Arjun Kamath produced, wrote, directed and photographed, Avani, a terribly gripping tale of a woman’s journey through a life that was designed to be against her from the start. Set in a fictional part of India, a country deeply tethered in the chains of patriarchy, the photo story will leave a deep, albeit dark, impression on you. Read on to soak in the brilliant work.
Avani was the most beautiful and educated girl in Pravadh, a little hamlet in central India. 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. 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.
As Avani walked toward the mantap escorted by her parents, beautiful memories flooded her mind and heart.
The wedding was arranged to take place in the middle of the Kashyapi Forest, at the border of Pravadh and Bandhunagar. 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.
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. 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.
The ceremony was over in a flash. To Avani, it all seemed like a dream. Hot tears flooded Avani’s cheeks and dripped off her chin as she hugged her Dad one last time. 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.
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. Guru Tai and Sumedh Rara, on the other hand, were busy evaluating the sacks of jewellery and gold they had received as dowry.
Time flew. On her first morning at the Sayan home, Avani was up and about early, before anyone else... 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… 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… 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.
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. 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.
Aadisesha had quietly observed Avani all morning; she accidentally woke him while getting dressed. 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.
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.
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. Little did Aadisesha know when entering this part of the forest, a hungry mother wolf was searching for its next prey.
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. 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.
As Avani cleared the view, only a few feet away, she saw a ferocious huge wolf with razor sharp peg-like teeth, inching closer and closer toward a helpless Aadisesha. Her husband had frozen with fear, his axe dropped to the ground. A surge of courage gripped Avani’s lean body when she saw her husband inches away from the foaming mouth of the hungry wolf.
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.
Aadisesha, slightly taken aback at the turn of events, stared at Avani with tear-rimmed eyes as she smoothed his dishevelled hair and wiped the sweat off his face with her blood-stained sari.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Anxiously, Aadi sprinkled water on Avani’s face from the water pot resting next to the Tulsi plant. 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. 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.
What Avani whispered in Aadi’s ear was insurmountably beautiful and something he’d never expected to hear in his wildest dreams.
“You’re going to be a daddy soon!” Avani had softly whispered in Aadi’s ear, much to his joy.
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.
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. He stopped making long trips into the woods; instead, against all norms and cultural traditions, he performed Avani’s household chores each morning.
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. Aadi would respond by rushing to Avani, kneeling down before her, and resting his ear gently against her belly, saying, "I love you Surya. It's okay. I'm here. You're going to be okay. You're safe. I love you. Everything's going to be all right. I'm here now, I'm here."
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. 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.
Just when Avani thought she couldn’t be any happier, Aadi surprised her yet again. Asking her to close her eyes for a brief moment, he disappeared into the woods, quickly returning with baskets heaped with marigold petals. “Keep your eyes closed for just one more minute,” Aadi gasped. He quickly decorated the Kashyapi forest floor with the bright orange flower petals.
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.
A piercing pain engulfed Avani as she felt Surya’s head press against her pelvis. Then, suddenly, she heard a gentle cry and looked down to see Aadi cradling his little girl in his outstretched arms. As she peered through brand new eyes at what must have seemed like such a strange world after life in the womb, Surya curled her tiny fingers around Aadi’s, already seeking her father’s protection.
The news of Avani and Aadi’s newborn baby girl had spread across Pravadh like wildfire, and while the elated young couple were rejoicing in the birth of baby Surya, a distraught Guru Tai was, yet again, sending one of her trusted aides to summon Mukh Baba. This ill-chosen woman had given birth to a baby girl, after all, and a boy is what the family wanted, someone who could take the Sayan legacy forward.
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.”
As worried as Avani was about Aadi, he was equally upset about the way his wife had been treated by his mother. Tai had made Avani feel like an outsider in her own house. 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.
Inwardly, Aadi was breathing a sigh of relief for Avani had stopped crying as soon as he had started to dance. A big smile was now spread across Avani’s face as she embraced Surya and watched Aadi continue to entertain them with his funny dance moves and clownish gestures. However, the unrelenting heat licked at their sunburned faces, coiling around their limbs like a serpent.
Aadi was of two minds; he hated leaving Avani and Surya alone in the forest, but with Avani completely dehydrated and aching for something to drink, he didn’t have any other choice but to go fetch some water. But they couldn’t return to the Sayan home either, he thought. Avani was dangerously dehydrated and wouldn’t be able to walk that far without water, and he couldn’t risk exposing little Surya to the burning afternoon Sun on the long route back.
Aadi, now a fair distance away, was frantically running to get to the Vimala River and back before sundown, while Avani was still trying to comfort Surya, whose cries pierced the silence of the Kashyapi. 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.
Avani jumped to her feet the moment she saw the swords in the men’s hands. Holding Surya tightly to her chest, Avani stood perfectly still in fight mode, assessing her next move. The men pulled and grabbed Avani’s shoulders, trying in vain to release her clutches from her child, while Tai stood there grinning like an evil ogre, relishing the pain and horror she was inflicting. 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.
Avani was now completely surrounded by Tai and the rest of her men, as the other two continued to punch and grab her in a frantic attempt to snatch Surya. However, as their energy waned, Avani’s strength and determination intensified.
The revolting sound of Tai and her men shook Avani to her very core. She knew they would soon be upon her if she didn’t pull herself together quickly. Wounded and terrified, Avani collected herself, and scrambling to her feet with Surya in her arms, she began to run through the Kashyapi as fast as her torn bloody legs could take her. Overcome by emotion and completely exhausted, Avani looked at baby Surya’s smiling face, and kissing her on the forehead, she whispered, “I’m sorry.” Hot tears streamed down her bloody face and fell onto Surya’s cheek, staining the infant’s face with tawny reminders of the danger they were in.
Thus, with Surya secure in a cloth wrapped around her, Avani started to bend down while running, scooping up sharp heavy stones, until she had gathered a substantial handful. Realizing that the only way to fight back was to attack, Avani spun around and aimed a sharp stone in the direction of one of Tai’s men.
Tai marched ahead, looking down at Avani as if she was a piece of dirt. With her powerful arms, she grabbed Surya from Avani’s arms, not caring for even a moment that it was a little child. Her mind ran in a million places, but never could she have imagined that Aadi had been captured by Tai’s men hours ago. Aadisesha was Tai’s stepson; she had never considered him her own despite her outward show of affection. 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.
Tai marched away with Surya. Standing only a few feet away from Avani, she placed Surya on the hard Kashyapi ground close enough for Avani to see. As Tai raised her fleshy leg above the baby’s head, the look of agony on Avani’s face melted into a harsh smile that etched itself across her battered face. Much to Tai’s surprise, Avani’s smile turned into laughter. “Let me see how you laugh now!” Tai roared, engulfed with rage. Then she pounded her foot straight into the little baby’s skull.
As Tai stamped the skull of the baby with her giant foot, a sharp, stinging pain pierced her leg like a bolt of lightning. She stamped the baby’s head again, and this time her heel cracked open, sending fountains of blood onto the cold Kashyapi floor. Beads of sweat formed on Tai’s head as she bent down and opened the cloth, expecting to see Surya’s bloody, distorted face. To her surprise, instead of baby Surya, there were only sticks and stones, the same kind of stones Avani had used earlier to attack Tai’s men.
Tai’s men wouldn’t hear a word against their Mai, and before Tai could even reach Avani, they had already punched Avani several times in the face, breaking her teeth and cutting her head open in several places. 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!”
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.
Arjun Kamath ends the story with this statement, “We were all created equal.” And, we ardently hope we get to live in a world that has been able to rid itself off of every form of inequality.