced it like a man.
True to her word, since the day Mukh Baba visited the Sayan home, Tai stayed away from Avani. Before Baba’s warning, Tai would always find ways to keep Aadi and Avani apart. Although Tai was more than unhappy that her son was so attentive to Avani, she had no choice but to maintain her silence. To the rest of the world, he might have seemed possessive, but for her, he shone with an inner beauty all the same.
The weeks passed, and Avani started to feel a light tickling sensation, as if someone was running a fingertip lightly over her skin…but on the inside. As Baby Surya grew, the light tickle began to feel like a finger flick. It was an exciting phase for Avani and Aadi; the constant kicking was a sign that Surya was getting healthier and stronger each day. Avani would often joke with Aadi and say, “Look, bubbles are popping around in my belly!”
Avani was just over eight months pregnant, and at Aadi’s insistence, she had been indoors the entire time. However, she needed a break from the dreary hallways and ancient arches of the Sayan Home. She wanted to be one with nature, even for a brief moment. Although not his intention, Aadi sensed his over-protectiveness was making Avani feel frustrated and caged……..Aadi led Avani to the little area where the men had tied a wooden swing to a tree. Taken completely by surprise and overcome with emotion, tears welled up in Avani’s eyes, so taken was she by Aadi’s thoughtfulness. As she embraced Aadi, he walked her gently over to the swing. However, little did Aadi know that Avani’s tears that morning was a result of pain that she was experiencing.
Avani smiled delightedly as she breathed the fragrant air that filled the Kashyapi forest. Just as she was about to close her eyes, she saw something moving by the tree. It looked like a deer… yes, it was a deer… its body curved over, with a smooth dome of fur across its back. It looked up at Avani, then twitched its nose before darting back into the woods. Watching the deer disappear among the swaying trees, beneath the rainbowed sky, Avani laughed with joy for the beauty of nature and for the love of the man who had brought her this magical moment.
Little did Avani know, the pain she had ignored to escape the dark hallways of the Sayan home would come back to bite her hard. As Aadi continued to push the swing, Avani’s stomach started to tighten. “Aadi STOP!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Nothing and no one could have prepared her for this. Surya’s cries made it all the more real. Avani looked into Surya’s gentle eyes and whispered, “This is my baby, my beautiful miracle,” as Aadi embraced his wife and daughter, wrapping his arms around them both. In that instant, Avani knew she would do anything to protect her child, that her love was as vast as the universe yet solid as rock. She was a mother and would always be.
Having locked in her hatred and disdain for Avani for months on end, Tai was in no mood to feign happiness for their baby daughter. So when the jubilant couple approached Tai to seek her blessings, to Avani’s utter shock, her response was to curse her, calling her an evil witch.
As Aadi walked Avani away from the Sayan home, Tai’s loathsome words echoed in his ears, making him feel weak and powerless. He couldn’t believe his own mother had just called Avani a witch and refused to bless his newborn child, her grandchild, a pure and innocent blessing that she had heartlessly called a “mistake.” Hurt and distraught, Aadi walked Avani into the nearby woods; knowing her fondness for nature, he hoped this would distract her from what had just happened.
As they walked further into the Kashyapi, Aadi suddenly bounded ahead of Avani, leaving her a few steps behind. Confused, she watched in surprise as Aadi suddenly spun around and broke into dance. With tears streaming from his eyes, he laughed through it as he stared at the most beautiful woman in the world, noticing that a smile was beginning to form on her face. Born with two left feet, Aadi was inventing moves all his own, which made him laugh even more. His laughter was contagious and soon Avani was laughing, too. With a silly grin on his face and his arms outstretched, he made the most awkward of moves as he approached his wife as if to ask her to dance.
As the sultry heat pressed in on Avani, she began to feel woozy and lightheaded. Her mouth was parched and her palms were no longer sweating. Every lungful of hot air robbed more water from Avani’s body. Unable to bear the thirst any longer, Avani turned to Aadi, but before she even had a chance to ask him to bring her some water from the nearby pond, Aadi kissed Avani on her forehead and said gently, “I’ll fetch some water from the Vimala. Rest here under tree until I get back. I don’t want you to waste any more energy, okay?” Avani nodded as she held onto little Surya protectively and watched Aadi as he walked away.
The Kashyapi had started to feel different from the very moment Aadi had left them. Surya had begun to fuss almost as soon as Aadi was gone, her agitated cries reverberating in the dense forest. As Avani studied her surroundings and looked above, she was overwhelmed by the size and majesty of the trees. Their knotted arms rose ever upwards, as far as her head could lift. They were hoary fortresses and stood like messengers of death with their heads hanging down. An anxious Avani hugged Surya to her bosom to calm her, and then closed her eyes; the Lord’s name on her lips, she secretly prayed that Aadi would return soon.
While Avani and Aadi were dancing with little Surya in the Kashyapi, Tai had been planning murder, a slaughter more likely, as she gathered her men and ordered them to sharpen their swords for the attack……..But, as soon as Avani heard the sound of a branch breaking underfoot, she opened her eyes at once and clutched Surya to her chest. In her worst nightmares she could not have imagined the site before her, for towering over her was none other than Tai, with an an evil grin on her face, and her men behind her, their swords at the ready.
As Tai and the rest of the men danced in ecstasy at the scene before them, the two men threw punches in Avani’s face every now and then, hoping she would succumb to the pain and let go. But Avani’s hands were firmly gripped around Surya, protecting her little head by pressing it against her chest. She would take another million punches but her fingers around her baby would never loosen. In fact, as Avani suddenly felt her body fill with an overwhelming, almost spiritual strength, the men’s grip on her weakened. Inexplicably, they were tiring and Avani was ready to make her move.
As she lay there holding her baby, tears streaming down her face, she became aware of the throbbing pain in her face where she had been beaten, and the sticky streams of blood trickling from her mouth, nose, and the countless cuts on her body. In the distance, she could vaguely hear the moans and grumbles of Tai’s men, but above their noise was Tai’s maniacal laughter. But what she couldn’t hear was Guru Tai’s evil pronouncement, “It will be amusing to see just how far she manages to get.” Then, with one sinewy arm extended from her sari, she ordered the men to follow her in Avani’s direction.
…..She looked around for Aadi frantically, but he was nowhere to be seen. “Aadi, Aadi! Where are you?” she screamed at the top of her lungs as tears streamed down her face. ………Avani ran a few hundred meters, but Tai’s men descended the hillock from various directions, capturing her like a pack of wolves after their prey. As they dragged her to Guru Tai, the men punched and beat her until the headstrong Avani was bleeding from head to toe. Throwing her down with great force at Tai’s feet, Avani held onto Surya securely and protectively, cursing her own fate and praying that her husband was safe.
Fearing for Surya’s life, Avani begged, “I will leave Pravadh with my child. I will never show you my face again, Mai. Just please don’t hurt my child!” Tai looked down at Avani scornfully and growled, “You should have thought about that before giving birth to this piece of muck!” Holding onto Surya who was now securely wrapped in the cloth, Tai looked at the orange sun, which was now a sallow shadow of its daytime self, almost hidden beneath the hills……….Little did Avani know that as she begged and pleaded Tai to spare the life of her child, Aadi was tied to an iron cot and on the verge of death from being beaten repeatedly until he lost consciousness. His face was unrecognizable and his breathing shallow.
As Tai stamped the skull of the baby with her giant foot, a sharp, stinging pain pierced her leg like a bolt of lighting. She stamped the baby’s head again, and this time her heel cracked open, sending fountains of blood onto the cold Kashyapi floor. Sensing that something was wrong, Tai turned to Avani, who was laughing maniacally despite the men pressing and twister her arms with all their might…..Tai stood still, her body trembling with anger as she stared at Avani’s livid face. She had never seen this side of her. “You will never find my child, so don’t even try!” Avani gasped, spitting out blood as she spoke.
Tai’s eyes widened, a crazed look coming over her, as she looked down at Avani’s bloody face. “Where’s the baby?” she continued, “I’m asking you for the last time…”
Avani, despite her painful injuries and her broken teeth, refused to answer. Instead, she looked slowly up at Tai, gathered the masses of blood and saliva in her mouth, and, in a final act of defiance, spat on Tai’s face with determined force. “You will never find Surya!” she shouted, “Not you, not your men, nobody!”…….. Tai, in utter disbelief, reached up and touched the bloody spit on her face. Then, in a fit of rage, she raised her sword above her head and brought it down hard against Avani’s slender neck. The sword made a deep gash that exposed Avani’s veins and cartilage; cascades of blood rushed in every direction. Avani collapsed to the floor, mumbling Aadi’s name as blood pooled around her head on the ground.
Tai and her men frantically searched the Kashyapi for hours on end, but Surya was nowhere to be found……..As Avani breathed her last on the Kashyapi floor, Surya safely reached the banks of Bandhumati where she was picked up by a fisherman and his wife. They were a childless couple, overjoyed to find Surya on the riverbank; they welcomed her into their lives, thinking that she was a blessing from God. Avani, a woman of substance and power, had faded away. But hope comes to those who see beyond the suffering of the present. The stars above encourage us to carry on through the darkness. And Surya, a new life brimming with sunlight, after surviving an epic journey across the endless Vimala, now brought happiness and hope to a childless couple.
Photography – Arjun Kamath Photography
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